By JOHN LESLIE
A record number of U.S. renters, including 45% of households who make $30,000 to $45,000, spent more than 30% of their income on rent in 2021, up from just over 24% in 2019. There is a shortage of 7.3 million affordable rental homes available to low-income renters. The housing crisis is driving an upsurge in houselessness, with nearly 600,000 people in the US unhoused on any given night—a slight increase over pre-COVID numbers. A one-bedroom rental home is only affordable for a full-time minimum-wage worker in one percent of U.S. counties.
The real estate website Redfin reports that the median monthly rent in the U.S. rose above $2000 for the first time in 2022. According to Redfin, “Asking rents surged 48% year over year in Austin, TX—the largest increase on record in any metro area since at least the beginning of Redfin’s rental data in 2019. Nashville, Seattle, and Cincinnati also saw asking rents increase over 30% from a year earlier. Rent growth in Portland, Ore., (24%) fell below 30% for the first time since the start of the year, causing it to drop out of the top 10. Rents are up more than 30% in Austin, Seattle, and Cincinnati. In Los Angeles the median asking rent is $3400. Even in formerly affordable cities, such as Nashville, it’s now $2140, up 32% from last year.”
“Housing is getting less affordable for everyone at every level,” says Daryl Fairweather, the chief economist for Redfin. Speculation in real estate, with investors buying up a record number of homes—in some places more than 24% of home sales—coupled with a sharp downturn in new home construction in the period following 2010 and gentrification in cities are all factors in the rising cost of rents and home prices. Increased interest rates in the name of fighting inflation have further cooled home sales. With units in short supply, landlords feel that they can jack prices up beyond the reach of the average renter. In many cities, gentrification is displacing working-class populations as old homes make way for newly constructed, and more costly, apartment or condo buildings.
Tenants organizing a fightback
In towns and cities across the U.S., tenants are fighting back against high rents and evictions, demanding an end to evictions, affordable housing, and rent control. There has been a rise in evictions as the COVID-era moratorium ends. The website Eviction Lab reports 2,082,862 evictions since mid-March 2020 and more than 10,440 evictions in the first week of April.
Tenant organizations are seeking to make links between renters and working-class homeowners. To them it’s clear that working-class homeowners are in a similar position to renters. If they miss payments, they end up evicted and on the street. As one organizer put it, “We discovered that the main evictor in housing court was Deutsche Bank, and of the top 10 evictors, 5 of them were banks … So it became clear that what was happening was not only were tenants being evicted after foreclosure, but also homeowners. So we said, ‘Look, we know how to fight eviction; that’s what we do.’ So we kind of opened up a new front in the fight against foreclosure.”
Housing struggles of the past
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, communist and socialist organizations took the lead in organizing the unemployed. Communist Party activists helped set up multiracial Unemployed Councils. The Unemployed Councils organized rent strikes, demanded relief for the poor and unemployed, and resisted evictions. Communist-led mass organizations physically stopped evictions from being carried out and mobilized mass demonstrations to thwart cops and eviction agents from moving furniture from homes.
One such battle was described by the Bronx Home News (Jan. 25, 1933): “Jeers and epithets were hurled at the police as they were jostled, shoved and manhandled. … A woman tenant appeared on a fire escape and screamed to the crowd to do something. This time, the efforts of Sergeant Maloney and his small force were unavailing. They were overrun, kicked, clawed and scratched. For more than an hour, the battle raged. Policemen were scratched, bitten, kicked and their uniforms torn. Many of the strike sympathizers received rough handling and displayed the scars of battle when order was again restored.”
On April 21, 1936, The New Jersey Workers Alliance, an organization of the unemployed in which Trotskyists participated, organized a protest occupation of the state capitol building in Trenton. The 250-member “Army of Unoccupation” marched into Trenton and occupied the statehouse for eight days to bring attention to the plight of the system’s victims. During the occupation, the unemployed workers held a mock session of the legislature, debated, and passed bills including corporate income taxes. Their first measure read, “Be it resolved, that unless the Legislature contemplates providing food for the unemployed when it returns to this chamber we shall retain possession of this chamber.” Workers’ Alliance leader John Spain referred to the members of the legislature who refused to provide relief as “cynically, brutally indifferent representatives of finance capital.”
The fight for quality affordable housing has been part of the struggles of the working class since the formation of capitalism. This system is incapable of providing for the needs of the working class and oppressed because the bosses see no reason to cut into their wealth to help anyone. Housing is a human right just like food, jobs, health care, and education. The fight of these human needs has to be a united one. Unions and other workers’ organizations have a crucial role to play in this fight.
The working class has the social weight in society and especially at the point of production to gather all of society’s wealth into the hands of the class that creates that wealth. This fight has to be carried forward independently of the bosses’ parties through the creation of our own working-class party. Housing is a right! Human needs over the greed of landlords! End all evictions now!
Photo: Leo Seltzer