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Organizing Tenants for Housing Security, with John Washington

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Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Organizing Tenants for Housing Security, with John Washington
In this episode, William continues his series on What We’re Building, exploring noteworthy organizations on the US Left today. Safe and secure housing is one of the most fundamental human needs, yet housing is heavily commodified, often insecure and unaffordable. Property ownership becomes a more lofty dream for young people by the day and rent prices continue to skyrocket across the country. Meanwhile, disasters fueled by climate change have destroyed housing in some regions and threaten housing security many more. Like the relationships between bosses and workers and creditors and debtors, that between landlords and tenants is a foundational relationship under capitalism. All these relationships are sites of exploitation—and sites where class consciousness can be developed. This episode’s guest, John Washington, is an expert on the landlord-tenant relationship. John brings vast experience from his work as a housing organizer with the Homes Guarantee program and as co-director of PUSH Buffalo. Together, he and William explore ways tenants are organizing for their rights across the country and the pros and cons of “affordable housing” initiatives popular amongst more center-left activists, and dig into the importance of housing guarantees for all people.

[00:00:00] Sound on Tape: This podcast is presented by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. 

[00:00:07] John Washington: Housing is actually the infrastructure of racial capitalism. If you look at any city or any community, you can tell where’s black, where’s Brown, where’s white. You can immediately orient yourself. As a capitalist to what’s in your interest, just on the visual cues of residential segregation, anybody who says housing is just an issue, you know, has not studied history and how much effort, energy, pain, drama, blood was put into building and maintaining the lines and walls in our housing.

[00:00:33] System because to me part of them are to separate you and I

[00:00:41] William Lawrence: Hello and welcome to the hegemonic on a podcast from convergence magazine. This is a show about social movements and politics Strategy and ideology the immediate present and the rapidly onrushing future. I’m your host william lawrence I spent my 20s as a member of grassroots social movements, [00:01:00] most prominently as a co founder and national leader of Sunrise Movement, the youth organization that put the Green New Deal on the political map.

[00:01:07] Now I’m in my early 30s, trying to make sense of what we’ve collectively learned in this last decade plus of social movements and heightening social crises. I talk with activists and researchers on the left, exploring the guiding theme of power. What it is, how it’s exercised. and how it’s distributed.

[00:01:30] Welcome to the hegemonicon. This is your latest episode in our series on what we are building, which is talking about the most noteworthy organizations and initiatives on the left today, where people are building power. And you know, when we talk about the foundational economic relationships under capitalism, several of them really stand out.

[00:01:54] There are bosses and workers. There are. Creditors and debtors, [00:02:00] and there are landlords and tenants, and these are all relationships that You know, many of us are born into there’s no morality in it other than happenstance and circumstance and The capitalists squeeze the rest of us for profit in the workplace in our homes and through debt relationships and so lots of people are talking about these relationships in Kind of a common way as places where class consciousness can really be developed.

[00:02:33] And recently we spoke with Alex Hahn about the state of the labor movement, which is very exciting right now. Uh, this week we’re talking about tenant organizing with my guest, John Washington of Buffalo, New York. Um, John is an organizer and trainer with the Homes Guarantee Campaign. John, I’m really glad to have you on the show.

[00:02:50] Um, why don’t you just introduce yourself to our listeners and tell us a little bit about what the Homes Guarantee Campaign is. 

[00:02:57] John Washington: Uh, yeah. So my name is John Washington, organizer and, [00:03:00] um, been working on the home guarantee campaign for several years now. And really, it’s a really simple idea in the richest country in the history of the world.

[00:03:07] Everybody should be guaranteed a home on. That is a really simple idea that actually comes against the contradiction of One, the relationship that tenants, landlords have, but also renter capitalism, right? We are all tenants, uh, even, you know, uh, you, I took a Uber today. I was a tenant of that Uber for a moment, right?

[00:03:24] So we have this like phase where capitalists are looking to rent everything out and leverage us against each other. And, uh, we’re trying to build unions and trying to build clarity, uh, political education and strength for people to understand those contradictions, react to them and build power through them and hold that tension.

[00:03:39] Because we actually think. Part of the reason that, um, we’re in the place we’re at today is because tenants have not been exerting their leverage in the same way that workers have. And that’s why, you know, we’re at where we’re at. 

[00:03:50] William Lawrence: So you’ve been organizing around economic justice, um, for over a decade now.

[00:03:56] Tell me about how you got politicized around this issue in particular [00:04:00] of housing. 

[00:04:01] John Washington: Yeah. I mean, I think my lived experience, you know, um, moved around a lot as a kid, uh, for lots of different reasons and, um, just real young, you know, born in New York, looking at the difference between, you know, wall street and Bed Stuy as, as a kid.

[00:04:15] And then moving, like lived in Seattle, Cleveland, uh, Connecticut, been in Buffalo for a little over 20 years now. Um, but in just bouncing around, I’ve just always been like, what? What is going on here? Uh, and then experiencing, you know, bats of homelessness. And then really, honestly, it was interesting you said about like debtors unions as I became a debt collector.

[00:04:33] And I think, you know, I always hated the rent. I was always like very radical, you know, reading lots of radical economic literature, but I think Being spending 10 years and trying to get out of homelessness, being a debt collector really showed me like the fallacy of this. And I think like the 2008 financial collapse, you know, and the occupy Wall Street movement really hit me because I had spent, I got taught about racial capitalism by debt graders, by people in collection agencies who basically tell you how probable it is that someone will [00:05:00] pay your debt back.

[00:05:01] Based on the zip code, the geography, homeownership rates, a whole Public policy profile that bankers do on every community. And so I saw that before I organized and I really got taught it as a way of like, you want to get this money, you’re not going to get it. Um, in these zip codes. And I felt, you know, I feel like I went through this arc of first being offended at the racism of like, wait a minute, you’re saying, I can’t like, my people don’t have money.

[00:05:23] And then over the years, I’ve been like, Oh yeah, they don’t. And there’s actually very specific and intentional reasons why. And then, you know, seeing the racial wealth gap in real time, all day, every day, right. And then watching that 2008 collapse and just how the different dominoes of our economy and the way that it’s structured, the way our free market is actually structured really hit me that like, Oh, I’m actually playing a really powerful role in advancing the racial wealth gap.

[00:05:48] Um, and I can’t do that anymore. I can’t live in a place where I have to trade. I’ve always felt like capitalism puts us in this position where we have to trade what we believe we deserve ourselves for someone else’s oppression. And I always thought, you know, [00:06:00] not selling drugs, not getting into, you know, all the things you can get into in Buffalo, New York and in black and brown communities.

[00:06:05] Like I was doing something better by like sitting at a desk. And I think, uh, 2008 is the year that I realized, Oh, actually, um, I’ve cost thousands of people, their homes, um, and contributed to this culture. And. I, you know, I, I can’t sit with that. It took me years to like actually figure out what to do with that feeling.

[00:06:24] Um, but I really got politicized by actually robbing people for bankers over the phone for, for 10 years. 

[00:06:31] William Lawrence: That’ll do it. Thank you for walking that journey so that then you can help other people to build power around not just the oppressions that we face, but the ways that we’re made agents of those oppressions.

[00:06:45] So that’s a really powerful story. Thank you. So I think everybody is. More or less familiar with the idea of a labor union, even if they haven’t been a member of one. But, um, fewer people are aware of what a tenant’s [00:07:00] union is. So could you start there? What is a tenant’s union? And tell us a little bit about this state of the tenant’s movement around the country today.

[00:07:10] John Washington: Yeah. So attending is really a simple idea. It’s, it’s a group of tenants and tenants to me, uh, traditionally is like there’s someone who owns a building and you’re paying them rent for the building. Um, but I also believe we have municipal tenants, uh, right here in Buffalo, New York. There are many people who You know, the Brown administration foreclosed because they couldn’t pay their taxes, uh, in ways that were easily preventable that have left Buffalo a shovel ready city for developers.

