How can we challenge the Portland evictions?

February 25, 2016

Owen Hill reports from Maine on a planned eviction of poor and disabled residents at a Portland apartment complex--and puts forward a strategy for fighting back.

A MASS eviction is scheduled to take place in Portland, Maine, on March 1. The residents of 24 apartments units at 61-69 Grant St. are to be thrown out of their homes in what is still the middle of winter in Maine.

As bad as that already sounds, the details make this situation particularly outrageous. For starters, there doesn't appear to be any urgent reason for the evictions. The landlord, a New Jersey-based company called AEG Holdings that bought the units for a local owner last year, claims the buildings are either going to be fully refurbished or simply torn down and rebuilt.

But there are currently no redevelopment plans and no active building permits on the properties, so even starting this work could be months away. Yet tenants who have nowhere to go--as is the case for at least 14 people according to the Portland Press Herald, which broke the story of the Grant Street evictions--could find themselves left out in the cold.

It's not surprising that so many residents have no other housing options: Portland is facing a housing crisis a decade in the making. During the last 10 years, the city's available housing stock--often old, cold and unsafe--has been stretched to the breaking point as the city boomed.

A resident is forced to move from 61-69 Grant St.
A resident is forced to move from 61-69 Grant St.

Yet while the housing stock has seen little improvement--and little growth--housing prices have run away from the meager paychecks of those who have long called Portland home. According to the Press Herald, rents in Portland have risen 40 percent in the last five years alone. Meanwhile, the typical household in Portland had its budget for affordable housing shrink over 25 percent between 2002 and 2014.

Finally, the issue of rising rents brings us to the question of who this is happening to. Most tenants at the apartment complex are low income or mentally disabled, and receive some form of housing assistance.

While often scapegoated as being the source of Portland's tight housing market, in reality, those receiving housing assistance find it significantly harder to find stable, quality housing. Typically, they receive the worst of the housing stock--since landlords know they can collect rent vouchers from the state regardless of a whole host of issues.

And of course, this housing is essentially at the mercy of the market, since as soon as market rates outstrip those paid by the state's vouchers, landlords kick out the old tenants, renovate the building and make room for new tenants able to afford more per month.

This is exactly what is happening to those at 61-69 Grant St.--property that for decades had been neglected by owners who couldn't be bothered to care and a city that didn't see the point in doing anything about it. But now that rents are rising at a seemingly unstoppable rate, the new owners suddenly claim to be concerned about the property and the tenants.

"What we really want to do is make the place safer and vibrant," said AEG Holding property manager John Le to the Press Herald. What Le and AEG really want to do, of course, is to make fistfuls of money--and they don't care whose lives they ruin.

HOW CAN we stop this crime from taking place? I want to propose a few general ideas that can hopefully help to guide those looking to stop these evictions and turn the tide against gentrification more broadly in the city.

1. 61-69 Grant is one case out of thousands.

Katie McGovern, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, told the Press Herald that she was personally involved in 1,200 disputed eviction cases in 2015. In a city of 60,000 people, this is an unbelievable number.

We should understand that the fight over 61-69 is an emblematic fight that can shed light on all the other evictions--and it is likely to galvanize broad support from Portland's working class because the experience of eviction is so widespread yet so rarely talked about.

By the same token, we should see that the situation at Grant Street is only able to stand in for the general crisis of housing and evictions in Portland because it is so concrete. It is real faces and real stories that shed light on the depravity of housing injustice in our city.

That means that when we think about how to move beyond this moment and toward a generalized fight for housing rights in the city, the tenants facing eviction themselves have to be at the center of the fight--if they choose to pursue it. Those already organizing around housing need to make an immediate effort to reach out to the tenants of Grant Street who are facing eviction and begin building relationships with them.

We want to offer solidarity and support to the tenants, as well as discuss strategy with them, but we have to understand that their willingness to fight will ultimately decide how the struggle moves forward.

2. The question of oppression is central.

Just like we have to center the lives and experiences of tenant facing eviction, we also have to center the question of oppression in the fight for housing justice. In the case of 61-69 Grant St., this clearly means talking about issues of class and disability. But as we get to know more of the tenants, we might find that other questions of oppression--racial, gendered, cultural and others--come to the fore as well.

An analysis and discussion of oppression in whatever form it appears should help to frame how we fight against each eviction in particular and how we fight against broader pattern of gentrification.

3. Our strongest power is in the streets, our communities and our workplaces. Organization is required to mobilize this power.

While battles in court, City Hall and the state legislature are important, the fight for a livable city will not ultimately decided in those places. Historically, the most lasting change has been won by the mass mobilization of ordinary working-class people disrupting business as usual through protests, sit-ins, strikes and other actions.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Unemployment Councils formed in cities across the country to stop evictions and lower the cost of rent. Two tactics in particular were most successful: the de-eviction and the rent strike.

A de-eviction was essentially a mass sit-in at someone's home, which would either actively prevent or reverse a police eviction. Rent strikes were the key offensive tool of the movement and involved organizing whole buildings, blocks and neighborhoods of tenants to stop paying their rent simultaneous.

These two tactics played key roles in campaigns that won rent controls, public housing and tenant rights for the first time in the country's history. What guided these tactics and others was a larger strategy of fighting in a mass militant way for real change with those most affected at the center of the fight.

This isn't the kind of strategy that can be created and carried out overnight. But it is the kind of strategy that can win major and lasting reforms. For this kind of a strategy to succeed, we have to build lasting organizations with long-term visions that can carry us beyond the ups and downs of individual campaigns and provide us with a base of power.

A tenants union that fights around individual cases while also focusing on building a larger base and a more powerful organization is the kind of organization that could potentially stop evictions like those at 61-69 Grant St., re-win rent control in Portland and halt gentrification.

4. We have to fight not just against what is wrong, but for our own vision of what is right.

Finally, an organization fighting against gentrification and evictions cannot simply move from attempting to stop one eviction to attempting to stop the next. It has to also project a bigger vision of what housing justice looks like.

The organization itself should limit its defined vision to the specific questions of housing--which anyone who is frustrated about the city's housing crisis can fight for, regardless of their politics on a whole range of other questions. But radicals within these organizations should also not shy away from projecting an even larger vision of justice--not just in housing, but throughout our society.

After all, the thing that inspires our radicalism in the first place is that we want to fight for a world in which 61-69 Grant St. never happens again.

Further Reading

From the archives