Housing for All
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Let's talk about why some things that were happening before the pandemic are more relevant than ever during the pandemic. Specifically, let's talk about housing, and the need for every human being to have shelter whether or not there is a pandemic.
My workers union, the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) or AFT 6069, has been bargaining for a new contract with the administrators at Oregon State University (OSU) for more than five months.
Our bargaining platform is based off a survey of our entire membership, comprising more than 1,800 OSU employees. The survey was administered about a year ago to guide the bargaining platform that would need to be created, with the responses providing quantitative data about which issues were most important to CGE membership.
It turns out housing is an overwhelming priority for us. Since CGE's existing contract doesn't have an article on housing, we had to make one from scratch. In our proposed housing article are many potentially life-changing provisions, including a monthly housing stipend; elimination, alleviation, or reimbursement of secondary housing costs like deposits and late payment fees under certain conditions; and democratic control over OSU housing plans.
Let's talk about why provisions like these were necessary before the pandemic and have become more necessary during it.
Housing in the Corvallis area is a nightmare to navigate. Owning is prohibitive for most. Renting is also expensive, with 37% of Corvallis residents experiencing severe rent burden, meaning more than half of a person's income is spent on rent. Because the rental market here is controlled primarily by predatory rental companies, rental conditions are frequently inhumane.
I rented from one of these predatory companies, Duerksen & Associates, during my first year living here. The following is a single example from my personal list of terrible experiences renting from them for a single year.
A winter without heat
During autumn, the central heating in my unit broke. I immediately notified Duerksen, who promised to have it fixed soon. A week went by. The heating was not fixed. I called again and was told there must have been a mixup, that the heating person would be out to my house the next day. No such thing happened. I went to Duerksen's office in person to ask for an explanation. More apologies, more promises to fix the heating immediately. This went on for another month. And then another. And then another. Day after day, week after week, I would call Duerksen or go to their office to ask for my heating to be repaired. I interrupted work, drove out of my way, and postponed shopping trips to do this. My need made no difference to their greed. The repair did not happen until winter was already over.
I had spent the entire winter wrapped in a blanket in my bedroom next to a space heater. This long-term experience was literally painful for me. It worsened the cold-sensitive chronic injuries that I have accrued from a lifetime of painful labor at exploitative jobs. To delay spending a negligible amount of money relative to their monthly income, Duerksen violated their obligations and promises and caused actual, permanent harm to my body.
After all that, Duerksen kept my rental deposit when I left, even though the unit had suffered no damage during my time there. As an underpaid, overworked person, I did not have the time, money, or energy to file a claim against them either for the money they stole from me or the injury they did to my body. In fact, rental companies rely on this dynamic of exhausted, overwhelmed, financially disadvantaged tenants who cannot summon the power or expertise to challenge the rental company in court. This is an explicit tactic by which rental companies perpetuate their exploitation and abuse of tenants.
None of this is unusual. This is the standard neoliberal approach to housing. No one reading this should be surprised. Duerksen's exploitative, predatory behavior is not an exception. Every rental company is like this. They are all microcosms of the larger neoliberal structure of our country, each one celebrating wealth for the few over health for the many.
A "green" university rejects alternative transport proposals
Exploitative landlords are not the only reason housing is terrible in the Corvallis area. Another is the behavior of OSU itself. More than a decade ago, OSU had an agreement with the city of Corvallis to coordinate university expansion plans with the city beforehand, thereby ensuring that municipal infrastructure and capacity could keep pace with campus growth. However, as part of their transformation from a public liberal institution into a profit-seeking neoliberal one, OSU unilaterally jettisoned this working arrangement and began planning and executing institutional expansions without keeping Corvallis in the loop.
This led to a dramatic tightening of the ratio of housing stock to population, which shot prices upward despite OSU's students and essential workers alike gaining minimal or no additional per capita wealth over the same timespan. The university's expansion also intensified car traffic, and the city suddenly found itself scrambling for funds to update its transportation infrastructure appropriately. Congestion soared and remains high, as the city's constant road expansion efforts have not been able to outpace traffic growth that is heavily driven by campus growth. Meanwhile, Corvallis car accidents continue to grow faster than the city's population, as seen below.
