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Discourses With: Two Chicago Tenants’ Rights Organizers

"With all the evictions that are coming forth, landlords will just do whatever they want to."

More than half a year into the pandemic, there is a devastating level of unemployment in the U.S., but millions of Americans are still supposed to pay their rent.

The federal moratorium on evictions has expired (though it may be extended in the latest COVID relief bill). Major cities such as Houston have yet to set up eviction protections for tenants, and even cities with eviction protections aren’t canceling rent or relieving rent debt. And the millions of people who were receiving $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits have suddenly seen that money taken away from them.

This raises the obvious question: how is anyone expected to pay for housing right now? Many activists and tenants groups are providing the obvious answer: they shouldn’t have to.

Chicago has been an especially fertile city for tenant organizing. Eviction protections in Illinois are set to expire Aug. 22; they have been extended repeatedly extended since March, but rent is still due, and while the city has moved to issue some new regulations, it has also failed to cancel rent.

Many tenants in Chicago are fighting off a particularly vicious owner — Mac Properties, the property management arm of Antheus Capital, a real estate capital firm based in New Jersey. 

Mac Properties owns 5,000 units across Chicago. The company has tried to require tenants to sign non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to discuss the possibility of negotiating their rent payment schedule, transferring to a cheaper apartment, or self-evicting. They’ve also continued to serve eviction notices despite the county- and state-wide moratoriums on evictions (the company says it was only serving evictions to people who were already leaving).

I spoke with two tenant organizers who live in Mac Properties buildings in Chicago’s Hyde Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods. Faye Porter is president of Tenants United for Better Housing, and Zak Witus is president of Mac Tenants United. I asked them about their fight against Mac Properties, the broader fight for fair housing, and the pandemic’s effects on their organizers.

The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is Mac Tenants United, and how did your union come together? 

Zak Witus: Mac Tenants United is a tenants’ council for tenants of Mac Properties in Chicago. We are fighting for better, more equitable housing in our neighborhood. We’re one of many organizations in the city calling for the cancellation of rent due to COVID-19, as well as the halt to all evictions for the duration of the pandemic. I founded the tenants union in late March, and got together with some other tenant organizers and put out the call for other people to talk about [our general landlord] problems, but also problems unique to the pandemic. 

I think it was clear that there were going to be huge waves of layoffs and problems with paying rent. The demand to cancel rent became a rallying cry for a union. We employed a few different tactics to try to initiate a conversation with our landlord — calling the offices, asking what their plan is for the pandemic, [asking if they will] they consider rent cancellation. 

We were stonewalled, so it became clear that we had to escalate if we wanted to get any progress with our landlord, and the city, state, and federal governments. We’ve organized rent strikes for two months, and withheld our rent in order to get our demands met. While we have not yet won a cancellation of rent and rent debt, we’ve had some modest successes. 

Mac Properties sent an email out about an hour before our first rally [on April 1] announcing the cancellation of all late fees. Mac Properties was trying to require all tenants to sign non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to even talk about the possibility of moving out or going on a rent payment plan. Thanks to tenants organizations city-wide, the city council passed an ordinance a few weeks ago that said that property managers could not require non-disclosure agreements. We’re still out for the bigger win, which is cancellation of rent.

What was the process of building this union like? 

Witus: We have about 100 people who have taken action in the union in some form, and organizers in over 30 buildings across the neighborhood. In the earliest days, I connected with Tenants United Hyde Park/Woodlawn, a two-year-old rights organization that helped train me in tenant organizing. And then we just started flyering, asking people if they wanted to share their concerns or organize. 

We then developed an organizational infrastructure — a comms team, an actions team, an outreach absorption team — and made a Facebook and Twitter. We got on Slack and started organizing mutual aid projects in the neighborhood. Since those early days in the end of March, we’ve grown through rallies and social media.

How has the tenants’ rights movement in Chicago changed during the pandemic?

