After posting our Points of Unity on Instagram, BED received a critique regarding our second point from our comrades at the Reverie Tenants Union in Indianapolis. BED’s Point #2 reads: “Our definition of a tenant is anyone who does not control their own housing. This includes our unhoused neighbors, our neighbors on leases and subleases, incarcerated people, and our neighbors (who aren’t landlords) paying rent to the banks in the form of a mortgage.”.
What follows is a response to one facet of the critique by Comrade on the Stoop, addressing the relationship between incarceration and tenancy; another letter, by another comrade, addresses the question of mortgage-payers.
Comrade from Reverie Tenants Union writes:
It makes organizational sense to unite the struggle of tenants with the struggle of the unhoused, but including incarcerated people and homeowners into this conversation does not make sense.
Incarceration is a *very* different phenomenon from the housing struggle that requires its own analysis, strategy, and tactics. Lumping them in with the housing question negates the contradictions present. It would make more sense to specifically highlight people who are re-entering after incarceration.
It is true that the conditions people face inside carceral institutions should not be collapsed under the conditions that tenants face outside of them. Confusing the two hinders our ability to fight both the prison system and the system of for-profit housing. Our comrades are right to push us to analyze the particulars of each tenant’s situation so that we may adequately push for more control over the ways in which we all live.
The daily life of an incarcerated person is entirely different from the daily life of an outside tenant, but being in prison (or in a long-term psychiatric facility, or in a highly surveilled and policed homeless shelter) is not a static state. Even those who have received life sentences without parole will have entered prison at some point, most likely they entered prison having once been a ‘tenant’ in the more narrow sense. Prison reforms that fall under the category of E-carceration extend the restriction of movement and surveillance found in prison into the space of a person’s home when they are released, effectively “outsourcing jail time and jail space into people’s homes” as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has put it.
Re-entry as a whole illuminates the problems created by trying to neatly separate incarcerated people and tenants. People forced back into the housing market after prison often have to rely on community ties for housing, or else enter the state-run shelter system. Should we exclude people from our definition of tenant on the basis that they have been excluded from finding housing on the rental market and have been forced to exist on its margins? For example, some shelters do not accept residents that are under electronic monitoring as part of their parole, and other types of conditional residency contracts (including lease agreements) discriminate against the formerly incarcerated through screening for criminal records and using surveillance data generated by the criminal justice and civil court system. As part of the struggle against incarceration, community-controlled housing must be secured for all working-class people, and this housing must be free from any discriminatory and punitive restrictions placed upon the criminalized sectors of the working class. Furthermore, people gaining the power to determine where and how they want to live after being released from prison must be viewed as a necessary tactic to interrupt cycles of violence and prevent harm from happening again. Only by abolishing the landlord system and putting control over housing into tenants’ hands directly can we create the conditions for all formerly incarcerated tenants to determine how and where they want to live, free from discriminatory leasing practices, cycles of abuse, and economic coercion.
I am not in a position to provide an analysis of housing conditions from inside of a prison or similar institution. I will instead name four key ways that tenancy is implicated in the role and functioning of prisons and similar institutions. In doing so, I hope to make a case for including incarcerated people in BED’s definition of a tenant. I also hope to start a conversation towards thinking of all people living with restricted mobility in medical or rehab institutions as people in the tenant class – something that BED’s Points of Unity as currently written fails to do.
1 – Carceral institutions provide cover for capitalism’s internal contradictions, and do so by housing people
Carceral institutions restrict people’s freedom and mobility against their will, and include long-term care facilities as well as homeless shelters, immigration detention, and prisons. In a homeless shelter, a person’s movement is paradoxically restricted as a precondition for making it out of the shelter system. Those staying at a homeless shelter must check in with staff in order to stay active in the system and therefore access the subsidized housing “opportunities” that the state provides, such as FHEPS. If the state were to provide housing to all who needed it without strings attached, this would threaten a housing system that allocates housing based on profit-making. Therefore the conditions for receiving government assistance in securing housing have to be so restrictive that they push people out of the system and out of the responsibility of the government to provide housing. This is an ideological policy choice that naturalizes the failures of capitalism and thus depoliticizes the lack of affordable housing. All carceral institutions that provide and regulate housing are a necessary feature of a system in which profit can be extracted from private property. The failures of this system to provide for all while subjecting us all to their logic and coercion is an internal contradiction of capitalism. This is one reason why carceral institutions have to restrict the movement of those that are housed within them – to make the problems created by capitalism invisible to those outside of these institutions.
