Multi-Ethnic Tenant Movements in Los Angeles and Berlin
Multi-ethnic and immigrant resistance play a pivotal role in challenging the political shifts right, which have been rooted in racism, xenophobia, and social, political, and economic isolationism. Housing movements serve as a central site of struggle, and propel the notion that housing ought to be treated as a fundamental human right. This paper begins by introducing the explosion of housing rental prices in Los Angeles and Berlin. It then surveys two explicitly anti-racist tenant movements, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and Kotti & Co, and how in a political era where news headlines are dominated by new forms of nationalist politics—the rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump in the United States and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany—communities are resisting exclusive politics and inventing new forms of radical inclusion and community empowerment. Finally, the paper highlights the major milestones of the tenant movements and questions their strategies of social change.
The methodology employed is movement-grounded political economic analysis combining militant ethnography and documentary film, including interviews with dozens of community members, residents, organizers, architects, urbanists, and scholars. I attempt to integrate the ideas and strategies of multi-ethnic tenant movements in order to challenge assumedly color-blind categories and methodologies embedded in much housing scholarship.
Thinking Across Cities
As sister cities for 50 years, Los Angeles and Berlin provide an intriguing comparison among North Atlantic cities for thinking about housing movements at this historic conjuncture of increasingly finance-infused, racial capitalism. The metro regions of the cities have large populations: approximately 13 million in Los Angeles and 6 million in Berlin. Both cities are nodes of in-migration and have large minority populations (approximately 71 percent in Los Angeles and 30 percent in Berlin). Los Angeles and Berlin are also renter cities: 62 percent of Angelenos rent and 85 percent of Berliners. Residents in both of these cities have experienced soaring rental prices due, in part, to shifting forms of housing tenure.
In Los Angeles, the widespread problem of housing affordability is illustrated in the decline between 2005 and 2010 of rental units under $800 from 18 percent (352,806) to 12 percent (258,388) of the total housing stock. During the same period, there was a massive increase in rental units over $2,000 (from 196,677 to 400,651), resulting in a surplus of higher priced units and deficit of modestly priced units.While some argue that the supply growth in higher priced units should “trickle down” and lower the prices of other units, residents aren’t experiencing it as such. Over this period, Los Angeles has seen a 31 percent increase in rent (real terms) and only a 1.2 percent increase in incomes, resulting in a deficit of 500,000 affordable rental units for low-income households. One cause was the entrance of capital markets in rental housing, wherein private equity firms such as Blackstone Group began constructing what Maya Abood calls an “oligarchy of institutionalized landlords.” The housing need can also be observed in the severe waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, which reopened for only two weeks in October 2017 after being closed for thirteen years. While 600,000 Angelenos were expected to apply for the waiting list of 20,000 spots, there are only 2,400 new vouchers available per year.
In Berlin, the troubling condition around rental housing affordability can be organized into three distinct phases since the wall fell in 1989. In the first phase (1990-1995), the city sold 15 percent of public units (approximately 30,000) in formerly East Berlin to their inhabitants. In the second phase (1996-2000), the city shifted practices from selling individual units to selling huge aggregations of units. The city sold publicly owned housing management companies, which operated largely in formerly West Berlin, and one such sale privatized 35,000 units to a hedge fund. In the third phase (2001-2008), the city privatized approximately 27,000 units/year, resulting in over 200,000 privatized units.Privatization of the housing stock in Berlin was, in part, motivated by Berlin’s debt crisis. Yet, the city has only risen about €4 billion of an expanding city debt, which has expanded to €60 billion over the past decade. Urban austerity politics became “hegemonic,” suggests Andrej Holm, urban sociologist and former Berlin Secretary of Housing, as the city’s rationale of asset management shifted from urban planning to finance, wherein the Liegenschaftsfonds attempted to “sell out all the public grounds for the highest price” and worked “against all social housing and anti-gentrification opposition.” Meanwhile, Berlin has an estimated 6,000 evictions per year.
By thinking across cities, organizers and scholars can survey the housing question in each city and the unique forms of resistance. “Residential alienation can be found across the world,” argue Marcuse and Madden, “it is the product of the hyper-commodification of housing, the causualization of employment, rising inequality, and the neoliberal assault on the social safety net.” Multi-ethnic and immigrant communities, whether or not they ever had a stable “safety net” in Los Angeles and Berlin, experience deeper forms of residential alienation.
