a paper written by comrade on the stoop during the 964 Park Place Defense – 2 March 2022
During a recent Housing Justice For All (HJ4A) field call, one of the coalition’s two paid staff organizers led the 50+ tenant organizers in a reading and discussing of HJ4A’s North Star, an intra-coalitional guiding mission of sorts. HJ4A is a coalition in New York State composed of some 70 ‘housing organizations.’ The vast majority of these are non-profits, either (or often both) 501(c)3 or 501(c)4’s. A few are not nonprofits, these being autonomous tenant formations such as the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU). The organization I am most involved with—Brooklyn Eviction Defense—exists in a grey area: we are not formally a part of the coalition, though we cross paths quite frequently, and our work is often featured in their outreach and debriefs.
HJ4A’s steering committee—the body that sets the coalition’s campaign program as well as the coalition’s action plans and dates, their meeting schedule and their meeting agendas—is composed of representatives from nine coalitional member-organizations and the coalition’s two paid staff members (who, themselves, are both members of the DSA). Notably, every steering committee organization represented is a non-profit. The autonomous tenant formations are left out of decision making.
The discussion of the North Star came on the heels of some contention in week’s prior around the coalition’s (ongoing) campaign for Good Cause Eviction protections—this is legislation that would protect non-rent-stabilized tenants from “arbitrary” evictions and from arbitrary rent hikes. In the fall of 2021, following a third extension to the statewide eviction moratorium, the coalition decided to make Good Cause their primary legislative goal. There was here a political calculation made: rather than organize toward yet another eviction moratorium, the coalition opted to campaign for more “long-term” wins for the movement.
It is imperative to note that the previous three extensions to the eviction moratorium were, by all means, won by and through the work and organization of autonomous tenant formations. The working slogan of the movement was simple: CANCEL RENT. It was this movement’s incessant pressure towards CANCEL RENT, a movement launched by the largest rent strike in New York State history, that created the conditions in which something like an eviction moratorium and its subsequent extensions were even possible.
It is within this context that HJ4A’s steering committee made the decision to campaign focally on Good Cause Eviction. One very important detail: when deciding on this campaign in the fall of 2021 both HJ4A and NYC-DSA (who, w/r/t housing typically tail HJ4A) pinned their campaign schedules to the January 15, 2022 expiration date of the eviction moratorium, hoping to pass the bill by then.
Jan. 15 came and neither Good Cause nor an extension to the moratorium actualized.
The expiration activated the over 225,000 NYC eviction cases that had, through the pandemic, piled up on housing court dockets—the vast, vast majority of these pending evictions were and are nonpayment cases (e.g. when a tenant does not pay their rent as stipulated by their lease and their landlord sues them in housing court). Good Cause protections attend to holdover eviction cases, those cases that are not explicitly about the nonpayment of rent arrears. The proposed legislation’s name portends to this distinction, as it protects against eviction “without a good cause.” The implication here, of course, is that not paying your rent is in fact a good cause to be evicted.
What emerged—due to a lack of political discipline within either HJ4A or the NYC-DSA—was, at best, a thoroughly confusing campaign and, at worst, an indictment on the movement and the formations directing it. Politicians and figures within the DSA-HJ4A nexus regularly put out messaging that explicitly conflated the push for Good Cause with the expiration of the moratorium. This campaign framed Good Cause as if it were an actual and then the only, and thus necessary, protection for the 220,000 New York City residents on the cusp of eviction—when in fact, as we are now seeing waves of evictions in every borough, we knew and know this not to be the case.
The mounting arrears accrued through the pandemic cannot, within capitalist logic, be addressed; the solution has only been and always will be: CANCEL RENT. There is a reason the push for the cancellation of rent forced the three eviction moratoriums, as it was a campaign that responded to the needs of the base of working class tenants and thusly was a campaign carried by that base, a campaign transformed into a movement.
As the moratorium approached, the above became talking points of the left-wing of the tenant movement. Principled critiques offered by the autonomous and communist sections of the coalition were heard on subsequent field calls.
Which leads to the reading/discussing of the coalition’s ‘north star.’ This internal document gestures toward the decommodification of housing, housing as a human right and the undermining of private profit as the guiding lights for the tenant movement. On the call, the staff organizer described this as ‘pretty much abolishing private property’—which led to a brief discussion of ‘communism,’ before moving on to the next agenda point. In the notes of the steering committee’s subsequent meeting, this discussion was described as ‘appeasing’ the communists and dissenters on the call, who (in actuality) understood it for what it was: an attempt to sublimate our work and our politic into the ether of deliverables.
I had initially begun this paper with this anecdote to frame a subsequent exploration of the topography of this housing coalition. This would have been, and will be, a socialist’s inquiry into the contradictions, limitations and opportunities to be found within this coalition specifically and non-profit-led movements in general.
