U.S. Department of Agriculture HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
Renters in dozens of U.S. cities are organizing demonstrations this week under the banner of “National Renter Week of Action and Assemblies.” The purpose is to push back against the Trump Administration’s threat to cut billions from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and make the case that renters rights are human rights.
President Trump’s 2018 budget proposes cutting $6 billion from the agency’s $46 billion budget, a move HUD Secretary Ben Carson supports. “We will use whatever resources we have very efficiently,” Carson assured The Hill newspaper in June.
The mass demonstrations taking place in more than forty-five cities this week will denounce this budget-slashing, and promote other policies to increase renters rights.
“Our communities are under constant attack,” says Darnell L. Johnson, an organizer with the group Right to the City in Boston. “From policies of mass deportation and incarceration to gentrification and mass evictions, we are facing displacement in many forms. Renters have had enough.”
During the National Renter Week of Action and Assemblies, which runs from September 16 to 24, demonstrators will protest outside the personal residences of corporate landlords, drop banners from buildings and protest outside of HUD offices.
Angel Ross, a research analyst for PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research institute supporting the week of action, says a sluggish economy for lower income Americans and rising urban rents have combined to stoke the anger driving this week’s demonstrations.
“Renters face a toxic mix of rising rents and declining incomes,” Ross says. “Nationally, median rent increased by 9 percent from 2000 to 2015 while median renter household incomes declined by 11 percent in real, inflation-adjusted terms. In many cities, the situation is even worse. In Oakland, for example, median rent increased by 16 percent while median renter household income declined by 11 percent. Unsurprisingly, the share of renters paying more than 30 percent of income on rent has grown since 2000.”
The protesters are demanding renter protections, including just-cause eviction policies and rent control, the right for all tenants to collectively bargain for cheaper rent, and full funding for HUD.
The notion that poverty is inextricably linked to housing was buttressed by Matthew Desmond’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Part ethnographic study, part political call-to-arms, Evicted set the urban development crowd abuzz with its empathetic portraits of impoverished Milwaukee renters’ consistent inability to make rent.
Desmond lived with people whose rent drained more than 70 percent of their monthly income. He rode along in an SUV with exploitative landlords as they issued last-minute eviction notices on a freezing Wisconsin night before jetting off for a Caribbean vacation. He watched a mother hold back tears in civil court as a judge decided how much money she would owe her former landlord after being evicted.
In Nashville, a city with a booming housing market, the waiting list for public housing vouchers is currently about 10,000 people long. And it is no longer accepting new applications. Soaring urban real estate markets exacerbate the problem, as gentrification nudges poorer renters to the fringes of cities, away from jobs, friends, and churches.
According to Desmond, this cycle of coerced movement and eviction could be dramatically slowed down by a universal housing voucher program. Families “would dedicate 30 percent of their income to housing costs, with the voucher paying the rest,” Desmond writes. Britain and the Netherlands operate similar systems.
Right to the City’s Johnson, for one, believes that renters do have power if they stick together and make their presence felt: “We’re powerful and we won’t back down.”
Lucas Sczygelski is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an editorial intern at The Progressive.