Eviction Defense in Brooklyn

Image by Jon Tyson.

Tenants in New York City are having a difficult time finding a place to live. In May 2022, the median rent in Manhattan reached $4,000. And other boroughs aren’t faring any better. The median rent in Brooklyn sits at around $3,300, and in Queens, a tenant can expect to pay around $2,500. Added to this is a vacancy rate of 4.54%, with 354,000 units that are vacant but not available to rent. And the lower the rent, the lower the vacancy rate. Just 1 percent of apartments listed below $1,500 were vacant. But, this shouldn’t be read as a weather report—where the working class stands idly by as they are subjected to the whims of the market. No, rising rents in New York City are the logical consequence of a capitalist system rearing its ugly head.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to all of this, with mass unemployment in 2020 and 2021 signaling capitalism’s inability to handle a public health crisis. 7 in 10 renters who were behind on rent lost income during the pandemic. And to make matters worse, the overall number of renters behind on payments doubled. To ‘assist,’ the Federal government initiated its Emergency Rental Assitance program and the National Eviction Moratorium. And yet, renters were still illegally evicted by landlords. Whether that was locking residents out of their homes, illegally denying services, or harassment of a different kind, landlords abused residents’ vulnerable position in a public health crisis to consolidate their wealth.

Yet, it was precisely because of this crisis that Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED) found its start. After the June 2020, Black Lives Matter protests and rising discontent in Brooklyn, an illegal eviction at 1214 Dean St. and a subsequent ‘eviction defense’ led to a loose coalition of residents, activists, and organizers. From there, Brooklyn Eviction Defense would coalesce into an autonomous collective, providing support to residents in Brooklyn and across New York City, including at Eric Adam’s illegal housing sweep of “Anarchy Row” in Thompkins Square Park. What follows is a conversation between Theia Chatelle and Brooklyn Eviction Defense on their vision, impact, and desire for a revolutionary future.

*Interview has been edited for clarity.

Theia: In your Points of Unity, you say, “Our most practical line of work is stopping evictions. This begins with a material analysis of our conditions, which produces a necessary diversity of tactics. These include strategic struggle within the “normal” arenas people are expected to fight for their housing, such as within the courts and the bureaucratic mazes.” How have your “tactics” changed as, at least in the words of Anthony Fauci, the United States is “out of the pandemic phase?”

BED: The “end” of the pandemic does not come at a time of decreased COVID-19 spread or increased safety for workers, schoolchildren, or the general public. Instead, the “end” of the

pandemic has been manufactured in large part through coercion and violence, starting with the rolling back of pandemic protection against eviction and other social welfare programs like PUA. The “return to normal” marked by the end of the eviction moratorium is nothing but a return to business as usual – we ask, what is “normal” about people being forcibly thrown from their homes along with all of their belongings in the middle of what is still uncontrolled COVID-19 spread? The pandemic is ongoing, but the sociopolitical reality of “normal” is being produced through the state’s violent enforcement of private profit.

Though our tactics have shifted a bit, ERAP is an artifact now; the legal, marshal-executed eviction mill is churning swiftly in NYC–it’s more that we as an organization have sharpened our analysis and consciously reoriented our program towards building power. This doesn’t mean our tactics or the terrains in which we’re intervening change dramatically–we are still fighting evictions in the street, in buildings big and small, in the eviction mill at 141 Livingston St.–rather, we are understanding these struggles less as isolated incidents and more in terms of a broader class struggle, and more particularly a ceaseless war waged on working-class New York. This has meant that we are doing more prefigurative organizing: such as building out tenant associations (TAs) while integrating the TA members into our organization.

This sort of work, which we have always done but are doing more now, makes other forms of eviction defense–the blockades, the shame campaigns–less organizationally draining and also less sporadic and disconnected from the other daily struggles of the tenancy. Related but adjacent, we’ve held political education workshops historicizing and interrogating the COVID-19 pandemic and, out of this, have developed a really comprehensive COVID protocol for the organization. This stems, just as our eviction defense work, from collective analysis of the violence that racial capitalism produces.

