Tenants Fear a “Return to Normal”: Resisting Evictions during and after the Pandemic
As governments announce the roll-out of vaccines in the new year, both politicians and corporations are promising a return to normal as quickly as possible. This is especially true when it comes to housing, where after a brief pause the eviction machine is whirring back into life once again.
In September the BC NDP announced an end to the temporary moratorium on evictions, despite communities entering the second wave of the pandemic. Tenants who did not pay their rent during the evictions moratorium of April to August now have until July 2021 to pay it back. Tenants are required to negotiate directly with their landlords through binding repayment plans, which effectively institute a government-legislated rent increase during a time of acute economic hardship. The government has also set July 1st as the date landlords can begin to raise rents again.
What this means for tenants is the temporary relief from eviction that they received at the start of the pandemic is now over. Instead, the government is giving landlords the green light to start recouping their lost profits and begin displacing tenants once again.
The Pandemic State of Exception
For a short time at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic it seemed as if the rule of the market, which sees maximization of profits as more important than human lives, took a back seat to the needs of human health. People who had lost work due to the virus could apply for CERB, with little hassle and wait. In some cities unused hotels have been leased by governments as shelter for people without houses. Evictions, the thing that every tenant dreads, were put on hold in BC. And all the while, amidst the 7pm cheers, was the reassurance that “we are all in this together!”
Looking at all these developments we can see the government’s Covid relief program for what it really was: an attempt to keep the market afloat until things are ready to go back to normal, to protect the profits of landlords and retailers by pouring money into the economy.
However, if we look a bit closer, we can see that this story was a joke. Despite the obvious health risks, the government allowed oil and gas development to continue the exploitation and destruction of Indigenous lands. Migrant workers concentrated in congregate settings on farms or in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, either without status or on temporary visas, have been some of the hardest hit by the virus. Many of these “essential workers” were not eligible for CERB or other benefits due to their immigrations status.
Money offered through CERB totally excluded people living on disability, income assistance or pensions. The federal government has announced clawbacks and even jail time for alleged “fraudsters,” deterring people from applying for the program and criminalizing poor people’s struggles to survive.
Looking at all these developments we can see the government’s Covid relief program for what it really was: an attempt to keep the market afloat until things are ready to go back to normal, to protect the profits of landlords and retailers by pouring money into the economy. That this money sometimes passes through the hands of working class and Indigenous people in the journey from government to private bank accounts doesn’t change the government’s order of priorities. We can see that both in who was excluded from these programs as well as how quickly they have been taken away.
Federal and provincial emergency measures for housing make sure landlords get paid
A perfect example of the true nature of the federal and provincial emergency measures is their strategy towards housing. The loss of jobs due to Covid put millions of tenants at risk of not being able to pay their rent. In normal times this is no problem for landlords. Tenants who can’t pay are simply thrown out and replaced with those who can. A whole building full of tenants not being able to pay, however, becomes the landlord’s problem. And a whole city of buildings full of tenants unable to pay becomes the problem of mortgage banks whose loans risk default, of retail employers whose evicted workers may be unable to make their shifts, and therefore of the government that oversees the health and viability of capitalist circulation. With millions unable to pay rent, landlords’ ability to make money, and the overall stability of the capitalist system were at risk.
The major political risk, other than losing votes, is that in these moments of crisis, refusal to pay rent could go from an individually experienced effect of the pandemic business closures to a collective act of resistance. When tenants realize that through collectively withholding rents they threaten the power of landlords, organized struggle against the private housing market becomes possible.
It was with this overall situation in mind that the government stepped in, not on the behalf of tenants but to help landlords. By giving money to tenants, either in the form of direct subsidy or through the emergency benefit, they made sure rent continued to be paid. In halting evictions they prevented a potential crisis from emerging, while promising landlords that, down the road, their power of evictions would be restored.
LandlordBC admits “evictions make us rich!”
Towards the end of the summer, landlords began to push for this state of exception to end. LandlordBC, a lobbying group that represents the interests of private landlords, called on the BC government to end the moratorium on evictions. According to their CEO, David Hutniak, “If [the moratorium]’s going to continue indefinitely that’s going to be hugely problematic for our sector.” He said their opposition to the moratorium was strictly economic: “There’s a huge amount of unpaid rent. We’re concerned, obviously, about the impact on renters because they’re going to have a rent deficit, but also on landlords.” He went on to note that landlords reported to his association that 10% of their renters didn’t pay rent in April or May, with even more tenants paying less than 50% of their rent.
Housing is not a service that tenants buy from landlords as equals in a fair and democratic marketplace, it is a necessity of survival that tenants are forced to pay for under a system of property.
In his statements, Hutniak made clear what evictions actually are. They’re not a means to keep buildings safe or liveable. They are about making landlords rich by forcing tenants to pay rent. Housing is not a service that tenants buy from landlords as equals in a fair and democratic marketplace, it is a necessity of survival that tenants are forced to pay for under a system of property. The rental housing market is the legalized theft of working class people’s wages. For Indigenous tenants rent is double theft as they are forced to pay for housing built with stolen land wealth, on land stolen from Indigenous nations.