This was to be, specifically, a paper that put into conversation contemporary literature on the non-profit industrial complex with the work of Marxist political strategists. But, as I set out to begin working on this paper—with a healthy two weeks til I was supposed to send a draft to the conference organizers—my comrades and I discovered, through the city’s public eviction data, that CHTU organizer Sherease Torain had been evicted from her home on Tuesday 8 February. This marked the first ever eviction of an active CHTU member, an organization that has existed since 2013. We reached out immediately to check in and were met with an uneasy silence.
Two days of uncertainty and a hurting union crept by. A CHTU organizer went by the home—964 Park Place—and saw the eviction notice—executed by Marshal Henry Daley—taped to the inside of the front glass door of the beautiful three story brownstone; the locks had been changed as well. Then, finally, we heard back from Sherease. She had been in surgery at the time of the eviction.
Sherease, just like her mother, was born in this home. Sherease’s grandfather had purchased the house in 1951. Theirs was the first black family on the block.
How did Sherease—a third-generation homeowner—come to be evicted (notably, not foreclosed upon)? In 2016, Sherease’s older brother began what he understood to be a process of mortgage refinancing. After a year or so of newly financed mortgage payments, the family was subsequently informed that these “mortgage payments” had actually, in fact, been “rent.” NETZ CAPITAL, the real estate firm led by landlord Mnachem Guravitch has been trying to evict Sherease and her mother ever since.
What happened to the Torain-Robinson family—deed theft—is not particularly unique to either the neighborhood or to the real estate firm in question—again: NETZ CAPITAL. Deed theft is an instrumental tool in the anti-black violence—in the genocidal project—that is gentrification. Accumulation by dispossession, endemic to capitalism, is on full display here.
The role of capitalists, and particularly the agents in their employ, as compelled by the abstractions of competition, is to constantly develop new modes of, and loopholes toward, this accumulation by dispossession—deed theft, as committed by this firm and their legal team (the original lawyer who facilitated the “deed transfer” has since been disbarred and has fled the country!), is one of these modes characteristic of the financialized housing economy.
Once we got in contact with Sherease, on that Thursday (Feb 10), she made one thing very clear: that she wants—and needs—to be back within her home.
While I do not want to recount the whole story here—that would be far too long as well as, as I speak today, a story incomplete—I will note that Sherease Torain and her mother are safely in their home. For the past eighteen days, the two organizations I am a part of—the Crown Heights Tenant Union and Brooklyn Eviction Defense—have worked, following Sherease’s lead, tirelessly to keep safe this home.
This has not been without conflict. On the day that Sherease and Ms. Robinson made it back into their home, they and the organizers they were with were attacked by a hired man who had made his way into the home through a basement entrance and announced he was employed by the marshal—we later learned that he was in fact employed by the landlord Mnechem Gurevitch.
We at Brooklyn Eviction Defense, following this first flash of violence, immediately instituted a stoopwatch. This is one of BED’s most beautiful tactics: most simply we invite fellow organizers and comrades and community members to come and sit on the stoop in question and, through our presence and vigilance, prevent any sort of harassment or attempts at dispossession—be it from cops, hired hands or marshals. This first weekend saw temperatures drop to 14 degrees fahrenheit; we caught about seven inches of snow. We have had a 24/7 stoopwatch in place since the first altercation, today marks the 18th day. Over 175 people have completed a 2-hour stoop shift in the last three weeks.
Yesterday we got word from the courts that the eviction that had been executed has been reversed, that Sherease and Ms. Robinson have been restored legal possession and that the deed theft will be now fully investigated.
One thing I want to make very explicit, and about which I am overcome with revolutionary joy, is that we have, here, done the truly unthinkable and historic: we have reversed a legal eviction. THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN. In our work—both in CHTU and more specifically in BED—we predicate our efforts on intervening at every step before a legal eviction. This means preventive base-building and power-building work, such as the organizing of tenant associations. This means also the work of outreach and having tenants know our organizations’ names: the best outreach, we always say, is good work. This also means the sort of data work that our technologically-inclined organizers embark on, that help us identify people, buildings, communities and neighborhoods that are particularly at-risk of eviction. We then take this information and do thorough, targeted outreach and then work with tenants to fight off displacement, to build collective working class power.
But, again, this is not the case here. We reversed a legal, marshal-executed eviction. Sherease and her family had been legally and practically evicted—ejected, displaced and robbed. The legal fiction of ownership, the legal fiction of private property, is conveyed and concretized through a marshal’s eviction: what we know to be true (that this is Sherease’s home) was—briefly—unseated by the coercive violence of this legal fiction. The abstraction of private property is converted into a material reality, which then recursively re-enforces the abstraction. It is this iterative sedimentation that undergirds the logic of capitalism, that allows for the global regime of capital—that moreover naturalizes it and produces the reality in which we operate and struggle. This reversal, this struggle, has been, to quote my comrade, a paradigmatic rupture.