[00:07:35] I’m a homeowner now. I just bought a house this year. And I also, if I don’t pay the bank, there is, I have more privilege, right? There’s more language to how the process goes. Um, but the reality is, um, I can still be put out of my place. It’s just going to take about 18 months longer than it would if I was a tenant.

[00:07:50] And I have this like presumed stability that comes with, you know, my ability to pay. And so, you know, we think that there are bank tenants, municipal tenants, uh, we have a lot of folks in trailer parks around the country. So, [00:08:00] I guess, really, a tenant is someone for whom another has leverage over, like, where they live and how they live their lives.

[00:08:08] Uh, we can put modifiers on that and make it even deeper, but, um, that’s really what it is. And then a tenant union, uh, is really a group of people that want to build power through that contradiction. And I don’t want to put any too much more of a sharp definition on it because there are so many types of housing and there are so many types of leverage overhousing right now that, that basically the, the, just like workers unions, they’re all different reactions to the conditions that people are in.

[00:08:33] Um, but ultimately it’s, it’s whatever, whatever formation, whatever we want to bring together to. Focus on like, how do we all get our interests met, right? How do we get the stability? Really stability conditions are usually the things that people are facing and because housing it’s always been a commodity in america But I think it’s become a powerful and and really it’s a bet right now A lot of people are bet on our housing market That means that Those who made those bets want there to [00:09:00] be that much more consistent ability from the government and from individuals to make sure that those bets, bets follow through.

[00:09:05] So for us, the tenant union is really about bringing people together and creating a formation that allows us to negotiate, um, and to build power around that leverage, because the irony is. Most of these people are using our money to pay their rent to another renter, right? Whether that be Federal Reserve, FHA, Freddie May, Fannie Mac, like the irony of renter capitalism is actually the biggest capitalists are also the biggest renters.

[00:09:29] And I think that our rent means a whole lot more to us than it does to them. 

[00:09:33] William Lawrence: Mm hmm. And it’s all about the terms of debt down the chain, uh, each step down the line, uh, you’re passing on a higher interest rate and trying to get a little slice. Um, what is the importance of the unionization and the union concept here?

[00:09:49] Because I, I, I’ve seen people, uh, take pains to distinguish between housing as an issue around which we advocate. [00:10:00] and really the emphasis on being a union of tenants. 

[00:10:07] John Washington: So for me, one of the big parts about unionization actually was the role of federal government, um, and the role of the state in this relationship and like how the state plays a role in all relationships.

[00:10:18] So for a tenant union, the reality is Each context is subtly different. Like each boss is different. Each company is different. Even if you have the same company, you could have a bunch of McDonald’s. Each one is going to be different. And so for me, what’s important about unionization is the solidarity of leverage is strike power or the potential for it.

[00:10:38] We often don’t actually have run strikes, but we found that even the concept of the idea that people could get organized enough to strike totally changes all of the power dynamics. And I think this is also about just the current state of organizing, which I think is often very powerless. It’s often about Um, Moralism, it’s often about this like, oh, well, you should treat these people better instead of these people are actually the source of [00:11:00] your wealth.

[00:11:00] And we have an ability to negotiate the fact that we are the source of your wealth, uh, in our, in our interest. And so I think the union concept is really important because it says, one, we need to be in solidarity with each other. Two, like little union, like we are all actually workers, we’re all tenants of something in some way, and there is this big level of solidarity, and then we have some situational practices of like, this is, this is where workers end up, this is where tenants end up, and this is how we’re going to react to that.

[00:11:28] together to those situations. Um, and long term the fundamental knowledge that like if the workers of the world unite, if the tenants of the world unite, I think the thing about with workers is it’s very difficult to cooperate as a workplace. And most people would not actually want to own their workplaces.

[00:11:43] They’re just there because they need to get their needs met. Obviously some people who love their work. Uh, but I think with, with tenancy, actually there’s, there’s, there’s a lot of theory of property, uh, in radical spaces. And I think that tenancy is actually a way for us to every. Everything in our housing market has been organized.

[00:11:59] So we offer all the [00:12:00] power and get nothing back for it, but a place to live. And I think flipping that dynamic actually is much more powerful than just what it means for each individual tenant, but actually what it means for property relations in the country and for power relations, because power relations are defined by property relations.

[00:12:15] And this is one of the only moments we’ve had in the history of the country where there is theoretically equal. Ability for people to own property. Um, and so I think that right now it’s so important that in this particular moment, we’re unionized against those interests because one, they’re the driving force of, I think, all economic behavior.

[00:12:36] Um, if you look at 2008 housing market collapses, the global economy collapsed. The American housing market actually is not like finding, like it’s not numerically, like, a huge part of our global economy. And yet, because it is so over leveraged on their side, uh, it actually drives a lot of the way that, that our, uh, the global economy behave.

[00:12:55] And so I find that really interesting. The idea that like 20 percent [00:13:00] of people not being able to pay their rent or mortgages can collapse the global economy when that amount of money to those people really isn’t that much money. And it just shows you a lot about the structure of power. Uh, and I would argue like, you know, with people who are just like, Oh, there’s housing is an issue.

[00:13:14] No housing is actually the infrastructure of racial capitalism. If you look at any city or any community, you can tell where’s black, where’s Brown, where’s white. You can immediately orient yourself. As a capitalist to what’s in your interest, just on the visual cues of residential segregation. Anybody who says housing is just an issue, you know, has not studied history and how much effort, energy, pain, drama, blood was put into building and maintaining the lines and walls in our housing system.

[00:13:41] Because to me, part of them are to separate you and I, right. To make it so that folks like ourselves actually never develop a shared interest or an understanding that we possibly could. Um, and so, you know, somebody who grew up in a lot of different hoods, like there’s There’s a, there’s, you know, a moral technique says the ghetto is like a prison with invisible bars.

[00:13:59] No matter [00:14:00] where you go, it follows you where you are. And so I think our housing system is the platform, like the placing place for all these other racial hierarchies, gender hierarchies, uh, worker and debtor hierarchies, and it’s a conditioning place of identity for us as people. Right? Like, I still, no matter how much I grow, no matter how much I read, no matter how much I learn, like I still very much identify with the places where I’m from, with the, with the homes that I survived in when I was a child and with the traumas and benefits that those things brought.

[00:14:27] And so I think a lot deeper, I’m sure you, you, you got to run with movement generation a little bit in your time, but you know, we talk about like the, the importance of home. And so a lot of this actually comes from the fact that like, also from a power perspective, we’re going to build power. If I’m out here canvassing, if I’m out here doing protests or whatever, But I don’t know where I’m going to live in the next three months.

[00:14:46] Or my assumption is that the, over the next five years, I’ll live seven or eight different places. And I’m just kind of waiting, you know, to get kicked out of my place. I’m not a powerful person. Like I can’t feel my full power unless I can go home and say, this is my [00:15:00] home. And I know that there’s going to be people who will fight for that home with me.

[00:15:03] And I think for the students of climate change, like. We’re at a place where we’re going to need to protect our homes, like in a, in a way that’s not policy centered. That’s not about all of these ideas, but it’s also about like, how do we actually house people? How do people practice living communally in defense of and in support of each other?

[00:15:20] And so to me, the tenant union is a place of practice of power. It’s a place to build leverage, uh, against capitalists. And it’s also a place for us to actually just like, figure out how to be together and share our interests and negotiate with other people, which are just practices that even if you’re not up against someone who’s ideologically opposed to you, I think we’re losing, um, as humans because capitalism has commodified, you know, all of these relationships and all of these transactions that used to be pretty natural for people who lived together.

[00:15:48] But 

[00:15:49] William Lawrence: that’s, that’s really great. I mean, yeah, so much in there that, um, uh, I’d love to follow up on. I mean, speaking personally, you know, my background is in, it was in climate and climate justice. And then [00:16:00] it’s been in the last few years that I’ve really started to organize around tenancy and housing. And it, uh, it, it comes from this really self interested place that you’re describing.