The distinction between small landlords and corporate monopoly landlords breaks down at the level of everyday violence and exploitation that the tenant faces. With the looming threat of eviction-death dangled over their head by the propertied-class, tenants are coerced out of their hard-earned labor by a rent check each month — the hand that takes it (big, small, black, or white) doesn’t make the violence any less palatable. Anecdotally, we have seen some of the most gruesome acts of abuse come from small landlords. A BED member was almost killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in her landlord’s illegal and poorly ventilated basement apartment. Just last week we rolled up to her block with red flags and 50 comrades ready to take action in a language the slumlord could understand. The logic of private property turns all those who profit off housing into parasites willing to do anything to extract at a minimal cost. It costs money to go to court, hire lawyers, and wait out a rent strike. This is why violence, intimidation, harassment, and repairs negligence appeal so much to the propertied class — it costs them virtually nothing and it rarely goes prosecuted by the comprador courts.

Theia: Why New York City? And why ‘eviction defense’? Your Points of Unity describes BED as “a revolutionary organization whose horizon is the abolition of evictions, rent, and private property.” Explain your strategy as it pertains to a broader revolutionary movement.

BED: Housing is the start and end of any revolutionary project, particularly in this contemporary moment. This is revealed, among other places, in the tension between, on one hand, real estate being the single largest’ industry’ in the world and, on the other, housing and home being both a universal need and universal site of daily struggle. New York City is the real estate center of the world; ours is a city full of empty skyscrapers and overcrowded eviction courts. We understand that the former–these empty skyscrapers used as piggy banks by foreign

and domestic capital–requires and reproduces the latter. That is, the concentrated accumulation of capital can only ever come through the dispossession of the masses. How and where this

dispossession occurs varies.

In New York City, right now and regarding tenants, we see it in the 200,000+ people on the cusp of legal (marshal-executed) eviction but also in those facing unfathomable (50-100%!) rent hikes; we see it in the cyclical and fascist sweeps of our homeless neighbors and also the rash of small landlords claiming that their families are ‘moving in’ and that buildings-full of tenants must leave. But, super importantly, the dispossession that fuels the accumulation of capital that then resides coldly on billionaire’s row is not confined to the local; rather, the brunt of the extraction is more explicitly imperial, that is the neocolonial projects that dispossess and redispossess workers around the globe, concentrated particularly in the Global South. We say this not just to preach or to show off our analysis, but rather because it’s imperative to understand the connection, and thus imperative solidarity, between tenants across the world. We strive towards, truly, an anti-imperialist tenant movement.

The contemporary housing market, and particularly the financialization of housing, represents the truest expression of the contradiction between use-value and exchange value–between the actual practical use of a commodity (a home) and its financial character. The contradiction is what tenants must live with – never-ending rental payments that do nothing but increase over time, made to faceless (and often nameless) Landlords/LLCs, who demand payment and disappear any time repairs must be made or issues addressed. Meanwhile, the tenants tend to their apartments and make them into homes. Tenants create relationships in their neighborhoods and buildings that can’t always be severed by eviction papers. The courts and eviction marshalls ignore this reality because they only exist to enforce the property relationship between landlords and tenants. On the other hand, we can stop evictions by tapping into those networks, activating people’s solidarity, and forcing this contradiction into the public narrative around evictions.

The contradictions, here in New York City but also because of the globalized nature of financialized real estate across the world, is sharpening. This understandably has had multiform effects: the explosion of tenant organizing, the rapid deterioration of tenant quality of life across the globe, the increased volatility in housing markets, and also the hegemonic profits of real estate. These dialectically interact and make home, housing, the apartment building, the hyper-local, the block into primary sites of struggle. As these contradictions sharpen–as historical cycles of financialization suggest they might–the power that organized tenants wield will blossom: a city-wide rent-strike in the real estate epicenter of a globally integrated economy hinged upon speculative profits perilously erected on top of real estate value is a tremendous tool.

Theia: As an ‘autonomous collective’ using ‘consensus decision making,’ how does BED work across intersectional lines, especially as it relates to TGNC, disabled, and BIPOC individuals?