When we work with tenants our first principle is to always center the tenant’s agency; often, our first strategic focus is to retain at all costs physical possession of a home. As long as we are physically occupying a home, contest is possible. But to have been evicted and locked out of your home is an explicit material articulation of the dispossessive function of private property. But, again, we reversed a legal eviction. We, through community and tenant power, not only overcame the material barriers (new locks!) but we have since forced what was a legal certainty back into question. This is a profound and transcendent achievement, one that unseats the solidity of private property in ways that we as anticapitalists or communists often can only discuss fancifully and through theory and historical anecdote.
I tell this story, and particularly describe our organization’s (and that of the communities we draw from) herculean work and our truly remarkable achievement, to frame a small episode that relates to this paper’s initial anecdote as well as its initial purpose. On that very first Friday morning, following our initial reoccupation of 964 Park Place, comrades from both CHTU and BED worked together to write a robust and strong press release, one that announced the violence that has occurred, that framed it in the context of endemic deed theft and endemic displacement of black families in northern Crown heights. Folded into the press releases were political demands: the cancellation of rent and the reinstatement of the eviction moratorium, as well as calls on authorities to investigate both this specific case of deed theft as well as the larger trend that has robbed so many black families of their intergenerational equity.
It’s imperative to note that the violent eviction of Sherease and her mother would never have happened were the eviction moratorium still in place. In fact, back in May 2021, when the previous moratorium had lapsed for just three days, we held a rally out front of Sherease’s home. Literally while Sherease was addressing the militant crowd, we got word that the governor had signed on to a moratorium extension.
I go into detail here because of an exchange that followed. HJ4A staff reached out and asked how they could support. Our organizers shared the press release with them.
The two staffers at HJ4A informed us that they would send out our press release to their (robust) press contacts. The only thing, of course, was that when that press release circulated it was not the same press release that we had written.
It was, in fact, a thoroughly defanged statement. One that not only erased our political demands but that replaced them with a framing that not only suggested but explicitly stated that this eviction defense, and eviction defense in general, was an insufficient endeavor (‘not enough’) and that the real aim of the movement is (of course!!!) Good Cause legislation. Not only that, but the press release framed the eviction defense as an outright victory—this, while our comrade Sherease’s safety and the safety of her mother and of those of us on-the-ground were all so deeply in question.
Two days later, on Monday, our stoopwatch was violently attacked by members of the landlord’s community. While thirty cops watched, a true scrap unfolded. Then, once the cops did intervene, and forced the stoopwatchers across the street, a handful of the landlord’s people entered a yeshiva boarding house a few doors down from 964. They proceeded to go up on the roof, trespass across three neighbor buildings and attempted (and nearly succeeded) to break into the home from above. They broke through two locks and it was the last remaining lock—and our collective solidarity, said a CHTU organizer later—that held strong. The crisis that unfolded, guided by our strong organization, compelled that night the Attorney General, Letitia James, to come to the stoop herself, to see the home and to intervene on the goings on.
I say all that because, besides being typically NPIC and defanging our politics and exploiting our work, this press release, by claiming victory (“a successful eviction blockade”), undermined our explicit tactical and strategic efforts. Keeping Sherease and her mother safely in their home has been a grueling and tiring project; none of us—Sherease and Ms Robinson most prominently—have gotten any rest whatsoever; we have been physically and psychologically attacked and harassed; our small (but through the course of the week, growing in tremendous ways) circle of core organizers are hurting. But HJ4A wanted to claim a victory, while we desperately needed more people on the ground, needed food, needed heat.
Most importantly, this is not a story about hurt feelings or disappointment, or even about the manner in which non-profits exploit or extract—though these of course course through every paragraph. No! This is a story about the power of organized tenants, our radical possibilities and the dilemmas facing our movement.
I do not think that this story replaces the necessity of a topographical exploration of the coalition. Rather, more so, it shows the very urgency of such a project. The first HJ4A field call following this first grueling week proved this as well: as clearly the tenant movement in New York State is at a juncture; a 1-hour call stretched into two empained hours; 52 organizers remained on this call til the end, as organizers from BED and CHTU—burning from both ends—expressed our genuine, principled and visceral critique of the formation’s behavior this week and in the past few years.
Where the tenant movement goes from here—will it reinforce the capitalist system or contest it?—will be determined not by nonprofits nor boards of directors nor any professional managerial class. Rather, it is the collective working class tenant that is the protagonist here. How this future unfolds, while constrained to the conditions history has provided, is up to the discipline and organization of working class tenants—that is the careful reading of history and the dedicated day-in and day-out work of building a new world in the ashes of an old; and the constant, conscious synthesis of the two.
– comrade on the stoop