[00:16:08] It’s like, I, I would like myself, my family, and my friends to have Secure housing in the 2030s, And on rather than being permanently displaced in an ongoing fashion every, every year, every two years, like you said, or simply just dying of exposure in the 20 forties because of a climate disaster and housing insecurity.

[00:16:34] This is all very real possibilities that we’re dealing with. I mean, we’re having to deal with sheltering needs here in Lansing, extreme heat, extreme cold, and the, just the security net is, is far from up to snuff and housing. Insecurity is the, uh, the baseline existence that’s taken as given. And I, I cannot accept that.

[00:16:55] I don’t think any of us should accept that because conditions are only going to get more [00:17:00] dangerous on top of the existing housing insecurity that people are dealing with, uh, let’s move on to a, uh, an organizing question, which is, uh, Uh, based on our experiments that we’ve been running in the last several years here in Lansing, um, I’ve been part of some of them.

[00:17:15] There’s other comrades who have been part of others in, um, organizing, um, at, you know, a building level, um, around, um, tenancy, bad conditions. Um, you name it, it seems that the choice of target really makes a big difference. And just because a shop is hot and people are complaining, doesn’t necessarily mean that the tenants have tons of leverage over the landlord, whether ownership is local or out of town, big, middle, middle, or small.

[00:17:43] And you know, the details of the corporate ownership structure actually make a A really big difference and some landlords are more vulnerable to public shaming, uh, collective action, rent strikes, and others, um, might be less vulnerable or [00:18:00] more able to just cash out and, um, sell to some other property owner who, who, you know, has a different financial structure and they’re, they’re, they’re more willing to tolerate the, the rent strike than the previous owner.

[00:18:10] So what can you say about what kinds of shops are. Most ripe for tenant organizing that you and the homes guarantee campaign are learning around the country. 

[00:18:23] John Washington: Yeah. Um, well one, there’s just many pathways to the same place, right? And I think the, the question of leverage, and this is one of the reasons why we’re running a campaign we’re running right now, uh, we’re on the FHA and the FHFA and demanding tenant protections because Most of these folks would not be landlords if it wasn’t for the enormous amount of federal subsidy that they get.

[00:18:43] Um, the government has made it from day one in 1938 when they started these processes, their goal has been to make it as profitable as possible to be a landlord. And so, um, I think with the different shops, um, it really starts with leadership development and it really starts with vulnerability. And what’s, what I find [00:19:00] really interesting is, um, you know, most of the tenants that I talked to, like there’s this arc of like conditioning that you kind of have to go through where we’ve been really conditioned to accept pretty terrible conditions.

[00:19:12] We’ve been conditioned to accept that in a way that we would never accept like in a store. Like I know plenty of people where you, took them to the store, you bought them something and it wasn’t what they wanted, they would go right back in. Can I speak to your manager? Right. Can I, and I think with housing, what’s interesting is there’s this balance between how people are treated and then class wise, like the poorest people are treated the worst and are conditioned to be treated the worst and often have the most leverage because.

[00:19:37] They represent not just their rent, but also financing, right? And the financing of the federal government. So I think when you go into a place that is financed federally, federally backed, um, if it’s an affordable housing, which would be state, but still federally backed, right, the different vehicles to me are just different leverage points that we can add to the natural contradiction.

[00:19:56] So the natural contradiction is. Most landlords [00:20:00] cannot survive without the rent, right? Because their rent is being paid to someone else. And that’s why I think like there’s this whole concept of like rent strikes. And I think while those still don’t happen too often, part of the reason is because landlords are actually so afraid of them, um, because they’re, their mortgages and mortgage backed security.

[00:20:17] They have investors and other folks, and they’re just flipping over and over and over again. And so every time they do that and landlords who are like that, that means that they, they, they can’t deal with any hiccups. And so that’s a huge, huge form of leverage. And then, There’s this interesting thing where like tenants actually don’t know that, right?

[00:20:33] Tenants have been conditioned, like most tenants have downloaded what they believe about their relationship from their landlord, from their parents, a few other folks in their community. Maybe there’s just kind of like general accepted rules about like how you live in an apartment, but very rarely are people clear on their rights.

[00:20:49] And so we both organize tenants at the building level and we organize them as the collective. And to me, those are just like two arcs of like leadership development and awareness. If a building is like really terrible, we’re like, [00:21:00] Um, most likely there’s a group of people in that building that is constantly talking about how terrible that building is that are communicating about it.

[00:21:07] And so for me, it’s not even about necessarily adding anything different. It’s more about like, what is the juice that’s there? Like, how are people reacting to the conditions that they’re living in? Is there an association, all that stuff. And then once you can really tap in with the small group of people that are always, you know, in the vestibule, in the community room, right?

[00:21:24] Like they know everybody, everybody says hi to them. It’s really the degree to which they’re willing to take risks. And because I think tenant organizing is really interesting in that it really, it forces you as an organizer to build leaders, right? Because the folks in that building are not going to listen to you, um, the way that they’re going to listen to folks that they’ve lived with and especially people who are in those leadership roles.

[00:21:46] So I think we have like, you know, ways that we treat federally backed mortgages. We have ways that we treat affordable housing. We have like thought processes around those, but honestly, most of those are just like, okay. So basically that means that the rent comes from the tenants. And it also comes from the [00:22:00] state.

[00:22:00] And that means that we need to organize both at the same time, because if a landlord were to lose both, not only would they lose the building, but they would also like lose the privilege of credit and credits, a very interesting thing in, especially when it comes to like, why tech, the FHA and these other funding mechanisms.

[00:22:18] Because it’s like some of these landlords are getting fed. And what we’re trying to really break apart now is the idea that like, because theoretically the federal government needs to employ more landlords, like that’s its theory of how it makes rents lower is to actually subsidize landlords more. The more that we.

[00:22:35] Absolutely throwing money at them. Just, yeah, literally just throwing money at them. The more we can affect both sides of those, those, those coins, and the more we can show up. Day one saying we’ve actually been in conversation with the federal government. We’ve been getting conversation with your state government We have representatives who are actually like on the housing committee who who actually hold the strings You know to these processes because most of these guys they want to leverage more, right?

[00:22:59] And if you [00:23:00] look at like BlackRock, right, they like own, you know What like 7. 9 trillion dollars worth of stuff like they accumulated that by keeping flipping these loans and flipping them and flipping them So there’s another layer of interest here where a lot of these bigger landlords or the real estate investment trust or the managers and organizers of smaller landlords are very concerned with government funding because government funding is really the only way that the housing market works.

[00:23:22] And so I’d be interested to like dig into some specific situations, but in our experience, it’s really about the leadership development of the base. And once the base is clear on their interest, Like actually their interest, not what they think they can get. Not well, I don’t like this, but what, but you know, it is what it is kind of attitude, but actually, Oh my God, we’re paying all their rent to them.

[00:23:44] They’re making this much profit. The government’s giving them this much money. If we take our piece away, what it’s like getting that to that place. So like, if we took this piece away. What actually happens? Like, and, and, and that feeling of not just like, we’re saying we have power, we’re marching in the street, but it’s like, we actually [00:24:00] did the math.

[00:24:01] And if we can get these three people who are the keys to your government money and we can get 60, you know, 50 to 60 percent of the tenant base here. Um, to make a public commitment that we’re going to show up in our interest. Um, often that, that, that totally changes the power dynamic. I won’t say it wins, but it totally changes the power dynamic.

[00:24:20] And I think a lot of organizing is done from a place of having no leverage actually, or having almost all narrative leverage. And so then when you get to the table, nothing happens. And I think in tenant organizing, Getting to the table gets to a different stage, uh, where then you actually get to see, okay, how do these people actually react when something is on the line for them?

[00:24:39] And I think what I found really interesting about the critiques and just the way that our work is talked about sometimes is I think that people make the assumption that we’re just getting a lot of tenants to. Ask very loudly for landlords to like treat them better. And the reality is we’re getting them to be clear on where they have leverage and how to use it.