BED: We believe in centering the tenants who have the most at stake in our fight. Centering means always taking the lead from long-standing tenants, elders, disabled tenants, immigrants, Black and brown people, as leaders. The work we do, the solidarity we provide, and the community we build, organize primarily around the lives of the demographics listed above. One of our guiding principles is that the tenant is in control of the process. No matter what. We do not decide for them what is right. They share a lived experience, a conscious understanding of the

antagonisms they face and we offer our organization’s strategy and tactics, our theory of change, and from there the tenant has primary decision-making power. Because of a lived experience, an organic revolutionary perspective, our approach is given a richer nuance. It is with this nuance we go forward in creating a world that illuminates, rather than invisibilizes, the marginalized in order to uplift and transform the housing problem.

What is the housing problem? It’s racial capitalism–the historical regime we live under is racial capitalism. Capital, and particularly real estate, require, produce and exploit differentiation. White supremacy is drawn in the lines of every map of every neighborhood in New York City. The built environments on top of those maps–and their various violent hostilities–are not a natural phenomenon but rather historically-contingent products of historical developments. That means that the violence that our disabled comrades face both within their apartments and in their apartment buildings is not natural or just the way it is, but a built reality produced in accordance with the arrangement of social relations, including wage labor, and financial capital, and imperialism. These social relations did not always exist and can and will be revolutionized.

Theia: Lastly, how do y’all see BED relating and interacting with the different tenant and housing organizations across NYC?

BED: The constraint put on non-profit housing organizations and coalitions, by their boards of directors and quarterly deliverables, make them difficult to work with. Some may even have parents or adjacent organizations which build and manage property (landlords!). We will never compromise our project, purpose or messaging for the sake of a coalition with liberals.

That being said, we love our comrades in autonomous organizations — free of donors, boards and paid staff —across the city. Shoutout to all the tenant unions, to the Crown Heights

Tenant Union, to Ridgewood TU, to Sunset Park TU, Tenant Union Flatbush. We build power with them, we fight landlords with them.

But it’s beyond just other tenant unions–it’s community organizations, and neighborhood collectives, communist organizations, tenant associations, art collectives; our Points of Unity make it fairly manageable to navigate who we work with, and how. Building power: that is the project at hand, and the more we grow and the more we connect the more power there is to build. This extends to all tenants, and to all organized tenants. This extends to all people whose full humanity is suppressed under the weight of capital. Go talk to your neighbors — if your landlord is making your life miserable, chances are they’re doing the same to other folks in your building. Build a tenant association, connect with your local housing justice organization, and get involved with BED. There are over five million renters in New York City, and if we are sufficiently coordinated, we could shut the whole City down.

Our Points of Unity are a concise expression of our politics and our program. We struggled over them for a few months and in many meetings, democratically and collectively. They represent the parameters of our work and allow us to navigate terrains and conflicts with principle. We use these Points of Unity as a reference for critique (internal, intra-organizational and inter-organizational); they allow us, through critique, to sharpen our analysis and our interventions. They make up a living document, subject to the democratic will of the organization’s membership. Brooklyn Eviction Defense is a revolutionary organization whose horizon is the abolition of evictions, rent, and private property. This horizon requires the abolition of prisons and police. The world in which these conditions are possible is classless and free of oppression — communism.

Our most practical line of work is stopping evictions. This begins with a material analysis of our conditions, which produces a necessary diversity of tactics. These include strategic struggle within the “normal” arenas people are expected to fight for their housing, such as within the courts and the bureaucratic mazes. That said, we know that the best form of eviction defense is a well-organized community. The above Points of Unity provide the organization a functional basis for principled critique both within the organization and externally — as well as a guideline for receiving critique. Through critique and democracy we put our Points of Unity — our program and our principles — into practice. Members are expected to accept these points of unity but agreement is not mandatory. Members should not work against the guiding principles of our POU. Instead, through participatory democracy and debate we can decide as a collective to revise or add to these points.

Theia Chatelle is an FGLI student at Yale University, studying English. She currently works at A Public Space.