• Marcelo Vieta

Solidarity “Building”: Tenant Organizing, Housing Justice & Economic Democracy Post-Pandemic

Updated: Aug 4

By Kell Gerlings


Themes: Housing, Organizing, Social Justice


As a protest chant and general ethical orientation, the phrase “people before profit” has never had more relevance than it does today, particularly in so-called North America under the COVID-19 pandemic. This rallying cry is one with which I am closely familiar as an organizing principle in my years of housing and welfare/economic justice campaigning, and it is one that draws together the fight for economic democracy and the desperate need for a reimagined organization of housing and the right to housing within “Canada”. In this article, I explore the prefigurative and place-based praxis that tenant organizing offers, as it relates to addressing alternative world-making in response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

Arguing for tenant organizing as a mode of enacting economic democracy is vital to expand our notions of a practiced/lived experience of “participation” in the through- and post-COVID-19 world. I will first review some of the responses different tenant organizing groups have had to COVID-19. I argue that the practice of organizing your building is not only an important battleground to change and uplift peoples’ material conditions, but also one pathway for building unbreakable solidarity and the kinds of social capacities required of a participatory consciousness. I conclude by suggesting that tenant organizing sets important precedent for building our community-minded actions, in support of a transformed future post-COVID-19.


Setting the Scene


I begin by outlining the conceptual frameworks and empirical realities out of which I have begun to understand our current moment. Capitalism is beholden to its own constant accumulation, unable to survive without ongoing land theft and the subjugating of populations. Clarified in sites of intense accumulation, today we know the “urban centre” as an exemplar of this process. This is a process of ongoing theft and the subjugating of those from whom life and livelihood have been stolen—firstly of Indigenous people, followed in tandem with the enslaving of Black people, upheld by forces of White supremacist political choices (Alvaré, 2018, p 130). This is translated into public policies of austerity and neoliberalism, and under COVID-19, this deadly turn spells even deeper disaster for our cohesion as a “society”. As Giroux writes, under neoliberalism “the social sphere and its interconnections become an object of either financial exploitation or utter disdain, or both” (Giroux, 2020, par. 8).


Both such utter disdain and financial exploitation surface clearly in conversations surrounding tenant rights, tenant organizing, and wider calls for non-market (or public, or social) housing. This is articulated well by Parker et al. (2014), when they contend in the introduction to The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization that “capitalism has managed to transform goods that were outside market relations into commodities that can be sold for profit” (p, 6). This is exactly the dynamic when we consider a right to housing, which under Canada’s Bill C-97 is something the Federal Government recognizes. However, this “right” seems to have no skin in the game against capitalist, neoliberal, privatizing forces. Such a “corporate capture of housing” reflects how, under neoliberalism, housing has become a site for “commodification” and “deregulation” that is upheld by all levels of government to restructure the way people access shelter (Crosby, 2019, p. 3). What this looks like in communities across this continent are “social cleansing efforts to remove racialized and poor tenants from [a] community” (p. 7), and an erosion generally of a sense of community or place-ness for people who do not own property.


A sense of community is central to calls for economic democracy, as a reimagining of the ways in which we are organized in society, as J.K. Gibson-Graham explore through the Community Economics Collective. I bring in their understanding of community as a “never-ending process of being together” and a similar sensibility of exploring practices we currently engage in as maps forward. Though there are many alternatives to housing being introduced into the public conversation, such as community land trusts, turning building into co-ops, etc., I focus here on one of the most tangible ways renters can begin to build solidarity and towards these other alternatives. The practice of tenant organizing – that is, tenants organizing within their buildings or neighbourhoods – is one such vital expansion of creating community that must be considered as a democratic practice for our post-pandemic future.

Tenant Organizing under COVID-19


Under COVID-19, public messaging thus far has relied heavily on a “we’re all in this together” sentimentality, pushing us to broaden who we count as our “community”. Whether this has been successful or adequately embodied is for another paper to explore. However, tenant associations across the country and the continent have been stepping up to this challenge of social and political solidarity to enact new ways to take care of your neighbours. Though the process of organizing one’s building or neighbourhood is not rooted solely as a response to COVID-19, the economic burden that mass unemployment places on most tenants proved an important tipping point for many people to ask, “what now?” when faced with paying rent in pandemic times.