[00:24:58] Um, and I think, you know, from [00:25:00] my perspective, I tend to focus on leadership development. I get this from like Phil Jackson, who was like, you know, I don’t, I don’t produce championship teams. I produce champions, right? Like my goal is actually to develop players to have a certain mentality that was certain orientation to the work that allows them to operate more powerfully and also to figure things out that will come back to me.

[00:25:18] Um, Um, and so I think I feel very similar in that. Like our goal is to incubate and help tenant unions develop around their particular set of like conditions and contradictions, and then to help them scale that up through training and leadership development and also to learn as a feedback loop, I have learned.

[00:25:35] So much from all the groups that we work with because I had my presumptions. I had my, my biases. Um, and so I think like there are always going to be situations where it does work and where it doesn’t work. And our goal is like, if we cannot make the contradiction work as we want it to in the moment, like, what is it going to take for us to be able to do that tomorrow?

[00:25:54] Right. And what, what attitudes, beliefs, behaviors are we going to be able to shift in folks along the way. And [00:26:00] then I think, you know, to be real, every, all campaigns have examples, Right. Like Casey tenants. KY tenants, Louisville tenant union, Bozeman tenants. We have these groups that are really figuring out the praxis of our methodology of like how to do these things.

[00:26:14] And then being able to say to folks, Hey, maybe at this particular moment in your context, you might not be able to be ready to do this today, but Hey, these folks weren’t ready to do it two years ago and look what they’re doing now. So at the end of the day, it really just comes back to like being really.

[00:26:28] Adamant about those basics of one on ones and of people having like real authentic self interested relationships Because I think however much time that takes like we move at the speed of trust If we take that time, you know, we can do way bigger things than we can You know rushing and trying to find like these, uh, these easy answers that sometimes in the policy world we get Well, if we could just you know, some loyal say well we could just do this this and this and it’s just like yeah but then They’re going to do that, that, not.

[00:26:52] And if they have more money and more people than us, like the technicalities don’t work on the end where we have less power than them. 

[00:26:59] William Lawrence: Why don’t you [00:27:00] tell us a little bit more about some of those, um, most, uh, inspiring organizing drives that you’ve seen and, and the victories that you’ve seen tenants win together.

[00:27:08] John Washington: Well, I mean, first is obviously the arc of Casey tenants, you know, going from small meeting rooms to, you know, 10, 000 members, uh, for elected officials. Uh, I forget exactly how many millions of dollars are in their housing trust fund, but, um, and then the realist housing trust fund board that you’ll.

[00:27:25] Probably ever see, I’ve been working really deeply with some folks in Kentucky. Uh, so Kentucky tenants, um, which is a couple of different chapters around the state of Kentucky that’s right now in a fight for a tenant bill of rights and pretty close to getting source of income and right to counsel, uh, Louisville tenant union just passed a, what I think is going to be like a fundamental shift.

[00:27:45] I hope in the way that, um, black neighborhood community organizing works. Awesome. Big shout out to Jessica Bellamy and the, um, Historically Black Neighborhood Assembly in the LTU, they passed a Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance, which [00:28:00] actually shifts the balance of power in historically Black neighborhoods over planning, zoning, and some levels of financing to the people, right?

[00:28:08] And to communities in a way that You know, honestly, I wish I had known about years ago, right? And I’m really excited to like kind of build off of and then, you know, Bozeman tenants just elected a mayor and got rid of Airbnbs and, you know, it’s a smaller place. Um, but the idea of getting in a touristy place, just, just getting rid of Airbnbs period and then to have a mayor.

[00:28:29] Right. Like we talk about movement politics. We talk about co governance to pass a policy and elect an executive. Um, to me, that is just an incredibly powerful combination. It says a lot about their strategy, you know, Holyoke, a neighbor to neighbor was just able to, uh, get a tenant bill of rights or office of tenant protections in Holyoke.

[00:28:47] And to be honest, you know, a lot of these groups, you know, Are nowhere near the power and potential that I think that they can, that can be at. And these are just some of the folks that like I’m closest to, um, but they’re really at that cusp of like, as an organizer, really [00:29:00] starting to understand, like, what you need to do.

[00:29:03] And I think there’s, there’s a, like, any organized honest is like, yeah, you don’t know what you’re totally doing for a while. And you’re just kind of dragging people around and moving them. And so I just feel like there’s like probably eight or nine different places where people are like on this cusp where we’ve seen some really powerful things.

[00:29:18] But to be honest, those aren’t the things that excite me the most. The things that excite me the most are, are actually the leaders and the staff. scale of leadership that they’re that they’ve been able to use to get them. And the fact that they took a much harder path to get them, that they’re going to take to get the next thing.

[00:29:31] I’m really excited about what we’re going to see in the tenant movement in the coming years. And then how we’re able to bring that into a national story and do things like we just did, which, uh, we just brought a hundred tenants to DC for a couple of weeks. Tenant takeover, I had a power meeting with some folks at the FHFA, which we are trying to get to implement tenant protections over the 150 billion, about 20 million units of apartments that they have.

[00:29:53] Um, and so I just feel like we’ve been able to do a lot and we are still punching above our weight and still have a whole lot of weight to [00:30:00] add to, to what we’re doing. So, um, a lot of great things going on and it’s all really exciting. And ultimately the coolest thing is that like, we are seeing people go from.

[00:30:11] Dragging people around and doing a thing that they love to actually developing leaders in a way that’s not just for the role, but actually for like an organization and for a movement that is like very aware of like what it’s doing. And it’s not just like, you know, you’ve got these people who, yeah, I’m speaking on the mic today and I’m doing what they told me to do, but I don’t really get it.

[00:30:29] Uh, I just appreciate how many of our folks are actually getting it and actually coming up with new ideas and new strategies. And it’s, It’s a really stimulating time to, to be in this work.

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[00:31:30] William Lawrence: So a lot of these examples you’re naming have some combination of, um, You know, maybe building or unit level organizing and then some kind of political expression where it’s pressuring the city council or, you know, the state government or, um, standing candidates for office. I guess, is there any case that you’ve seen where it’s like, um, The tenant unions are functioning well without having a political expression, and they’re just work sort of like a deep politicized labor union where they’re just fighting for their [00:32:00] members on the shop floor, you know, at the at the building in this case and negotiating a better deal with landlords.

[00:32:05] And that’s that’s pretty much all there is to it. Or All right. Is it not that that would necessarily be desirable, but I’m wondering, is it even possible or have you found that that nine times out of 10, you know, you really need to have the political power, uh, in order to bring the landlords to the table as part of the equation?

[00:32:25] John Washington: Well, landlords are the most politically organized people. That there are, I mean, if you, if you look at, um, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA, all the alphabet soup, the way our, I mean, Henry Ford has this quote, like if everybody understood how our banking system worked, there’d be a revolution tomorrow. I feel that way about our banking system and that our housing system is like the insurance policy on our banking system.

[00:32:45] So housing is political. So me personally, like. I don’t, there are effective tenant unions that just do that. And I don’t want to like disparage them, but for me, like I do this work because housing is how racial capitalism is set up. And I don’t believe that we [00:33:00] can dismantle racial capitalism and therefore like the more human side of just like all of our ability to exist on this planet.

[00:33:06] Without it being political and without it being racial and without it being gendered, without it being very sharply explicitly about like, this isn’t just a housing, like, that’s what they want us to be like, Oh, like, this is just the numbers and how they work. If you ever looked at the numbers and housing, they don’t make any sense.

[00:33:20] Like, how does this appreciate in value every year, no matter what happens. And, um, so anyway, I think that. That you can be effective at winning building fights at that level, but ultimately landlords have already organized the federal government, state government, local government, planning boards, zoning boards, economic development.

[00:33:36] There are so many articulations of the power of landlords that are already in our government. We don’t even really even notice it. And then if you look at cities, most cities get 40 to 60, especially if they have black and Brown people in them, they are getting 40 to 60 percent of their budget from HUD.