2 – Tenants doing what they have to do to survive are criminalized
Tenancy is by definition a form of precarity. Tenants are not (yet) in control of the conditions of our own housing, nor are working-class tenants in control of our continued ability to live where we currently live. Tenants can only occupy our homes through our ability to continue to be employed, and of course some of the most accessible and/or lucrative jobs available to the working class are criminalized, as is the case with street vending and sex work. The criminalization of some forms of work (and of some workers due to immigration status) thus opens a pipeline into the prison system that will exist as long as tenants have to pay rent.
As Sex Workers Outreach Project-Brooklyn members write in a 2021 Statement on police reforms proposed by the DeBlasio administration, “In the absence of full decriminalization [of sex work], any proposal that expands police interactions with sex workers or the surveillance of sex workers will disproportionately target and criminalize people of color, undocumented, and transgender/gender non-conforming sex workers.” Any situation in which specific types of work are criminalized will inevitably force tenants into breaking the law to continue being able to pay rent, with the impact of ushering more black, immigrant, trans, and GNC tenants into prisons. The criminalization of our coworkers, friends, and neighbors is built upon a foundation of coercive economic positions like tenancy.
3 – Tenancy is an accelerating factor in cycles of violence that lead to criminalization
In situations where there is ongoing intimate partner violence, an inability to pay rent or an inability to move elsewhere accelerates the cycle of harm. A person who cannot easily move from a home where abuse is ongoing can be forced to endure violence longer than they would otherwise, leading to an escalation of harm and possible interactions with the criminal justice system. Furthermore, intimate partner violence can continue beyond the point of the two parties living together when the threat of eviction is used by one party to further exert control and dominance over the other. The threat of eviction is not limited only to the legal eviction machine or to landlords harassing tenants. BED has intervened in many situations where harassment or violence was wielded by someone on a lease to get rid of a roommate or partner who they no longer wanted to live with. Being a survivor of intimate partner violence, homo- or transphobic abuse, or gender violence more generally is a factor that puts people at greater risk of becoming trapped in the criminal justice system, as abolitionist groups like Survived and Punished are continually documenting and researching. Tenants can interrupt cycles of abuse in the home by organizing towards housing for everyone, with full tenant control over how and where we live.
4 – Criminalization is the condition separating those who are incarcerated or institutionalized from those who are not.
The criminalized sector of the working class are tenants. As BED’s definition of tenants casts a wide net that includes anyone not in control of their own housing or another’s housing, incarcerated people are included in our definition of a tenant. We have chosen this approach in order to align our internal objectives and tactics with the abolition of for-profit housing, and to determine what organizations we will work with in a coalition. Including incarcerated people in BED’s definition of a tenant prompts our organizers to account for how the prison industrial complex interacts with the for-profit housing system and move accordingly.
This means that to do the work of eviction defense, we must participate in building a coalition of abolitionist and anti-capitalist organizations working towards a shared horizon, which includes organizing by sex workers, immigrants, and incarcerated people struggling towards real tenant power. As part of this struggle, our organizations must build alternatives to address harm that do not rely on policing and prisons. Eviction defense is an affirmative practice of transforming harm and building up community self-defense. Including incarcerated people in our definition of a tenant means that in our work we must oppose and counter the practices of surveillance, criminalization, and punishment that our incarcerated comrades bear the brunt of.
As written, BED’s points of unity do not account for the dispossession and institutionalization of people who are not in prison or in homeless shelters. This letter is an attempt to connect the struggle of those in prisons to criminalized members of the working class and those who are always more at risk of becoming institutionalized – namely queer, trans, disabled and mad people, undocumented immigrants, and people of color. To achieve the horizon of community controlled housing we must abolish all carceral institutions that house people by holding them against their will. These must be replaced by community controlled housing, alongside socialized care networks and robust systems of community response to harm that address root causes of violence and provide control and agency to survivors.
Comrade on the Stoop