Parkdale Organize is one group that has been working in Toronto for several years to build tenant power and working-class solidarity in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto. Their blogpost from March 20, 2020, called for tenants to “keep your rent” because “our landlords will be fine, but we may not be” (Parkdale Organize, 2020). According to a blogpost from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives from March 31, 2020, the vast majority of rental units are owned by corporate landlords, or REITS (real estate investment trusts), companies that are not suffering for profit currently (Tranjan, 2020). On the other side of the country, the Vancouver Tenants Union produced a toolkit called “Together We Stay”, which encourages tenants to connect with their neighbours in order to build solidarity and negotiate with a building’s landlord. Though commonly withholding rent can be an individual action, it is understood through both the Vancouver Tenant Union’s toolkit, and the factsheet from Parkdale Organize called “How to Organize Your Neighbours”, that this action is multiplied in strength when connected to a larger process of building solidarity and organizing within the building.


In a time when, as radical economist Alfredo Saad-Filho writes, the “destruction of collectivity under neoliberalism” is rampant and fatally obvious under COVID-19 (Saad-Filho, 2020), the practice of reaching out to neighbours and embarking on an organizing journey is one way in which people are enacting embodied practices of solidarity building. Taken up in a real, living community, tenant organizing can create a sense of collectivity often robbed from us under neoliberalism. Indeed, “the act of being political itself can be transformative for individuals, families, and the neighbourhoods in which they live” (Thurber et al., 2016, p.55). To push back on the real estate machine is to say another way forward is possible, and alternatives must be forged. In that push, in that space created, there is potential for so much to shift.


To organize from a place-based sense of self and community is to create new relationships and new possibilities, for “place provides an important mobilizing discourse and identity for collective action” (Martin, 2003, p. 730). Tenant organizing has the ability to cross neighbourhoods and lines of diversity in real ways; in a building, people are existing under many different value sets and belief systems, lifestyles, and so on, which make the coming together and collectivizing of action in this structure something powerful. To do so in the space of “home” and shelter, to a specific local-ness that is one’s building/neighbourhood, is to begin to crack open alternatives.


Solidarity “Building”: How Practice Makes Progress


Though economic democracy is a wide-ranging term and is taken up under many different names (organizational, workplace, and so on), the demand it makes of participating actively within the “economy” is common across its concepts and theories. Paul Bernstein (1982) illuminates certain “necessary elements” for workplace democracy, including a kind of consciousness-raising/consciousness-building within the workplace. To arrive at this participatory consciousness involves a broadened horizon of possibility for action, of workers and citizens. This “new” consciousness of participation in our lives can be developed not just in the workplace, but also in local, site-specific struggles such as through neighbourhood building organizing.


I draw from conclusions in the literature that looks at tenant organizing and anti-gentrification work, namely Juravich (2017), Thurber & Fraser (2016), Addie & Fraser (2019), Epstein (2018), and especially August (2016). These researchers examine case studies across Canada and the US to trace the fracturing of capitalist accumulation that begins to stem from the people in communities, neighbourhoods, and buildings fighting back. In a society bent on fracturing collectivity and social solidarities, to borrow from Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, (2020), and, in this particularly vulnerable moment, to work together to win interventions in deteriorating material conditions, are important steps to create the “muscles” of solidarity we will require against any capitalist regression post-COVID-19, considering the precarity most rent-paying people are under currently.


Contesting the logics of accumulation that occur under landlords and private property ownership prefigures a politics of belonging, shaped in a shared notion of “home”. When I meet people in their home space that is under threat of destabilizing, eviction, or displacement, direct action becomes possible for everyday people. This point of organizing and action carries the potential for longer-term coalition building, as well as the vital importance of shifting the material conditions of the lives of lower income, largely racialized people.


When this organizing is carried out with a socialist, anti-colonial analysis of displacement and Indigenous sovereignty, the potential exists to move from individual building battlegrounds to shifting the entire narrative of access to housing and “home”, through a push for decommodifying housing, therefore delinking it from the “market”, therefore kicking out one of the pillars of markets (the housing pillar), and beginning to engage in an expansive new conversation of practical action. These values are often seen in the tenant organizing groups pushing back against corporate landlords and relentless profit-seeking. Building an unbreakable solidarity (as borrowed from labour organizer Jane McAlevey) cannot happen only in thought, but must be taken up in a real, living community. The deep work that can come from people, neighbours, in their home spaces, coming together to create a change in their material conditions, can begin the journey of chipping away at the driving forces of accumulation.