[00:33:52] From ESG grants, from CDBG grants, you know, from all of these things. All of that, ultimately Is a slush fund for landlords [00:34:00] or to do work that, uh, creates the conditions the gentry wants, uh, so they can raise property values and therefore property taxes. So I think if you don’t come to the understanding that like your rent pays someone’s property taxes and that that money is actually paying, you know, is going against your own interests.

[00:34:17] I just don’t think that long term, what we’re trying to do can happen. Like, guaranteeing housing, getting social housing, taking over buildings at scale, and getting this government money to tenants, um, is not going to happen with that clarity. Can you win a building fight? Could you change a community?

[00:34:33] Absolutely. But I think it’s our belief that all of these things are inherently and deeply political, and the more we treat them as that, the more effective we can be. 

[00:34:42] William Lawrence: Right on. I agree. Labor organizers like to talk about supermajority support as kind of the necessary condition for going on strike, especially a militant strike, and see it through.

[00:34:54] You don’t just want 50%. You don’t want 70%. You want 50%. 90%. [00:35:00] Does that principle apply, um, in, uh, tenant organizing when you’re thinking about going on a rent strike or can a smaller number of tenants, um, still find a way to, to exert a lot of leverage? 

[00:35:14] John Washington: I think that what we’re doing right now is trying to exert the most leverage with the least people, to be totally honest.

[00:35:19] Like we want the most people, uh, but the reality is getting the small group of people that are going to do the thing to like do the thing better is actually like. where we build. And so I asked this question again, very situationally. So like if you have, you know, there’s, I’ve been, you know, in relationship with lots of folks who’ve gone on rent strike in New York city.

[00:35:36] And actually it’s one of the hardest places to do it because landlords are most prepared for it. Uh, it’s most possible. And there’s the most infrastructure around it. So if you have, you know, a building that has 500 people in it, Absolutely, you want 450 people, you want as many people as you can get. Then if you have a trailer park that’s got eight people in it, um, having four people say, no, we’re not feeling this, like, has an enormous impact.

[00:35:59] And that’s, [00:36:00] that’s, I think the part that we’re figuring out right now is that. We have a set of strategies and we have a lot of work that we’ve done and ways that we figured it out. And there are some times when those four people literally just asking for a meeting sends that landlord like through the roof.

[00:36:15] And there are times when we have an enormous amount of people and they’re like, what? What are you going to do on that connect? And that’s the difference between, you know, Kansas city, Chicago, Buffalo, Louisville, Bozeman, or, or places that, you know, I won’t even name because no one would recognize the name.

[00:36:29] So I think ultimately a lot of it, like you said, is about the target and the leverage that we have on the target and our understanding of it. And I think that’s a new thing for tenants because tenants believe, Oh yeah, I just, I deserve to live in a decent place. I don’t care who my landlord is, but who your landlord is really defines that.

[00:36:44] And so I think some might consider that reactionary, but I think it’s actually really important that we understand our target and how to move our target and what is actually going to make them afraid of us, uh, make them want to negotiate with us or want different outcomes than the ones that we can create.

[00:36:59] So [00:37:00] I would say that principle always applies that we want as much power as we can get, and also, Most tenants have never thought about this stuff ever. So sometimes just getting those four tenants that sit in that community room every Tuesday to say, we’re going to get four more and do a meeting, um, has, has been as effective in some cases as, as, you know, most of the building being ready to go based on the target, the conditions.

[00:37:23] Uh, and I think that’s also why the union is important, both the citywide union and the building union, because people are, this is also how unions develop. Right. Experienced union folks went to other places and said, Hey, you should try this. You should do this. We should build international labor relations schools.

[00:37:39] Right. I hope one day we have international tenant relations schools that are not as classist as the ones, as the allies we have, but that are like saying like, this is a thing, right? This is not just like, Oh, these poor tenants, we want them to do better, but actually this is like a fundamental way that we negotiate what our society looks like.

[00:37:56] So long ass. Yes. And. 

[00:37:59] William Lawrence: [00:38:00] We’ve been thinking about this a little bit in Lansing because, like, there have been some efforts at organizing, like, some, some really large buildings that were notoriously slummy and terrible landlords, but, you know, one of them has like 600 units in it, but it’s just tough, you know, they, they, they, they let, they’re happy to let 40 of these, uh, of these units sit red tagged for years on end because, um, they’ve, they’ve got enough revenue coming out of the complex otherwise.

[00:38:26] So, uh, when you’ve got a dozen tenants. Uh, it’s a little tough to, to, to kind of get their attention. At least that’s what people have found. And so we’ve been asking ourselves, uh, well, maybe, maybe we could try to find a, a smaller shop and, uh, where, uh, just for where our, frankly, where our organizing chops are, um, and our experience level, which is, which is not that great, we need to find some, some slightly smaller shops where we can, um, you know, bring, bring more power to the table and get to that negotiation stage that you’re talking about.

[00:38:58] John Washington: No, I think that’s, that’s absolutely real. [00:39:00] And, and I would love to get the address of this place because my bet is one of the reasons why they’re okay with that is that they’re getting a lot of subsidy. And if we start affecting the subsidy, um, that might be able to change some of the dynamic. And some of these places are just hard and we haven’t figured it out yet.

[00:39:13] I definitely don’t want to come out here. Like we’ve figured everything out. Um, but we have, we’re, we’re trying to do shit out of. 

[00:39:20] William Lawrence: Yeah, well, the research part of this is so important, I know, because every union worth its salt has a good research department. And based on what you’re saying, it sounds like that ought to be the case for tenants unions as well, because the kind of subsidy they’re getting, uh, where their finance comes from from the landlord perspective is of critical importance.

[00:39:39] John Washington: Absolutely. I mean, if they’re in a real estate investment trust and we’re at a shareholder meeting and we’re, you know, in, you know, the state house and we’re, we’re at the federal house, those, those things. Uh, are significant and and sometimes not even just the effect that we can have but just the idea from a strategic standpoint that like The landlord comes into a room full of people that know what they’re talking [00:40:00] about and know who they are I think totally changes the the dynamic because most landlords walk into a room and say, all right Here’s how things are gonna go right blah blah blah and when you can say actually let’s take a look at your books Let’s take a look at where you get your money from.

[00:40:12] Yeah. We only have 12 tenants here, but we’ve actually, you know, and really kind of doing that power analysis. So that’s the stuff that really excites me and excites me about, I think the cumulative kind of nature of organizing that, like. People don’t think things can be done until they get done. And so the more we do, the more tenants are coming to us, the more people are calling us up.

[00:40:31] And so I think you’re right. Like doing really well in a small shop and just showing folks like, Hey, it is actually possible to do this at this scale, uh, then helps people see, you know, what’s, what’s, what’s possible to do it at a larger scale. 

[00:40:45] William Lawrence: So I want to move into a couple of, um, Maybe more high level questions out of the organizing questions.

[00:40:50] You’ve alluded to this, but you know, since the 1930s, we’ve had the National Labor Relations Act, which creates the legal framework within which labor unions operate. And there’s been a mixed [00:41:00] result of that, and there are downsides. But one of the results is that it is quite clear what one needs to do in order to form a labor union, achieve recognition, exercise strike power, negotiate, win a contract.

[00:41:12] And that doesn’t mean it’s easy. But the win conditions are quite clear. It would seem that it, it’s a little bit less so, um, for tenants unions, um, because there’s no guiding legal framework, there isn’t, uh, an arbitration authority like the, uh, NLRB. And so it’s a bit more of like, uh, the wild west when it comes to the, the methods of forming a tenants union and then where that union finds its leverage and how it negotiates.

[00:41:40] Would you agree with that assessment or am I. overstating that somehow. 

[00:41:44] John Washington: Well, I just think that, um, one of the major differences is that like the labor market, like if, if you tried to do this, the strategies to build unions today that happened then, um, I don’t know how effective they would be. And I think that [00:42:00] like so much of our world is actually designed in reaction to the labor movement, civil rights movement, really like being very anti movement.