The university's effect on Corvallis is important to keep in mind, as transportation was another important issue in CGE's membership survey and thus another mostly new proposal in our bargaining platform. We presented this transportation proposal to OSU in fall term. When they passed it back to us in winter term, their counter-proposal was as follows: They had simply struck all of our proposed new language, without a pretense of consideration. This was not only patronizing in the extreme, but runs counter to OSU's own publicly stated values in their transportation management plan.
A few weeks after OSU rejected CGE's transportation proposal in its entirety, I saw a central campus intersection being being shut down by a cop car, a firetruck, and two campus safety vehicles because an accident had occurred between a passenger vehicle and a skateboarder. Here is a picture I took of the scene.
Two of the provisions in CGE's transportation proposal are about expanding campus bus routes and incentivizing alternative transportation modes. Both of these would lessen the amount of cars on campus and therefore the number of accidents like this. I find myself wondering how much it costs OSU in money and broken human bodies to respond to its steady stream of vehicular destruction with road closures and emergency vehicles instead of safer, more humane policies. How much money and human suffering would OSU save by engaging with CGE's proposals earnestly, for our common good, rather than striking all of our language in a cruel power play informed mostly by neoliberal priorities and possibly simple bargaining-room pettiness as well?
An "inclusive" university rejects fair housing proposals
But let us return to the issue of housing. At the time that I took this photograph, OSU's negotiators had still not responded to CGE's housing proposal. Our final bargaining session of winter term was coming up, scheduled for the afternoon of Wednesday, March 11th.
Winter bargaining had consumed so much of my attention and energy that Covid-19 was not really on my mind yet, despite a labmate having asked me about it repeatedly for something like a month already. My mind was simply taken up by bargaining, by the need to win better conditions for myself and all of my fellow workers who are exploited by our employer's maximization of wealth for the few at the expense of health for the many.
On March 11th, after heavy pressure from CGE membership, OSU finally passed back their counter-proposal to CGE's housing article. Can you guess what was in it?
If you guessed "All language struck out just like in the transportation article" you are correct! You can click here to see for yourself. The blatant disregard that OSU administration holds for literally every single word of this proposal shows where their priorities really lie, despite their public posturing. And those priorities are clearly not with the students and workers who are forced to live in the housing market that OSU continues to actively poison. That is how winter term bargaining ended: With a university that publicly identifies as green and inclusive uniformly rejecting both concepts while simultaneously making clear that they do not properly value their employees' labor or even our basic health and safety.
Pandemic housing relief
On Wednesday, March 11th, I spent the evening relaxing at home for the first time in weeks. Part of this meant catching up on the outside world, which means I finally checked in with Covid-19 news. After an hour or two of reading, I'd realized the severity of what was going on, and what was quickly going to be happening in this country. I went into quarantine right then and there.
Slightly less than two weeks later, Oregon's governor issued a stay-at-home order. By then, I along with millions of other people had realized that governmental intervention in the housing market would be necessary to prevent mass foreclosures, evictions, bankruptcies, arrests, and pandemic spread as businesses were closed and employees fired - that in fact, this moment would require housing relief so significant and universal as to be unprecedented in American history.
Many organizations, including CGE and our internal Housing Caucus, had already been pressuring our politicians for more humane housing policies. The pandemic and quarantine added urgency to these efforts. We contacted our city, county, and state governments to demand eviction bans, relief for houseless populations, and freezes on mortgage and rent collection.
So far, our collective efforts have won an executive statewide 90-day eviction moratorium from the governor and legislators told us on March 24 that they "are working on a COVID-19 relief package to be passed in a special session in the next two to three weeks" and further "are working to ensure that this package includes direct rental relief for tenants who are unable to pay their rent due to the hardships placed on families by the coronavirus". These are good early steps but much remains to do, so we continue to call with ever more voices, and continue to push with ever more hands, for the health of the many to win out over the wealth of the few.
Profit over shelter
Remember Duerksen? They're back!