Rent and real estate is a cruel system, maintained by violence, most notably the violence of evictions. The exact reason why a tenant is evicted is beside the point. The bigger issue is that landlords have the power to evict any tenant almost at will. The grounds for contesting an eviction are few and the adjudications that judge them are overwhelmingly stacked in favour of landlords. To be a tenant is to fear eviction, to know that your home is not secure, that you could be forced to leave at any time. For tenants who are racialized and deal with racist landlord discrimination, have precarious migration status and face deportation as well as eviction, are disabled or low-income and cannot afford market rents, this insecurity is heightened even further.
It is the threat of eviction, whether conscious or not, that forces us to accept the rent increase that we cannot afford, to not say anything about the dangerous mould in our apartment or the electrical system that looks like it’s ready to blow. We accept dangerous and humiliating living conditions because we are afraid of the power our landlords have over our lives. Even our interactions with the few landlords who maintain their properties are underpinned by this power imbalance and anxiety.
Organizing against evictions in a pandemic
In theory the temporary moratorium provided tenants with a window to organize rent strikes without fear of immediate eviction. In doing so they could have transformed the individual struggle for housing into a collective one. These collective actions would also have created a political crisis in which the government would have to decide whether to evict thousands of tenants from their homes or take housing outside of the market. But in practice, these mass rent strikes did not take place.
In response to pressure from landlords the BC NDP moved quickly. On June 24th, the government announced that some evictions, such as the landlord saying they want to move into the suite, would be allowed again at the end of June. In the same announcement the Province extended their ban on evictions for unpaid rent only until the end of August, promising that it would also be lifted as part of a “safe and reasonable return to normal processes.”
In response to the re-legalization of evictions, the newly founded “Eviction Defence Network” began to organize. We postered neighbourhoods in Burnaby, Surrey, and Maple Ridge with large concentrations of rental housing, and held eviction defence workshops online. We soon got calls from a number of tenants who were facing eviction, either for unpaid rent during the eviction moratorium or immediately after. In some cases tenants were able to block their eviction through the RTB while in other cases they have been evicted.
What we have seen so far however, has not been the mass eviction of the thousands of tenants who could or would not pay rent during the pandemic. Instead what we have seen is return to normal, in which tenants are evicted or threatened with eviction, on a small-scale but daily basis. Rather than a wave, in which thousands are thrown out onto the street all at once, it is a cruel and unrelenting stream. These evictions are treated as unspectacular by the media and are often seen by the general public and sometimes by tenants themselves as individual cases. However, what they amount to is the devastation of hundreds of people’s lives and a threat to all who depend on the rental market for housing.
To what extent this will change come the summer is hard to know. However, what is clear is that many will be out of work and unable to pay rent after EI runs out. What is also clear is that when July comes many will not have paid, nor will be able to pay the back rent from the period of the moratorium that their landlords will demand. How exactly these twin crises unfold depends both on the government’s response and, more critically, on the organized struggles of tenants themselves.
Getting prepared for the end of emergency measures
The pandemic has presented real challenges to organizing; from not being able to meet in person to the uncertainty of a constantly changing global crisis. However, it has also been clarifying in a number of ways.
We have learned that governments, both federally and provincially, are willing to intervene in the market so long as it is to preserve social stability and the profits of the rich.
We have also seen how central evictions are to landlord profits. When tenants were unable to pay their rent during the moratorium, landlords immediately called for a return to evictions on economic grounds.
Finally, we have seen the way in which the government has been able to use temporary subsidies and repayment plans to prevent mass evictions while still permitting the throwing out of the most vulnerable tenants from their homes.
With this knowledge in mind we can now begin to develop an anti-eviction strategy for the post-Covid era.
Alongside RTB claims we need to organize eviction defence squads that are willing to stand with tenants when the bailiffs come, in order to keep people in their homes.
First we must adopt the principle that every eviction must be fought because an injury to one is an injury to all. If evictions are the main tools landlords use to discipline tenants, everyone who relies on the rental market for housing has an interest in opposing them.
The Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) is our first line of defence in stopping evictions. Many landlords are so convinced of their right to evict any and every tenant that they sometimes don’t even bother to show up to hearings or issue blatantly illegal eviction notices. These cases are winnable and should never go unchallenged. Even in situations where we have less of a chance, filing a claim puts the burden of proof on the landlord and buys us time to organize other forms of defence.
However, the truth is that the RTB alone will never put an end to the power of landlords, while the organized activity of tenants can. That is why alongside RTB claims we need to organize eviction defence squads that are willing to stand with tenants when the bailiffs come, in order to keep people in their homes.
Despite what politicians or landlords tell us, evictions are not an individual problem unique to specific tenants; evictions are essential to the systems of capitalist exploitation and colonial land theft. That is why alongside fighting individual evictions we need a broader tenant’s movement that can expose and fight out the political struggles represented by every single eviction. This movement would not only defend neighbours from eviction but organize public demonstrations targeting landlords, developers, and politicians. These are the people and institutions, not tenants who can’t pay their rent, who are responsible for the eviction crisis. As well, such a movement can organize political education to look at how the housing crisis is connected to broader issues such as capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.
Finally, we must begin preparing for what happens in July when the moratorium back-rent deadline comes. We can begin to organize ourselves now so that when that day comes we can refuse to pay and stand with our neighbours if they’re threatened with eviction as a result. As a movement our slogan should be “Abolish the repayment plan! No back rent, no rent increase and no evictions!” LandlordBC and the BC NDP are hoping that once the pandemic is over things will return to normal. However, as tenants facing the constant threat of eviction we know that normal means homelessness. By organizing now we can stop evictions and break the power of landlords over our lives.