[00:42:07] So I think, and I also just think that sometimes we, we do this thing where, like, because the policy is powerful today, we forget that it was the practice of organizing and a negotiation that produced that policy. And actually there’s, there’s way more radical things that the folks who like started the NLRB, like wanted, wanted to do.

[00:42:25] So I think we like kind of separate, like we’re going to practice because we believe that practice and power are how we’re going to get what we want to get. And, and that actually, like, Those things are only going to happen when we do have, um, lots of people organizing and testing the limits of the existing system.

[00:42:41] Um, I think that there are a lot of thoughts and ideas about an office of tenant protections, uh, about different structures that are very similar. And I think that like, we’re going to have to do some new things in that, like just to your point about research, I mean, answering who owns a property is as difficult as a [00:43:00] landlord wants it to be.

[00:43:01] Right. I think actually Larry Fink is the largest property holder in the world. And, you know, on the books, you know, he, he makes a modest 22 million a year, and he has one or two properties in his own name and you, and you can’t really prove how much he actually owns and controls. So. I think that it’s really important that we are both hyper focused on like each individual situation and then pulling out of that situation, a story that’s like, what is the infrastructure we need to help people like relate back to that?

[00:43:31] And I think we’re in a 2023 is a time where there’s just so many different situations and dynamics. It is hard to like. Like, this is exactly the policy that we need. The one thing we do know is that the federal government subsidizes the majority of landlords, and they should have to, at the very least, offer tenants, The warranty of habitability, the basic things in order to do that.

[00:43:54] And I think from that point forward, we’ll grow. So I don’t want to go on and on, but I think the important thing is like, [00:44:00] like, are the individual tenants we work for all more powerful than they were the day that we met them and what can we learn from them about what needs to happen in the future are like the most important questions.

[00:44:10] And then the answers I think will. Look both similar and different to, to some of the arc of like national labor relations. And I’m excited also about working more with unions around that, because if you ask most of, we have so many people who come from unions and are just like, I work at a union, I’ve been negotiating my contracts, but like the rent is just going up so much faster than even like union organizing is able to maintain wages.

[00:44:33] That I think there’ll also be a point where we work together a lot more. I hope. 

[00:44:37] William Lawrence: So, uh, you know, If something like an Office of Tenant Protection would be like, that’s like the compromise bureaucratic solution, you know, if we if we were to ever be be one. What is like the political horizon that’s above and beyond that?

[00:44:52] Do you think tenants should be, you know, Uh, should be fighting for. I mean, is it something around land reform? I [00:45:00] mean, looking at these issues, you start to think about land use, how, how much of this whole system is designed to prop up private property ownership, how unquestionable it is that private property ownership is allowed to exist.

[00:45:11] Yeah. Yeah. Continue and that our municipal governments go to so much effort to package and site potential developments only to give them away pretty much with no strings attached back to the private sector so that they can just achieve more lucrative profits on it. I mean, this is stuff that has been really radicalizing for me to really look at and understand more deeply, even in my local situation.

[00:45:33] You know, working on climate, I thought that I was radical and I saw some pretty horrific things, but something about looking at these housing issues. Landlord and tenancy really goes right to the heart of these property relations in a way that is deeply disturbing, but also enlightening. So if our goal is to be highlighting this situation, um, to the greatest extent possible through the, you know, immediate struggles that people are facing around their, their, their housing [00:46:00] access and housing security.

[00:46:01] Yeah. What, what’s like the, the big horizon, uh, in terms of what we actually deserve, um, that we ought to be fighting for? 

[00:46:08] John Washington: Um, the big horizon is social housing. You know, the, just the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is 150 billion a year. Um, that’d be enough to, you know, socialize 20 million units. And that’s, that’s yearly, right?

[00:46:18] And we, we put that in every single year to maintain profits. And so I think that there is more than enough money. There are more than enough buildings. There’s more than enough space and there’s more than enough people who are actually willing to do the work of maintaining community. I think, you know, when you do this work, you also see like there’s a Mr.

[00:46:34] Fix It in every building that’s helping everyone. Who, who the, the super won’t fix. Or, you know, you, you also see that like, we can do this. And in fact, we’re doing an enormous amount of labor to maintain where we live. And that’s a big part of patriarchy and our disconnection from the reproductive labor and from like, you know, and just the ways, you know, to me, this is all just like how capitalists have commodified it.

[00:46:55] Right. We all want to garden. We all want to make food for each other. We all want to do these things, but they make a home [00:47:00] depot and, uh, you know, target and all these other ways. So for me, the long term vision is that the federal government’s resources that are ours be entirely put in the hands of tenants, um, and that tenants run their own spaces.

[00:47:12] And that doesn’t mean every single tenant is totally responsible for every single building. Cause I know plenty of people in Buffalo in the BMHA. where there’s three or four guys would say, Hey, we would take care of you. Just, you know, you just gave us some, some, some pizza and beer. We would take care of this entire building and just the resources to do it.

[00:47:28] So I have this like, you know, beloved community, you know, very Dr. King inspired vision of. Of a place where we all get to dictate the terms of where we live and we get the resources to do that. And we also get to choose how our labor relates to, to where we live together. And I think the beautiful part is it’s already happening.

[00:47:48] It happens, but we have these barriers. We have these limits, these dynamics that really keep us from investing in each other. Um, and I think at its best, when I’ve seen this work work, well, it’s been able to create these [00:48:00] like little bubbles, uh, outside of. Of capitalism, where people really are working together to maintain their space.

[00:48:06] And when people can do that, even if it gets taken away, you can see that they’re stronger people. Like you can just see the wheels turn differently. They look at things and life differently. And my hope is that that’s how we get to, you know, climate catastrophe. And some of these larger things is that if we actually own and control and feel real power over our homes, we can start to say, okay, then what happens around our homes and around these other concentric circles, and just recognize that.

[00:48:30] There is a real intrinsic relationship between, uh, the oil industry, the housing, you know, market, and that, like, there’s a, you know, from, from Rockefeller to J. P. Moore, and there’s a crew of people, you know, in the early 1900s who really planned out all the ways that we’re gonna live, right? Um, that, that destroyed electric cars in our city, that destroyed the, so it’s like the same people.

[00:48:52] Destroyed so many of the visions that we’re kind of alluding to. And, and they, they, they came together, right. They were, you know, they were not necessarily all [00:49:00] the way in each other’s interest, but they had a really bold vision for like, what if everybody drives cars and lives in individual houses in the suburbs and the federal government.

[00:49:08] pays for it all. Like that is a wild and crazy vision. And I think that we can have a similar one of like, what if we live in cities where all those choices are all up to actually the people who live in those cities. And then they’re up to the people who live in those neighborhoods. And so I think when you get down to like doing one on ones, like that’s what people really want.

[00:49:26] Because they want choices and options and the ability to negotiate them themselves without someone else coming and just wiping it or snatching it all away. And so I think the vision is social housing, but I don’t, the way that that word has been played with now and all the reports and stuff that are going on about that, social housing is you getting to decide what the fuck you want, Where the fuck you live with the people that you care about.

[00:49:47] And yes, all the technical stuff is really important, but I just want to make sure that like, it is not a lefty theoretical concept. It is actual like genuine community. And the fact that our government right now is paying for us to be out of community. And I think [00:50:00] we can fix that. 

[00:50:01] William Lawrence: Well, and the foundation I’m hearing also is, is the homes guarantee.

[00:50:05] That’s the foundation of social housing is that everyone is guaranteed the ability to have, uh, Uh, to have housing. And then you get to determine the terms or maybe the exact kind of situation that you want to be in. But no one is going to be unhoused. 

[00:50:21] John Washington: Absolutely. And no one is going to be told how to be housed, right?

[00:50:24] Like that’s, that’s the part where there’s some people like, yeah, everybody will be housed. But there’s not a lot of people who are like and housed how they want to be housed. 

