Editor’s note: This essay is part of our two-week blog series, featuring eight autoethnographies from students at Brooklyn College. Read the introduction to the series here, written by Professors Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell. Follow this link to read all the essays in the series.
The morning of July 7th, the slumlords came with their family and entered rooms in the home where tenants of 1214 Dean Street were living, demanding previous months’ rent and later attempting to illegally evict them. They cut off the tenants’ wifi, they paid for a Uhaul, and removed the tenants’ possessions from the home without their consent. The tenants reached out to local grassroots community organizations to support them with eviction defense and mobilization. An hour or two later, there were dozens of people gathered on the sidewalk in front of their home, defending the tenants.
When I arrived to help with on the ground organizing, I didn’t recognize the faces of any of the leaders that night except two, whom I had met through mutual friends a few days prior. I later spoke to them, asking how they started to lead. They told me they saw the Instagram post and ran down here to protect the tenants. The led fiercely the first night. I couldn’t express my gratitude for them, as regular concerned neighbors, but also as Black, long-time/ life-long residents of the city. Later that night, two unknown men pulled up to the house in a car and attempted to rush into the home. Luckily, the door was locked before they could try to enter. People created a chain with our bodies in front of the door to stop the men from breaking in and entering. The men later left, everyone was unharmed.
For the next week, we organized shifts for people and stay in the front yard of the tenants. We stayed every day all day from Tuesday until Friday morning. People stayed in shifts and slept in the living room, as well as outside. There was a surplus of food and PPE. Many people just ordered food from local restaurants and had it delivered to the home. People came with masks, gloves, toilet paper, folding chairs, and much more to donate to our efforts. Even after people who supported and tenants took what they wanted, there was a huge surplus to be donated and redistributed. Eventually, there was so much food that even local community fridges were full, and food had to be given away on the street to people and donated to other places, like a shelter that was nearby.
This eviction blockade is an example of the response to evictions of Black queer residents of the city. Because of the pandemic and the ruthlessness of the landlord during this time, people are mobilizing intensely to stop evictions and support residents. However, what we’re seeing now is a new wave of people organizing solely around eviction defense because of Covid-19. While this organizing is not completely new and necessary, there are some gaps that need to be acknowledged within the growing movement. The centering of the Black queer, trans, femme, disabled, low-income, and immigrant experience should be mandatory for this movement because they are the people who have been and continue to be most heavily impacted by evictions. For insight, we can look at 1214 Dean Street. While seven tenants lived in the home, at the time of the illegal eviction only four tenants remained. Within the next few days, only two tenants remained, who were both Black, queer, and women/ Femmes. They did not have the financial ability to move immediately, they did not have resources that could’ve helped them escape that living situation at that time. The living situation is a result of structural and systematic limitations of living in NYC when you’re Black, queer, and femme or a woman.
#CancelRent is a growing movement pressuring the government to stop rent payments from tenants to landlords. Since people have already stopped paying rent because they literally cannot pay, there have been massive rent strikes, both organized and unorganized. It only makes sense that people are not punished for not being able to afford rent after losing their jobs because a global pandemic broke out. However, what the people received was an eviction moratorium from Governor Cuomo and NY state chief administrative Judge Marks, which was originally until August 1st, but has now been extended to October. This moratorium has put a hold on the housing court, which means that landlords cannot start a legal eviction process for tenants; this all means that it should be completely illegal to evict tenants during the pandemic. While this movement is calling for a change that would require legislative change, what the movement is really striving for is organizing and mobilizing in a “take the street” style. The bottom line for tenants and tenant organizers is not paying rent, period. This escalated approach is reflected in eviction defense responses, where people are refusing to allow harassment and eviction to go unnoticed. But as we know, this is a new movement that was jump started because of the pandemic. While people have incorporated the history of evictions and landlord harassment, because this movement started as a response to a very unique occurrence, the pandemic, is centered. Systematic housing issues faced folks who are most impacted by landlord violence every day, and their history of resistance in response has not been given the proper credit as a necessary framework.
As of May 1st, the unemployment rate in NYC was 18.1%, although possibly being higher, which is unknown because the city doesn’t recognize every form of employment. In New York City, 46% of people face the risk of eviction. In a report from the Ali Forney Center, studies have shown that LGBT youth make up to 40% of the already homeless youth in NYC. The study also shows that LGBTQ street youth experience greater levels of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking violence, trauma, HIV infection, mental health issues, and substance abuse than their heterosexual counterparts in the homeless youth population.
According to another study from the Williams Institute at UCLA: “At the national level, on average, approximately 1 to 5 complaints per 100,000 protected adults are filed per year: 3 complaints of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are filed for every 100,000 LGBT adults each year; 5 complaints of race discrimination are filed for every 100,000 adults of color; and 1 complaint of sex discrimination filed for every 100,000 women. Additionally, “In 16 states (all states except DC and Maryland), sexual orientation and gender identity complaints were filed at a slightly higher rate than sex discrimination complaints”. This data helps us understand the history of housing discrimination, which provides insight into homelessness and housing. Housing discrimination is a systematic problem that withholds Black queer femmes from access and opportunities to find safe, stable housing.
In Crown Heights, where 1214 Dean Street is located, the racial demographics are: Black: 57%, Hispanic: 17% and White: 15%. 34.5% of households are nonfamily households. The average income of NYC is about $60,000. In 1214 Dean Street’s zip code, 11216, about 49% of people make less than $60,000. The average rent of a Brooklyn apartment is $2,951. Most landlords require you to make 40 times your rent, so at that rate, the income that must be made to rent an apartment at the average rent is $118,040. In 11216, about 30% of people would be able to afford an apartment at that rate. This data supports our understanding of the financial inaccessibility of safe and stable housing options.
We know that despite the moratorium, people will still be evicted, and we fear what will happen when the moratorium is lifted. The housing justice movement is vital at all times, but especially now. However, the movement will not be able to grow and efficiently serve its purpose if it is not centered around those who have faced the brunt of this violence for years. We need to expand the barriers of space and time to understand how to mobilize a unified movement that advocates for helping the most discriminated and underserved because without it, it’s a movement based in self-interest and not one that fights against what it claims to.