In this way, tenant organizing provides a fertile ground for the practices of solidarity and consciousness that economic democracy and, further, any ethical, just alternative to capitalism asks of all of us. To halt evictions undertaken for the sake of mindless profit is a pebble tossed in the machinations of capitalism. To force maintenance order compliance in rental housing is to transform a condition taken for granted and upheld by all of our social conditioning. To reduce displacement of a community and win concessions in a redevelopment plan is to interrupt the narrative that some lives are disposable. With the COVID-19 crisis laying bare all the ways in which our systems have failed us, who is suffering and who is raking in major profits, tenant organizing and building solidarity within neighbourhoods is a present practice that can carry forward into new ways of upholding people over profit well into the future.


Tenant Organizing Handbook Resources


Parkdale Organize – Keep Your Rent: http://parkdaleorganize.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/HOW-TO-ORGANIZE-YOUR-NEIGHBOURS.pdf


Vancouver Tenants Union – Together We Stay: https://www.vancouvertenantsunion.ca/rentcrisis


Resources


Alvaré, M. A. (2018). Gentrification and Resistance: Racial Projects in the Neoliberal Order. Social Justice, 44(2-3), 113+.


August, M. (2016). “It’s all about power and you have none”: the marginalization of tenant resistance to mixed-income social housing redevelopment in Toronto, Canada. Cities, 57, 25-32.


Crosby, A. (2019). Financialized Gentrification, Demoviction, and Landlord Tactics to demobilize Tenant Trganizing. Geoforum, 1-10.


Bernstein, Paul. (1982). Ch. 2, Necessary Elements for Effective Worker Participation in Decision-MakingPreview the document. In F. Lindenfeld & J. Rothschild-Whitt (Eds.) Workplace Democracy and Social Change. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers (pp. 51-81).


Epstein, Griffin. (2018) A kinder, gentler gentrification: Racial identity, social mix and multiculturalism in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood, Social Identities, 24:6, 707-726,


Gaztambide-Fernández, Rubén. (2020). What Is Solidarity? During Coronavirus and Always, It’s More Than “We’re All in this Together.” The Conversation Canada. (Apr. 13) https://theconversation.com/what-is-solidarity-during- coronavirus-and-always-its-more-than-were-all-in-this- together-135002


Gibson-Graham, J.K. and the Community Economies Collective. (2016). Cultivating Community Economies: Tools for Building a Livable World (Links to an external site.). The Next System Project. (Feb. 2017).


Giroux, Henry. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic is Exposing the Plague of Neoliberalism. The Bullet. (Apr. 18) https://socialistproject.ca/2020/04/covid19-pandemic-exposing-plague-of-neoliberalism/#more


Martin, D. (2003). “Place-Framing” as Place-Making: Constituting a Neighborhood for Organizing and Activism. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93(3), 730-750.


Parkdale Organize. (2020) Toronto, Keep Your Rent. (March 31) http://parkdaleorganize.ca/2020/03/20/keep-your-rent/


Parker, Martin, George Cheney, Valerie Fournier, & Chris Land. (2014). Ch. 1, Advanced Capitalism: Its Promises and Failings. In M. Parker et al. (Eds.)., The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization. London: Routledge (pp. 3-30).


Saad-Filho, Alfredo. (2020). Coronavirus, Crisis, and the End of Neoliberalism (Links to an external site.). The Bullet. (Apr. 17) https://socialistproject.ca/2020/04/coronavirus-crisis-and-the-end-of-neoliberalism/


Thurber, A., & Fraser, J. (2016). Disrupting the Order of Things: Public Housing Tenant Organizing for Material, Political and Epistemological Justice. Cities, 57, 55–61. doi: 10.1016/j.cities.2015.10.006


Tranjan, Ricardo. (2020). Struggling homeowners not your typical landlord: The case for rent forgiveness. Behind the Numbers. (31 March) http://behindthenumbers.ca/2020/03/31/struggling-homeowners-not-your-typical-landlord-the-case-for-rent-forgiveness/