Faye Porter: There are new organizations. Organizations are getting stronger. Sometimes you don’t understand until you’re put in that position. Some people lost jobs and never thought they would not be able to pay their rent. And then they started finding out about tenants’ rights. Some of them were quite surprised that they could even get in that situation, or need assistance with their rent. Now people are looking to the tenants’ organizations for answers, and we have to be prepared to give that to them. 

Especially now with all the evictions that are coming forth, landlords will just do whatever they want to. Throw people out on the street. A lot of people don’t know about five, 10, 15 days notices, and the landlord doesn’t tell them. In Chicago, the residential landlord tenants’ ordinance does not apply to any property under six units, and that’s how a lot of landlords get away with stuff.

And now politicians act like they’re willing to listen because a lot of us are out of work or unable to pay rent. The good thing about it is hopefully [when] all of this is over, [COVID] will dissipate and people will understand more about the necessary quality of housing in Chicago.

Most people don’t understand tenants’ rights, so they don’t have any idea of what avenues to take in case they get in trouble. There are people I know that I’ve never had a late notice for anything. I think it’s become more intense. I think landlords, property owners are trying to be empathetic, or seem so, but when this moratorium is over, they’re going to get their rent and they’ll do anything to get it in Chicago. 

How has the pandemic affected the members of your union?

Witus: Some people have lost income for months on end as a result of being furloughed and losing their jobs. Some folks have chosen to stay in their apartments and ride out the storm, and they haven’t been evicted yet thanks to the gubernatorial eviction moratorium, which remains in effect through August 22nd. 

Others have, fortunately or unfortunately, chosen to self-evict because they thought that they could avoid accruing more and more rent debt, a measure that Mac actually encouraged in the first communications sent to all their tenants about their proposed pandemic solutions. 

Many Mac tenants have so far succeeded in deterring Mac Properties from harassing them for the rent they would normally accrue for the remainder of their lease, but because these tenants have self-evicted, we don’t know what Mac is ultimately going to do. So far we as a union have succeeded in deterring Mac from harassing tenants.

You’ve been able to hold rent strikes for two months during the pandemic. Given the risk of the rent strikes, how have they gone?

Witus: There are many tenants of Mac Properties who joined the rent strike out of solidarity with their fellow tenants who couldn’t pay. That action was organized specifically around April 1st and May 1st deadlines for rent payment. There are a whole lot more tenants of Mac Properties who haven’t had any income, and they are still on rent strike because they can’t pay their rent. Or if they chose to pay their rent, they would be choosing to pay for rent instead of buying groceries. So in that way, the rent strike continues.

What other actions is the union planning?

Witus: Tonight we’re meeting about the tenant town hall of Mac Properties and other property managers in the neighborhood. This would be a tenant speak-out where people can get on the mic and talk about the issues they’ve been having, to let people know that they’re not alone, but also to expose it to politicians and the property managers themselves. 

We’re planning to invite the local alderpeople as well as other elected officials to come and hear about what residents of Hyde Park are dealing with, everything from the gas leaks in the apartments and buildings that aren’t properly heated, and the cockroaches and all that. But also the very real harassment that tenants of Mac Properties and other properties have experienced. We’re hoping to slate that in the days leading up to the August eviction moratorium.

It’s interesting, I hear “August 22nd” and it seems so far off, but my concept of time is so warped. I didn’t realize that we are already in August. That is ridiculous that you would only extend the moratorium that short of a period.

Witus: That’s how they’d been doing it — month by month. And then they only renew it like a couple of days before. Talking to tenants, the anxiety, the stress is very real.

I’m sure it feels like a constant worry hanging over your head because you don’t know if you’re going to get that additional extension. And then in addition to that, we no longer have the extra $600 in federal unemployment that I’m sure a lot of people were relying on. Do you have an idea of how your union membership is reacting to this renewed loss of income?

Witus: I think throughout the entire pandemic people have been sort of scraping by. Luckily we have the mutual aid network established, and so we’ve been able to help each other in that way. Many people did not receive that $600 because they were students and didn’t have a sufficient employment history, or the Illinois Department of Employment Security hadn’t processed their claims. 