In response to Governor Brown's 90-day eviction moratorium, Duerksen campaigned to redirect any governmental housing relief to landlords instead of tenants, while musing whether and how they could circumvent eviction restrictions. Part of Duerksen's language is quoted below.
Excerpt from Duerksen email to Rental Property Management Group:
Not all tenants need help. While many have been temporarily suspended from working, many are working from home, or have resources available to help them weather the storm. There needs to be some sort of needs test to determine whether the inability to pay rent is related to Covid-19 or not. Tenants should have to provide some sort of documentation from their employer that there is no work available, and that unemployment benefits for the household do not meet their needs for food, shelter and utilities. Gathering this data could also provide much-needed information to the state regarding impacted communities. This could help inform future planning for unexpected crises that will undoubtedly come our way.
Other pressing issues for some landlords are current pending notices for bad behavior by tenants, or termination notices issued prior to this time. Can these evictions still be processed and executed, or do landlords have to sit tight while the tenant continues to damage the property, disturb the quiet enjoyment of the neighbors, and even commit criminal acts while being protected from eviction? Also, under current law, once a notice of termination has expired, if the landlord accepts rent for any period beyond the termination date, they waive their right to terminate on that notice. With the implementation of SB 608 and the subsequent restrictions on termination of tenancy after the first year, a landlord could get into a real bind. Can waiver rules be temporarily suspended due to this crisis allowing landlords to accept rent, but still keep their notice valid?
A pandemic should be a moment of all humans caring for each other. Duerksen's example is one of thousands showing that under neoliberalism, this is literally impossible. Corporations prey on human beings. They are predators of real people. Right now, corporations and the politicians they own are increasing their exploitation of fired and sick people during a global pandemic. They are attempting to drive profits higher while avoiding normal constraints under the guise of emergency. They are firing workplace organizers and filling their roles with non-union workers. These practices are destructive, they are wrong, and many of them are forms of union busting, which is illegal and, more importantly, inhumane.
Why is it inhumane if unions get busted? Why should you care? I've written about this a bit before, so you can go read that if you're interested, but on the most basic selfish level, every workplace protection you may have - from sick leave, to minimum wages, to OSHA regulations, to the concept of overtime, and so on - is the result of worker unions pressuring their employers and governments in massive, many-decade efforts during the 1800s and 1900s. Unions are the originators of these protections, and some continue to lead the way in bargaining for the common good. And it's not just worker unions doing this work, but tenant unions as well, as both have roles to play in ensuring safety and shelter for all people who live and work in this world.
The person as a whole
Let's bring this back to housing again. Unfortunately, housing is an issue for which most worker unions have been unsuccessful in bargaining, or have not even tried. This is because employers can usually manage to argue, superficially but convincingly, that housing is a personal issue independent of the workplace, and therefore cannot be bargained over by a workers union. Obviously, that's ridiculous - an adult's success at work is deeply tied to their living conditions, just like a child's success at school - which is why unions like CGE have been fighting to change that dynamic and win protections for workers in every arena of systemic life burden, including housing. This is known as whole-person organizing.
As a concept, whole-person organizing acknowledges that every person is a whole human being who cannot separate themselves into a work chunk, a home chunk, and so on. Moreover, these whole human beings are not separable from the inequitable social systems that their employers and landlords actively help to create and maintain. This is clearly demonstrated in my local context by OSU's destructive impact on Corvallis-area housing and CGE's attempts to mitigate that destruction at the bargaining table, as well as Duerksen's attempts to subvert direct financial relief to tenants during a pandemic.
But whole-person organizing applies just as well to people who aren't workers or renters, and between arenas of life that are not the workplace or the rental property - arenas like electoral politics. Nor is it limited in scope to emergencies. The wholeness of human beings, and the holistic nature of their needs, is always necessary to consider - not merely in times when terrifying new diseases first spread through the world.