Resocializing Housing in Berlin
Kotti & Co is a tenant movement founded primarily by Turkish women and a broad multi-ethnic coalition of people with diverse working backgrounds in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Founded in 2012, the group erected a gecekondu (Turkish term for quickly built structure without permits) on a street corner near the Kottbusser Tor subway stop as an ultimatum to the city government with three demands: lower rents and stop rent increases, change dysfunctional social housing systems, and repurchase social housing. First, social housing rent had become so unmanageable that those on social welfare could no longer afford the rents, as they had risen above market prices. Second, as Kreuzberg is in formerly West Berlin, the neighborhood inherited a system where social housing was owned by private investors that were legally guaranteed yearly rent increases on subsidized units. However, not only did private investors profit off social housing, the city’s public housing companies also profited on managing the subsidization of rents. Eventually, the subsidy costs skyrocketed, paid by taxpayers. Kotti & Co’s third demand, that the city re-socialize housing, intended to create housing for its vulnerable working-class members who lack the financial assets to pay rising rents or invest in private property.
At the gecekondu (which transformed over time into a more permanent house), Kotti & Co provides consultation to local residents on their tenant rights and a gathering space for tea and dialogue. The other major initiatives are to organize tenants, provide educational outreach, mobilize protests, lobby politicians, and host events. The largest accomplishments of Kotti & Co, tenant organizer Sandy Kaltenborn said to me, have been that in 2012 they won an initiative to stop rent increases on 35,000 units, satisfying their first demand, and in 2016 this expanded to all 110,000 social housing units in Berlin. Kotti & Co’s initial vision has shifted over time to “recommunalization plus,” meaning they want their initial third demand, resocialization of housing, but that the property, after being repurchased by the government, be managed and controlled by tenants. A recent achievement toward this goal is the city’s purchase of the Neue Kreuzberger Zentrum (NZK), which included 300 flats and 90 commercial spaces. In collaboration with other initiatives, Berlin tenant groups are also pushing to create a Land Trust Fund that holds properties the city buys and then funnels them into local cooperatives or decentralized community property management projects like the Mietshäuser Syndikat.
Members of Kotti & Co are not firmly against forms of institutionalization on an ideological level, as they recently formalized their legal status and accepted grant funding. Ultimately, Kotti & Co focuses not on general racial, gender, and economic inequality that is generated under capitalism, but responds specifically to rising rents. As Kaltenborn said, “We’re not activists. We’re tenants.” Alongside Kotti & Co’s achievements, “embedded in community” where the “subaltern can speak,” Kaltenborn suggested that Kotti & Co can still learn by looking at housing movements in Barcelona that have had a more widespread political influence in realigning city politics.
Resisting Evictions in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) is a multi-ethnic tenant-led movement founded in 2015 as a fusion of residents feeling the pressures of gentrification alongside allied artists, organizers, and academics. LATU’s triple strategy is to educate, advocate, and engage in direct action around stopping evictions, displacement, and tenant harassment as well as expanding the right to housing. The union has over 230 paying members that contribute monthly dues (on a sliding scale starting at $1), and an online audience of over 5,000 followers. The union is organized horizontally by consensus, wherein dues-paying member renters (defined by LATU as people who do not control their housing) have the right to vote.
LATU hosts twice-monthly general assemblies, bi-lingual in English and Spanish, during which locals and committees give reports on initiatives, and anyone who is in immediate housing crisis can meet with volunteer attorneys. At the beginning of the general assembly, a facilitator explains the horizontal meeting structure and how to use the interpretation equipment. Regularly, when a legal strategy is infeasible or unviable in addressing a resident’s crisis circumstance, an organizing strategy is drawn up to protect the tenants through militant direct action. LATU member (non-voting because she is a property owner), attorney, and founding director of the Eviction Defense Network, Elena Popp estimates that Los Angeles has 75,000 evictions per year and when tenants try to resist in court, they lose 99 percent of the time. The structure of LATU is decentralized into locals and committees. The seven locals (Eastside, Hollywood, Northeast, San Fernando Valley/Van Nuys, South LA, Vermont/Beverly, and Westside) focus on regional tenant issues and actions, and the eight committees (Community Care, Immigration Defense, Language Justice, Media, Outreach, Social Housing, Policy, Sustainability) address thematic interests.