A few weeks ago, they set up this callback system because the queue was so long and people were calling every day and not getting through. I applied for unemployment back in June, I haven’t gotten any response to my claim. I tried to set up a call back through this new system three weeks ago, and I called again last week and the automated system said I’m still in the queue. So many of us never got the $600, and are still waiting on it. Of course, it’s an impossible situation. And the fact that Mac Properties is still demanding rent payment in this environment is pretty unconscionable. 

And I think what’s important also to highlight, which we haven’t really talked about yet, is what Mac Properties is. Mac Properties is a venture capitalist enterprise that sees housing as a financial commodity. They’re an arm of Antheus Capital, whose website — which was taken down after we exposed this — whose website itself says that their mission is gentrification [ed. note: the specific quote on the site read: “we have been able to take advantage of early stage gentrification trends to acquire assets at significant discounts and reposition them to command above-market rents and long-term rental growth.”] They used that word explicitly. And so it’s unconscionable that they’re treating tenants this way while they’re already scraping by on $600 a week, now $0 a week. 

And that’s because they don’t view housing as a human right. They don’t care if tenants have a roof over their heads. Housing is a commodity to them and tenants are just sources of cash, and they just want to see those dollars continue to flow. They have an instrumental view of human beings and they see human beings as a way of extracting as much money as possible in order to fill their coffers and maximize profit. 

The smaller everyday problems that we encounter with Mac Properties — the annual rent increases of $75 to $100, the maintenance issues that go unaddressed, the harassment when we don’t pay our rent, encouraging tenants who can’t pay their rent to get out even in the midst of a public health epidemic — these are individual experiences that we have. And then when we come together, we see this pattern of financialization of housing. 

And so that brings us to try to imagine what housing could look like in our neighborhood. It’s a longterm project and its vision needs to be flushed out more, but it all begins with a frame shift from seeing housing as a commodity to seeing it as a human necessity and a building block for human flourishing.

How does the housing movement Chicago and elsewhere relate to the larger movement for Black lives?

Porter: I think they go hand in hand. A lot of the issues in the Black community are economic. First of all, if you don’t have a decent place to live that will engulf your life. Forget education — you’re trying to see, “Can I open my door if I’m in a bad area?” or “If I’m in a bad area and I have a slumlord…” People have the right to live in good areas with decent living conditions.

Now there are some places like in Englewood in Chicago, where the city wants the properties back. We see it all over the news, people killing each other and all this other stuff. Some of that is true. Who knows how much, but they want that property back. So of course they don’t make building inspectors come out to look at some of these properties. If they know the tenants there don’t know their rights, the properties will begin deteriorating and keep going. At one point the houses in Englewood were being offered for $1. And that’s where you see the majority of the shootings, Englewood and Roseland. But what will happen to those neighborhoods eventually, especially with the Obama Library coming, is gentrification, like what’s going on in Hyde Park. Because they don’t want Blacks in the city unless you have enough money, and then that may not even be the case. So we saw in Hyde Park that it was Mac’s objective to gentrify. And that’s what they’ve been doing slowly but surely by raising the rents.

And they want the people, like they said, to move. The girl that just called me [while we were talking], she couldn’t have been more than 18. [She was from Mac] customer service. “We’re just calling to let you know that, they cleaned the building last Friday.” No, I live here. No, they did not. “I’ll escalate it.” I told her no, I’ll take care of myself. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Call them tomorrow and then talk to some of the people in our organization and tell them that they should call the press and have a “Cleaned the Building Day” because our landlords won’t do it. Let’s clean the building. Let’s see how they like that.

There’s no reason for them not to care, but they’re money hungry. They’re money-grubbers. They want to get what they want, and they want to pay as little for it as possible. But the good thing about Black Lives Matter and just how housing fits into it is because people have been getting to see them as intertwined. You can’t be living in conditions that are substandard in a community with no jobs, no grocery stores, substandard education, all of that. It’s the same thing. So it’s no wonder there’s a lot of violence. People living in poverty is violence itself. Living in any home that’s being horribly managed, or not managed at all, it’s horrible. 

Photo via TenantsUnitedHP/Twitter