Posts Tagged ‘matthew desmond’

Photo: Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters For Justice) via NextCity.
A collective of Minneapolis renters, now known as the Corcoran Five, were key to winning a landmark $18.5 million class-action settlement against their landlord. Not long after, in 2020, they signed a purchase agreement for the five buildings in question and began turning them into a tenant-run co-op.

Do the little guys ever win? They do if they organize. As Evicted author Matthew Desmond reminded readers at the New York Times, ” ‘The weapons of the weak are always weak weapons,’ the French historian Lucien Bianco once wrote. It’s true. Paper flowers, homemade noisemakers: it’s not much. … But you cannot deny that that was, and has always been, a true power in American life.” 

In his 2020 article, Desmond dug into one particular organizing success, beginning his story with a Minneapolis City Council meeting that took place in May of that year.

“Vanessa del Campo Chacón rose to speak. An immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, who ran an in-home day care from her small apartment, Chacón spoke in Spanish, and a bearded young man knelt by her side and translated. This was Roberto de la Riva, co-director of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), a tenants’ rights organization that also goes by the abbreviation IX. ‘I’m hours or days from being evicted, and I don’t think the city has deemed this pertinent enough to be involved and to take responsibility,’ Chacón said. ‘We want dignified homes,’ she continued. ‘I’m asking for my daughter and for all the families that are here.’ 

“As she spoke, two other tenants approached the dais and, standing behind the council members, unfurled a huge yellow banner that read, ‘Don’t Evict Vanessa.’

“ ‘I’m sorry,’ the council president, Lisa Bender, interjected. ‘We can’t allow people to come back behind the dais.’ … She was sympathetic to the tenants, but she also had a meeting to run. Before Bender could finish, the room erupted. …

“After a bailiff escorted the tenants off the dais, Vanessa’s neighbor, Chloé Jackson, approached the lectern, pressing her hands together as if in prayer. A Black woman with plastic-rimmed glasses, Jackson was raising her teenage son, Trayvon, on the $15.69-an-hour wage she earned at the airport iStore. ‘We don’t know exactly how long any of us have,’ Jackson said. … ‘You guys get to go home tonight, sleep in the comfort of your beds,’ she said. ‘We have to wonder about this every single night.’

“This was not the first time Jackson and IX organizers had confronted the City Council. For years, Jackson, Chacón and other residents of five buildings in the city’s Corcoran neighborhood had been involved in a prolonged battle against their landlord, Stephen Frenz, and his business partner, Spiros Zorbalas. The tenants had mobilized for better conditions, resisted evictions and participated in a rent strike. They had banded together and pushed the City Council to revoke Frenz’s rental license. It eventually did, stripping his ability to collect rent. But Frenz still owned the apartments where Jackson and Chacón lived. He wanted everybody out so he could renovate and sell to the highest bidder. The tenants had another idea: They wanted Frenz to sell to them.

“Today, in the pandemic economy, millions of renters are at risk of eviction. Even the expanded provisions supplied by the CARES Act — the $600-a-week supplements to states’ stingy unemployment insurance — weren’t doing enough to shield many renting families from homelessness. … Watching this looming eviction crisis take shape, I’ve often thought of those Minneapolis tenants, whom I followed over the last year and a half. I went to report on them — the security guards, store clerks and night-shift custodians — because I wanted to see what happened when a group of tenants organized against a pair of landlords who owned hundreds of apartments generating, as of 2016, a net operating income of approximately $300,000 a month (or $3.6 million annually). Over the course of my reporting, I saw the tenants reimagine — and then reinvent — what stable, affordable housing could look like in their community. I saw them fight,” wrote Desmond in the Times, “and I saw them win.”

The lengthy article goes on to describe key players. Jackson, for example, was not always an activist. Far from it. Desmond explains how it happened gradually.

“Near the end of 2017, Roberto de la Riva knocked on Chloé Jackson’s door on 22nd Avenue South. Jackson opened the door, sighed and asked, ‘Why do you people keep knocking?’

“Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Jackson moved to Minneapolis in 2013, after the Mall of America hired her in its housekeeping department. She was 28 and had an 8-year-old son. Three years earlier, she became the legal guardian of three teenagers, after their mother, Jackson’s aunt, died. She and her boyfriend kept food on the table — she worked at McDonald’s; he was a mechanic — until all three of her cousins were out of the house. By that time, she needed a break and figured a new city might do the trick.

“In Minneapolis, she found a $625-a-month, one-bedroom apartment in the Corcoran neighborhood, within walking distance of the Lake Street light-rail stop. Giving her son the bedroom, Jackson slept in the living room by a pinkish-orange salt lamp and an 8-by-10-inch photograph of her mother. Jackson took a series of jobs, finally landing at the airport iStore, where she was working full time when de la Riva knocked on her door. As its assistant manager, Jackson woke up at 2:30 each morning; got breakfast ready for her son; fed her cat, Kitty; and hopped on the light rail to the airport, arriving at 3:40 a.m. to open the store.

“When Jackson first moved in, she found her landlord, Stephen Frenz, to be fairly responsive. But seeing the condition of the units inhabited by her neighbors, many of them undocumented immigrants, changed her perspective. Jackson often pulled out a bucket or two to catch the leaks. But to sit at a neighbor’s table for coffee, she often had to step over some half-dozen buckets. Many units had roaches and mice, filthy carpets. (Frenz told me that Jackson’s leak and those of other tenants were mended and that tenants’ lack of cleanliness caused the pest infestations.) ‘I felt so bad,’ Jackson remembered. ‘These are people who didn’t know English, and I felt like this man was taking advantage of them.’ …

“Jackson began warming to the idea of buying the properties. She had long tried to avoid this path, hoping to live a quiet life. But haltingly at first, then all at once, Jackson was becoming, as they say in the movement, ‘politicized.’ “

I can’t cover the whole Times article here, but I recommend anything Matthew Desmond writes. I do want to share this part this part of the story for Mother’s Day: “On May 18, Jackson was sitting in her apartment, on a Zoom call with other IX organizers. In the middle of their meeting, several organizers received a simple text from Eddie Landenberger of Land Bank Twin Cities. It read: ‘We closed.’ Landenberger’s text let everyone know that they had finally done it. They had bought the Corcoran Five.

“The tenants yelled and whooped. …

“ ‘Why’s everyone screaming?’ Jackson’s son, Trayvon, asked, coming out of his bedroom. He was 16 now, handsome and half a foot taller than Jackson.

“ ‘Son, come here,’ she said. ‘We closed on the buildings.’

“ ‘Oh, Mom,’ he said, reaching out in embrace. ‘I’m so proud of you.’ ”

The Times article is here. For a version of the story without a firewall, see reporter Cinnamon Janzer at NextCity, here.

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My childhood friend Caroline, now living in Colorado, writes, “As a person who has spent her life designing and building housing, I am pretty convinced that we need to figure out how to house more people closer to downtown areas rather than contributing to endless low density sprawl and destruction of open spaces.

“To this end Tom and I attended the first ever YIMBY (yes in my backyard) conference that was held here in Boulder in June. It is a movement driven primarily by millennials and I am forwarding this invitation to a lecture in Cambridge in case it piques your interest.”

It does pique my interest.

As anyone who has read the incredibly moving Evicted (by MacArthur award winner Matthew Desmond) knows, housing is one of the most critical issues, if not the most critical, for domestic policy today. Housing ties to everything else.

So here’s the opportunity for people in the Greater Boston area: Jesse Kanson-Benanav (chairman of A Better Cambridge) is giving a talk September 14 at 6:30 p.m. for the Cambridge Historical Society on the Yimby movement.

Click this EventBrite link to sign up.

This month we’re asking ‘What is a YIMBY?,’ with the help of Jesse Kanson-Benanav, Chair of A Better Cambridge.

What’s our goal?

The Cambridge Historical Society wants to facilitate dynamic conversations about the housing issues facing Cambridge residents today with a historical perspective.

Where and why?

We are heading out to meet you in the city. The historic Hong Kong in Harvard Square is the perfect setting to bring your friends (or make new ones), grab a drink, and settle in for some engaging conversation about our 2016 theme, “Are We Home?”


$5 members/ $10 non-members


Email us at rprevite@cambridgehistory.org

or call 617-547-4252

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