As COVID-19 numbers continue to fluctuate, we are surrounded by calls for return to normal. But for debtor households, the pre-pandemic “normality” was already a crisis.
Even before COVID, 68 million Americans had debt in collection. Between 2009 and 2020, unpaid medical bills have become the top source of unpaid debt, with 18% of Americans owing $140 billion in unpaid bills. Student debt was already skyrocketing past $1.3 trillion before the pandemic and now stands at nearly $1.8 trillion. Prison debt is also skyrocketing: 1 in 10 people earning less than $40,000 a year and 1 in 8 black people have debt resulting from incarceration. A decade before the pandemic, racist mortgage lending practices led to unprecedented wealth deprivation of Black and Latinx communities. As a result of this foreclosure crisis, business owners bought homes across the country and rent prices soared, leaving at least half of tenants officially rent-bound in 53 of the 100 largest cities, with black and Latina women hardest hit.
This is not a normalcy we should return to.
Household debtors appear to be on board, and the pandemic has seen an increase in debtor organizing. Debt Collective members have organized to win more than $6 billion in student and prison debt forgiveness during the pandemic alone; San Francisco’s Veritas Tenants Association took on the city’s largest business landlord and won pandemic rent debt forgiveness for all tenants; and city, state and federal agencies have imposed payment moratoriums on everything from utility bills to rent to student debt payments.
These victories demonstrate the growing power of debtors. Alone, debtors are vulnerable to legal and financial claims from creditors, but together they are powerful. This is the promise of debtor unions, using the potential of their collective influence to renegotiate contracts, fight for debt cancellation, and use their collective power to change the way goods and services are financed in the first place ( think free college or medicare for all). As the nation’s first debtors’ union, the Debt Collective has organized student debtors across the United States to push for the abolition of student debt and free college for all this time, and we’re just getting started on medical debt and prison debt.
Although they are rarely considered as such, unions of tenants are probably the best known form of union of debtors. The power that organized tenants wield over landlords is the power of collective refusal to rent until their terms are met. (In other words, a late rent payment is a form of debt.)
Because much of the well-documented housing crisis in this country stems from the unchecked and unregulated power of business owners to turn people’s need for shelter into a speculative asset, tenants’ unions must be at the center any refusal to return to “normal” pre-COVID housing.
Tenant unions can provide a counterweight to the financialization of housing. As pandemic-related eviction moratoriums and tenant protections come to an end, now is the time to refuse the dominant paradigm, which treats housing as a speculative asset and a privilege for those who can afford it. and to organize for social housing – housing that is permanently off the private market, available below market rate and democratically controlled by municipal governments, non-profit housing providers and/or tenants themselves, in limited capital cooperatives, land trusts or mutual housing associations.
Here is a promising strategy that we hope our allies across the country can learn from. The Debt Collective has partnered with the Los Angeles Tenants Union and tenant organizers and legal service providers from the state of California to launch the Tenant Power Toolkit. The first step in such tenant organization is the ability to fight evictions. While 95% of landlords have lawyers, the vast majority of tenants do not, and in more than half of formal eviction cases, tenants lose by default because they are unable to file a legal response to their eviction paperwork within the allotted time (which in California is a draconian five business days; Florida is the only other state in the country with such a punitive time limit). The Tenant Power Toolkit allows a tenant anywhere in California with internet access to answer a series of questions about their living situation and eviction case in Spanish or English. The toolbox then prepares all the documents the tenant needs to file a response to the complaint and other essential legal documents. In Los Angeles County, the state’s densest concentration of tenants, the toolkit can even file court documents electronically. Once the paperwork is filed, the tenant can stay in their place and have more time not only to find available legal help, but also to connect with other tenants facing eviction and local tenant organizers.
Federal and state eviction protections have delayed the eviction crisis that experts predicted at the start of the pandemic. But those protections just ended in California, and the state’s vaunted emergency rental assistance program has left tens of thousands of people without help. These households and millions more across California who are struggling to pay their rent are now vulnerable to eviction as rent prices rise across the state.
On the one hand, we can rightly view these millions of people as vulnerable – they are at imminent risk of eviction, displacement and homelessness. On the other hand, however, we can consider them as potential members of tenants’ unions, and more broadly of debtors’ unions. And that potential power is true far beyond California.
Nationally, tenants owe an estimated total rent debt of $14,971,000,000, with 5,721,000 households in arrears and 5,691,000 children in those households. This growing household debt can be organized – collectivized – into a form of power.
As union organizers, we can ask ourselves: are there private equity owners to whom substantial portions of this money are owed? In other words, against which corporate landlords do tenants have the potential power to collectively refuse rent?
Nearly $15 billion is a huge rental debt for individuals and families. But when you reframe rental debt, and even eviction, through collective organizing, they become sources of potential tenant influence on a system that for too long has prioritized housing over shelter. for people, but as a profitable asset for investors. The Tenant Power Toolkit aims to turn this potential into real leverage, setting a precedent for similar efforts to organize and unionize debtors in other states.
In a capitalist and financialized economy, where households are heavily indebted for their basic needs, debtor syndicates offer a new form of power. In exercising debtor power, tenant unions have long led the way, and the Debt Collective releases the Tenant Power Toolkit to strengthen this organization and enable it to grow to face the scale of the crisis .
We need to build the collective power of tenants to target business owners for whom housing is a speculative asset, not a form of shelter. Now is the time for all of us to realize that if we are to deny pre-pandemic normalcy, we must build power for the world we want to see. Our debts, paradoxically, can be the collective lever we need to unleash this power.