LATU members self-select—based on their backgrounds and experiences—to engage in different organizing tactics, which subsequently demonstrate distinct theories of social change. Some of the members, especially those that come out of a research collective of artists, organizers, and educators rooted in radical pedagogy called the School of Echoes, suggest, as one member explained, that the tenant is the “revolutionary subject” and LATU should continue to “build the base” to generate not an organization for nonprofit-like services, but a social movement to overthrow capitalism. This often prioritizes direct action, door-to-door education, and expanding participation through the locals. One innovation has been rapid response and solidarity casework teams to react swiftly to tenants in crisis. Tenant harassment by property owners is rampant across cities, wherein owners employ illegal points of pressure against tenants, manipulate them into leaving, and are rarely held accountable. LATU member Leonardo Sanchez was horrendously harassed when his new property owner hired workers to demolish his building while he was inside, and the property owner axed down the front door, breaking the lock, trespassed into the building, threatened to evict him, and physically tried to grab and stop his camera recording. LATU has continued pushing the housing department and city council to institute new anti-harassment laws to criminalize and penalize harassment and violence, resulting in a recent motion in city council to discuss expanding tenant protections. After the event, Leonardo said, “I am still here trying to find justice and make her do everything legal as the law requires.”
Other members employ more inside tactics, such as focusing on tenant issues at City Hall. One example is the conversion of units covered under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO, which caps rent increases to 3 percent) into market rate, privately owned condos, a process made legal by the Ellis Act. In December 2017, residents of the LATU-supported tenant association Save Our Sycamoresuccessfully appealed to the Central Area Planning Commission to stop the conversion of four RSO units into condos, arguing that the residents of the units being displaced should be considered a sufficiently “cumulative” effect to halt the conversion. The commission’s decision is an important milestone in changing the narrative tide needed to effectively preserve RSO units from within City Hall in Los Angeles.
In the first two years, many of the most prominent members of LATU were often either part of School of Echoes or politicized through their own displacement. The distinction in tactics sometimes leads to tension during meetings, wherein differences between valuing direct action versus negotiating with the political structure become points of friction and hinder solidarity. Another arena of tension is how LATU stands in relation to affordable housing developers, whom some LATU members see as occasional allies and others dismiss as part of a fraudulent system because many residents can’t afford so-called affordable housing.
Irrespective of different members interpretations, LATU members mobilize on a number of different fronts, fusing direct action (protests, rent strikes), tenant support (tenants’ rights training, legal aid, solidarity casework), and policy advocacy (coalition building, preventing condo conversions, expanding rent control, regulating harassment). One example of LATU member unification that bridges across tactics of resistance is involvement in a coalition of housing initiatives who are together organizing to repeal Costa Hawkins—a law that limits the ability of new rent control or regulations across California—through a statewide ballot initiative.
Versatile Tactics of Tenant Movements
While the political climate in the United States and Germany continues to marginalize immigrants and minority groups, multi-ethnic tenant movements provide some of the most hopeful, anti-racist, and imaginative resurrections of radically democratic and intersectional urban politics. Tenant organizers and researchers think across cities as nodes of urban conflict. Tenants in Berlin learn from Barcelona’s movements, and tenants in Los Angeles look to Berlin and New York. Researchers also think across cities, trying to understand theories of social change and unpack combinations of tactics such as direct action, education, institution building, advocacy, etc. LATU and Kotti & Co, both young movements, challenge right-wing politics and residential alienation by centering tenants as “the primary decision-makers” toward the production and management of future housing. Of course LATU and Kotti & Co are not alone in their respective cities addressing the housing question: in Los Angeles other groups include the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Union de Vecinos, and the Coalition for Economic Survival, and in Berlin Initiative: Thinking the City Anew and City from Below.
Comparing movements across cities provides an insightful perspective on the tactics of mobilization. Jonathan Smucker, author of Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, warns movements against “self-isolating tendencies” of prefigurative politics that sometimes focus exclusively on direct action and sets of demands, and dismiss strategies to take political power within the system. Along these lines, some members of LATU are cautious or outright reject the possibility of working from within the system and supporting members’ formal involvement in government, whereas Kotti & Co has worked closely with agencies and politicians, even supporting the appointment of allies into city positions. Tenant mobilizations must continue to recognize the heterogeneity of tactics of social change, and that direct action must always “supplement a strategic politics” as a “double strategy” or multiplicity of strategies. Holm frames this as thinking “between protest and program.” Kotti & Co’s fusion of public marches, lobbying, and now institution building has led to building substantial tenant power. While LATU’s breadth of activities—mobilizing militant action supporting tenants, as well as building advocacy coalitions and lobbying inside City Hall—has challenged the conventional boundaries of housing politics in Los Angeles. Radical social change usually requires a multiplicity of tactics from below, even when fleeting and contradictory, in order to pressure the political system above. Tenant organizers and scholars ought to acknowledge and build solidarity across versatile tactics within movements that are community grounded and politically potent, remaining cautious of cooptation, in order to revolutionize the treatment of housing in racial capitalism.