Housing for All
We need to bargain and build for pandemics even when things look good. There will always be new unforeseen challenges. We must build our systems to be more flexible, healing, universally nurturing, and adaptable. This is one thing the movement from neoliberalism toward democratic socialism and union culture is meant to accomplish. The human rights so starkly revealed to many people by the destruction of Covid-19 are, in fact, human rights before and after pandemics, not just during them.
We should be horrified by the existence of a single houseless person in a culture as rich as ours. Extending the concept of whole-person organizing from workplace bargaining to electoral politics shows us that we can fight for a whole society full of whole people, where any economic injustice inflicted upon an individual is viewed with the empathy we currently reserve for people afflicted with biological diseases. Just as no person chooses to get sick, so no person chooses to become houseless, hungry, or bankrupt. None of these are personal failures. All of them should be addressed at the level of systems before individuals.
We need an economic model that does not allow universities to pay employees poverty wages that place them and their families under severe rent burden. People should be able to live where they work, and work where they live. Housing rental companies should have no influence over state housing laws. We need to get profit out of housing, and guarantee every human being safety and shelter. To make these efforts last, we will have to eliminate neoliberalism, which is the force that encourages universities and corporations to behave this way in the first place - even during a pandemic.
We need Housing for All. This is true during a pandemic, and it will be true after. More pandemics are over the horizon. And over all of them, between them, accelerating and worsening each one, is the climate crisis. Thus, Housing for All needs to be part of a Green New Deal, or climate chaos will make all our homes unlivable anyway.
Like its sister Medicare for All (M4A), which seeks to eliminate profit in medicine, Housing for All (H4A) would eliminate profit in housing. Both M4A and H4A would contribute to the economic and biological safety of real people during any future pandemic, by ensuring that everyone has a home to shelter in and all the medical help they need.
A forest against the wind
We cannot rely on the goodness or fairness of institutions to protect us. Landlords will not protect renters. Corporations will not protect consumers. In the grip of neoliberalism, even universities that advertise themselves as green and inclusive will be no such thing. Neoliberal priorities do not allow it.
This pandemic is making clearer than ever many of the interdependent needs we already had. It's also making more obvious the fact that we need to come together, as people with a common fate, as voters and workers and tenants and homeowners, to demand fundamental changes to our society, changes that ensure the needs we've always had are finally met.
The institutions that rule us will always deny these needs. They will delay the implementation of protections against houselessness and disease, make those protections as weak as possible, and retract them as soon as the emergency is over.
But the emergency is not going anywhere, because it has been happening for decades. Inequitable access to housing and food and medicine is an old, avoidable emergency that never ends. This pandemic is yet another escalation of that same emergency. And there will be more escalations. More pandemics, more wars, more natural disasters and droughts and famines as the climate crisis does its best to overwhelm us all.
We need to demand that all of us be protected equally, from disease and houselessness alike, not just in pandemic times but in all the times to come. The winds will keep blowing. All of us need shelter. Like a forest against the wind, we need to stand together, grow together, and shelter each other with the communal urgency that we need. There's a lot coming at us that we will only weather if we start taking care of each other now.
It's time to demand Housing for All.
If you believe government relief during this pandemic should go to housing, feeding, and caring for real people instead of corporations, please do everything you can to endorse and share the following efforts.
I. The People's Bailout: - Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions. - Economic relief must be provided directly to the people. - Rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives. - Make a downpayment on a regenerative economy while preventing future crises. - Protect our democratic process while protecting each other.
- Develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
- Guarantee protections for all workers and those who can't work.
- Pass Medicare for All.
- Ensure the right to safe housing.
- Keep communities safe.
- Bail out people and the planet, not corporations.
- Empower Medicare to lead healthcare response.
- Establish an Emergency Economic Crisis Finance Agency to manage the economic crisis.
- Create an oversight agency to fight corporate corruption and price-gouging.
If you or people you know are working in dangerous conditions right now - whether at a grocery store, a hospital, or any other setting easily exposed to Covid-19 - you can fill out and share this form to help improve physical and financial workplace protections. This is especially important if your workplace is not unionized. If you are lucky enough to have a workers union, make sure you're signed up as a dues-paying member and use the power of your union to protect yourself and your colleagues, both physically and financially.