[00:50:32] William Lawrence: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. I don’t know if we all get to be housed in the McMansion in the suburbs. That would maybe be the exception there.

[00:50:40] There are certain aspects of the American dream that need to die. Oh. But, uh, maybe that’s another episode. Uh, so then something I’ve, I, I see locally and I also have, um, observed in other contexts, I think, including in some of the work that you’ve been a part of in, in Buffalo is that for tenant, um, and housing advocacy [00:51:00] organizations, there’s a temptation to want to become a low income housing provider.

[00:51:04] And I, I see this come up all the time in conversations here in Lansing, you know, land is available, old buildings are available, there’s such a crisis with it. Uh, access to affordable housing. It’s very tempting to say, Okay, we’re going to do this on our own terms. We can do better by our people than a corporate landlord will do.

[00:51:22] But then this also comes with risks of, you know, turning into a service provision organization rather than a tenant power organization. What can you say based on it? Your own experience and things you’ve seen elsewhere about kind of the ups and downs of, of that question and what would you say to folks who are asking this question for themselves now, if they should get into that side of it?

[00:51:46] John Washington: Yeah. Um, I mean, this is why we do this work. Um, the low income housing tax credit is a, is a tax credit, right? That’s its primary purpose. And. In order, I mean, if you look at the deals that get cut, I know them [00:52:00] about them in New York state, probably more than anywhere else. Uh, but there’s some fundamental core to the deal that you cut, uh, when you get that money.

[00:52:07] The first is that you get a developer fee. Right. Um, and so that developer fee is like theoretically supposed to be like a loan loss reserve or something that you kind of keep aside in case there are no fundamental things that are, that are wrong with the house. You also are agreeing that you are accepting the area median income.

[00:52:23] You’re accepting a range of that area median income. That’s actually been more negotiable lately. That’s like one of the liberal things that’s been happening lately is like, just because if you look at the Bay and Atlanta and certain places, like the numbers are just like so crazy. That there is some adjustment, but you have to accept an income range.

[00:52:40] And you have to accept that people are going to get evicted if they don’t fit that income range. And I think decertification, uh, they, those are like, aren’t familiar with it. Like whenever you’re part of any kind of public resource, unless you’re a capitalist, you have to do this thing called recertification, where you are saying, I received this service.

[00:52:57] Like I applied for it. I received it. My [00:53:00] economic condition are still the same. And what I saw is that. I actually could, in housing court, prevent an eviction easier than I could prevent someone being displaced because of a low income housing tax credit recertification, right? Because it’s actually part of the deals.

[00:53:14] You say, we’re going to certify everybody twice a year, and if they don’t meet this income range again, and what happens with poor people, right? You get a job, you lose a job, you have a kid, your kid moves out, your friend wants to move in with you because they don’t have a place to stay. So if the purpose for me was affordable housing, was stability, uh, was community, then I would It absolutely does not provide that.

[00:53:34] And for the people who does, they have to do an enormous amount of work and really has these tropes about people lying on their food stamp, but it’s just like, if you literally are living in a house for six months and then you say, Oh man, I just got a job that paid me 4 an hour better. Then. Not lying says, okay, well now I got my 4 an hour job before I have any time to accumulate any of the money that might give me a decent place.

[00:53:57] I’ve got to move out of this place. And so I [00:54:00] think like anybody who’s interested in that, read the contracts, read the deal that you’re cutting, understand it. If you don’t want to, I’d be happy to talk to you about it. Um, and train other people to talk to about it because again, there’s this assumption that like affordable is good, but it’s like affordable for who?

[00:54:14] And then it’s for the working class. Well, the working class is not what it was in 1968 when, when, when these numbers were created and the adjustment mechanisms for inflation are, are, are just ridiculous. So ultimately when you become a low income housing provider, your, your job, you’re on the hook for protecting your assets.

[00:54:33] And you’re on the hook for maintaining the structure that the federal government gave you to get those tax credits. So to me, I think that there are other ways that we can acquire housing. And I think that’s why I’m really interested in Freddie May, Fannie Mac and in the, in the, because. The income is a very limiting thing.

[00:54:51] And then the choices, you don’t have a lot of choices about how low income housing is built. People in the, you know, I was told like, Oh, you get to be a community development organizer. You can help these people decide [00:55:00] like how their community is going to look. That plan has already been made. Uh, it’s been made, it’s been zoned and there’s so many limitations on it.

[00:55:06] I think those limitations can and should be challenged and I’m down to help anybody else do that. But for me. Getting groups of tenants clear on how to get their interest in that is actually at the root of it. The rest is like the tactical reactions we have to what’s on there. And that’s what wasn’t happening.

[00:55:22] A lot of these organizations, that’s what’s not happening. Uh, in most affordable housing situations is you’re not getting tenants. You know, people teach them about their rights, but that’s all their own responsibility and that’s all about court. It’s not about how did this place get here, right? Who paid for it?

[00:55:36] Who, who do you have leverage over? Who’s getting credit for it now? And ultimately It’s a huge tax break, right? So like at the other end of it. So i’m getting a developer fee and my developer fee is 15 to 20 percent of the project total project costs And then that that is part of a tax break. We actually both have an incentive to inflate the value of what’s there, right?

[00:55:58] So that’s why you’re starting to see these like [00:56:00] 300 400 million dollar affordable housing projects because that means The people who purchase those tax credits get 400 million dollars off in tax credits It means the developer of it gets 15 for 20 of it off the rip And that goes to an organization that could be private, could be public.

[00:56:14] So there’s a lot of hustle. To our housing market. There’s a lot of ways to make enormous amounts of money. And then there’s a lot of deals that you don’t realize you’re cutting until you have a tenant in crisis. And you say, Oh, do I own this building? So I should be able to do this. And then they’re like, actually, if you look at this.

[00:56:32] 182 page contract that we signed until these tax credits have energized until all the capitalists have gotten all their benefits out of them. You actually have to keep it this way. And then the day that they, that they’re not like that, now you have to pay full price and your tenants have to pay full price.

[00:56:46] So to me, it’s kind of this like really interesting setup. Um, that. Along with the, you know, 1986, uh, you know, creating 501 C one, two, three, you know, the whole range, you know, it was an interesting political deal where it’s like, [00:57:00] okay, fine. You guys want some housing? Cool. We’re just gonna benefit more from it.

[00:57:04] And that’s how politics works. And I think we’ve just, because some people don’t look at moments like that and don’t study them and actually look at like what happened here, then it just becomes all affordable housing is a good thing. We should all fight for affordable housing. And I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing, but it is the results.

[00:57:17] Of landlords running our economy. Um, and, and not actually doing what’s in the interest of, of a individual tenant, but in what’s kind of theoretically in the interest of like, Oh yeah, affordable housing helps tenants. Well, talk to people who live in affordable housing and they will tell you that it helped them for a moment, but, but long term it did not provide what social housing could.

[00:57:38] William Lawrence: It seems like housing security is a principle that we really ought to be emphasizing rather than affordability, because affordability is something that can show up in an index and we say, okay, there’s X amount of affordable housing in this city, but you’ve just identified all the ways in which that’s not actually providing the housing on a durable basis that people, [00:58:00] especially poor people actually need.

[00:58:01] So the question is. About security. Do you have housing now? But also, will you? Do you have the confidence that you’ll be able to have it next month, next year and on into the future? Let’s let’s index that. I would love to see that. All right. So, um, uh, I just have two more questions, um, by way of conclusion.

[00:58:20] Are there tendencies or behaviors out there in the tenant organizing world that you think are barriers that we need to dispense with or move or overcome in order to, um, build the kind of tenant power movement that we need to see? 

[00:58:37] John Washington: Absolutely. Uh, I think the number one is, is Training and leadership development.

[00:58:43] Like I met you at a week long, however many years ago, 2014, 2014. Yeah. That’s been, it’s, you know, we sure we could go for hours on both of our personal journeys of what we’ve learned, but I think the biggest barrier is actually [00:59:00] patience. Right. And the patience and the willingness to do the leadership development work that we understand is effective at doing, you know, not just a one on one, but really like the goal of understanding people’s self interests and actually figuring out.

[00:59:14] Is this person actually interested in this work? Not like, are they a person that I can convince because they have similar ideas, but like, are they in their gut about what we’re doing here? And I think that’s hard because people put up a lot of barriers to that, right? Um, because showing up in your gut in daily life in 2023 is a quick way to get fired, arrested, all, all the things.

[00:59:36] And so I think really at the root of it, I’ve got all these technical answers, but like most people are not doing this from their guts. And they’re not doing this about themselves. They’re doing it about ideas. They’re doing it about abstract futures. They’re in, and those things are good. Believe me, I’m an Afrofuturist and a big nerd.

[00:59:52] I think about that stuff all the time. But when it comes to having a meeting in a building, like I’m not thinking about these questions. Like I think, you know, [01:00:00] there’s somewhere in the back there, but it’s like, who are these people? What do they want? How did they get here? And what are actually their barriers to being as powerful as they could be?

[01:00:10] Um, and as they want to be. And so I think that element of like, people actually want to be more powerful and not this liberal, like, Oh, these poor people who are all victims of capitalism, like let’s gather them all and like run a campaign where we’re, you know, You know, we’re moving a target, but we’re actually not changing the way that people think and feel about their own lives, their experience and how the world works.

[01:00:32] And so to me, I think what has made our work really powerful and special is that, you know, our team, every organization that we work with is made a real commitment to being patient. With leaders to moving at the speed of trust to, you know, obviously there’s always going to be things you have to do, but when you meet that person and you have those moments, like you have to treat those things as sacred, uh, because we’re not going to figure all this out all at once.

[01:00:55] Um, but we’re going to get a lot better at it. The more people we have to figure it out with us. And I [01:01:00] feel like really good about, you know, the a hundred folks that we just brought for our tenant takeover. I feel really great about, you know, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve done a lot of national work, a lot of coalition work across the board in a lot of different ways.

[01:01:11] But I feel so good about what we’re doing because I genuinely believe that we have like teams of people around the country that are deeply interested in getting better and getting more clear about how to develop other people’s leadership. And so all that other stuff is going to get figured out as long as people don’t stop developing leaders and also Are willing to actually like negotiate with leaders and have them do things you don’t want to do or you don’t think is strategic as long as there’s an actual relationship and conversation.

[01:01:39] And I think a lot of we’ve got a lot of very professional technical folks. We’ve got a lot of commies who, you know, want to explore. blame and share their communism with the world. And to me, you know, while I believe in all those things, I’m actually like really obsessed with material conditions with like a group of people in a building with a person [01:02:00] and their situations.

[01:02:00] And I think like what I find is often people want me and other people at this level of work to give them like a playbook, to like, give them like quick rapid answers and say, well, if we just got everybody on the same page, right? What would we do? And it’s like, no, getting everyone on the same page, like is the doing like is the practice of, of what we need to do.

[01:02:20] And so I would just say this, like stop poaching people, stop hiring people, stop hiring people. They’re not training them. Um, stop having jobs as executive directors if you don’t really want them because you’re just scared of things, you know, bad things happening. Like I, like we need people to develop people, uh, because it is not in our interest.

[01:02:40] How this world works. It’s not in the majority of our interests. And so I believe that if we just. Take the time to actually help people understand what’s in their interests and give them a little bit of the tools they need to get it. This organizing thing works and I just feel like so many people who I hear talk about it don’t actually believe in it and aren’t willing to take the risk of not doing a thing [01:03:00] sometimes, of not looking the coolest, of not sounding the smartest, and of just like being a real person with some other real people figuring some things out.

[01:03:07] And I feel like if we had more folks who are willing to do that, I think a lot more leadership development would happen and therefore we’d have a lot more sustainable organizations. less of this like kind of like professional gamesmanship of like what the future of our world is going to look like.

[01:03:22] William Lawrence: You’re getting me fired up. Um, leadership development is like is like our theme for 2024 here in Michigan. Um, so, um, let’s build something, let’s do it. Um, so with that all in mind, um, just to close this out, why don’t you just give us an optimistic account of how, uh, the tenant movement, uh, over the next decade or so, and what role it can play in a, you know, broader left progressive front that’s, um, fighting for everything we deserve.

[01:03:51] John Washington: Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, uh, snatch, but, uh, one of my favorite characters of all time is bulletproof. Tony never underestimate the predictability of stupidity. The American [01:04:00] housing system is going to continue to double, double down on what it’s been doing, which is costing an exponentially more money to produce the same things.

[01:04:07] And I ultimately think that we saw in 2008, what we saw in 2020, uh, which while other people might see them as really bad things, where there’s a combination of those things that are always happening, the housing market is always collapsing. And there’s a set of people who are on an unintentional rent strike, an unable rent strike.

[01:04:23] Right. And so I just think that over, regardless of what, What we do here over the course of the next 30 years, this is contradiction is going to get more and more intense and people are going to organize themselves around it. My hope is that we can share the experience that we have and the methodology that we have, but it’s going to happen.

[01:04:41] Uh, people are not going to be able to pay the rent. The rent is only going to get higher similar to the, uh, I think they call it the lag effect of the Aleppo effect, right? We actually haven’t seen the scale. Of inflation, um, that we should have because of the subsidy. And so, you know, I feel like a lot of these, there’s some [01:05:00] economic stalling that’s going on until after the next presidential election, but I think stuff is going to get bad and as it gets bad, tenants are going to be more and more interested in building power.

[01:05:08] More of those tenants are going to build power. And I think right now we have a land. If you look at Congress, everyone in Congress owns land. Everyone is either invested in a real estate investment trust, or they have a multifamily property. And there was this multifamily movement and the tenant union is going to be the reaction to the multifamily movement.

[01:05:26] And I think the more and more I see big amounts of money being dumped into making homeownership more affordable and accessible, the more also we’re going to see foreclosures and more of the awareness of, of the bank tenant. And then as, as these, these communities. need more and more money. Property taxes are still the driving force of most of the local politics.

[01:05:47] And so, um, as the housing market collapses, it, it, one of the major reasons that they bailed all of our governments out, uh, was because if we don’t have a housing market, we don’t have a property tax base and this country cannot function. And so I [01:06:00] think housing is the infrastructure of racial capitalism.

[01:06:02] It is slowly being picked apart by its own hubris, by its own arrogance. Uh, and I think All of us operating out of our interests can lead us to a point where the only choice that they have to maintain a society is actually to take the money out of that they’ve been dumping on landlords out of the hands of landlords and give them to well organized people.

[01:06:21] And I don’t, I don’t want to say that you just throw it at everybody. Um, but to well organized people who’ve been doing the work and who’ve been clear and developing leaders. I believe that regardless of our policy outlook, piece by piece. Tenants are going to start taking that piece of this country. And my hope is that if we do that in combination with a powerful, like political methodology, uh, that we can exert the power and will that landlords have over this country as tenants, uh, and hopefully, uh, keep a place for human beings to exist for the next, uh, in perpetuity ad nauseum or whatever they say in those legal documents.

[01:06:54] William Lawrence: Sounds good. Uh, let’s build power. John, this has been really great. I appreciate your time and I’m [01:07:00] definitely going to follow up about, um, getting you linked up with, um, our tenants movement here in Michigan. 

[01:07:05] John Washington: Awesome. Awesome. Thanks so much for having me.

[01:07:10] William Lawrence: This podcast is written and hosted by me, William Lawrence. Our producer is Josh Elstro, and it is published by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. You can help support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon subscriber of Convergence for as low as 2 per month at patreon. com slash ConvergenceMag.

[01:07:30] You can find a direct link in the show notes. This has been the Hegemonicon. Let’s talk again soon.

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