Eviction Chaos?

I would like to understand something I find emergent, imminent, and in some ways incomprehensible.

Just yesterday I spoke with a friend who lives about thirty minutes outside San Francisco. He was busy packing up all manner of absolutely essential possessions, or at least what there was room for, putting them into the family car, and waiting to hear if the alert to prepare to evacuate escalates to literally having to evacuate. Fires and their deadly smoke.

So that family is living on the edge of having to run, for what they hope would be only a few days, maybe a week, staying in a motel if they can find one, to then return. But, what if fires persist longer, and more depressingly, what if the encroaching flames find where my friends would return to and burn it to the ground? I not only felt for my friend – the stress, maybe the disaster – but it was a horrible image to consider for so many other Californians in the same situation.

It is as if a large swath of our largest state is at war. The proximate enemy is fire and the sickening and even deadly air quality fire imposes. The fuel is global warming. The callous, cretinous, opposing general is Trump. Yet for many, their plight would no doubt register as just fire at fault, the whole mess just an accident of fate – bad luck calling. So they would strive to survive but would not place blame.

Minutes after finishing my California call, still agitated and distraught over its implications, I talked with another friend who lives on the other coast of the U.S. She told me that 50,000 Boston residents are in line for eviction in September.

To me this means that in mid October in Massachusetts when the eviction moratorium runs out, and then once bureaucratic hurdles to eviction pass, if there is no real reprieve, some considerable percentage of those 50,000 residents may find themselves homeless. Heading toward cold and then unbearably cold weather, they will either live in cars, or under bridges, or in hastily prepared decrepit camps, or in motels that still have room for them (and whose jacked up prices they can manage to pay for a time), or, for the lucky ones, in the homes of friends or relatives, expanding the number directly hurt much more – or, in some ways perhaps best, they will live in unoccupied homes they occupy. And this will happen essentially all at once except for the delays caused by backed up court hearings and processing and such – different in different states – though many people served a notice, may just vacate not knowing their rights. And so Boston will start to look like it is losing a war. And the unfolding torment will depress people, but I think it may also anger people.

Now, in fact, there is remarkable organizing going on all over the country and has been for years now, and especially since Covid, to fight landlord ills and, of course, to prevent and or deal with evictions. But, still, extrapolate the Boston picture which has some of the most successful such organizing to be found anywhere, to even larger cities all across the U.S., and into smaller towns and rural areas as well, and what have you got? Tens of millions threatened, and perhaps in time evicted.

If somewhere those who are uprooted organize to resist – and that is already happening in many somewheres, or if they riot to resist, or if they loot to survive, those responses will spread. It will be a kind of showcase effect. First just one community, then just one city, then many cities with potentially massive unrest. Unless everywhere, desperate people worried about themselves and their kids and with no eye at all on the possibilities of more collective approaches, succumb.

From the perspective of folks reading this, but who are by the whims of chance not about to be homeless, the scene threatens to become mammoth dislocation, horrendous injustice, and, hopefully, escalating fightback. I see no need to elaborate that angle on things. I get that part. You get that part. Hopefully those still in their own residences will want to help the newly (and long since) homeless. Hopefully all will want to fight the injustice.

From the point of view of those evicted, they will face enormous pain and loss with no obvious path of return, but they will be hit by eviction all together, almost simultaneously. Some will no doubt feel that somehow it is their own fault, or just the fault of Covid – a natural disaster that one can only struggle individually to survive, not work to collectively correct. Courageous but confused, they will hunker down and try to make do. But I suspect that many, and perhaps a great many, even if at first only in places where on going organizing has prepared means, will see that the fault is not their’s. They will know this is not some kind of warranted suffering that they have brought on themselves, nor is it just bad luck. They will know their plight is brutal injustice. And they will get angry. They too will try to make do, of course. But I suspect they will also lash out to try to win aid when some do that, others will do it as well. And then, maybe come together.

So what about the landlords? What’s in evictions for them? I think, however despicable it may be, using the threat of eviction has a logic for them. It seeks to collect rent payments that might otherwise be withheld. Even doing a few evictions to make the threat of evicting real has a logic of sorts, callous and cruel, but calculatedly self serving. But beyond that, I think there is not much in mass evictions for landlords, maybe nothing, and maybe even less than nothing. If they evict big time, that is, they will lose tenants and from where do they then replace them? From nowhere that I can see. So to strike back at those unable to pay their rent, they will wind up with no one able to pay that rent. No gain in that. And the anger, even the hate they will face, that has to be some kind of cost. And more so, the organized resistance they may arouse. Even for their dollar bill brains, in fact especially for their dollar bill brains, organized resistance is a big cost to risk eliciting. I would therefore expect big landlords to now be blustering about evictions to scare up what payments they can, but simultaneously demanding that businesses reopen to rehire those out of work and also demanding that government support those out of work, meantime, so they have money to pay rent.

And what about capital writ larger? What’s in it for them? Again, I just don’t see much gain for them in making huge numbers of people hugely mad while creating masses of dislocated people, kids uprooted, and on and on. People leaving for warmer climes from colder, living in camps, living along highways. This may all sound apocalyptic, exaggerated, but if millions are evicted, is it? And so I wonder how does such a path forward increase profit making potentials? How would the gatherings of angry families, providing targets for Covid spread, solve Covid? And with Covid unsolved, who benefits from a profit making economy that is stalled or even in large part dying? And then there is, again, the anger, the disruption, and the very likely violence. Whether we get chaos or organized resistance, how could they want either of those outcomes? What constituency would benefit from mass evictions – I guess maybe motel owners, for a time, but really, that can’t be enough to push it through.

Then again, how do the Washington powers that be see all this? What’s in the mind of the red headed tyrant? I would think even government officials would see mass evictions as a giant chaotic cauldron of business disruption, Covid spread, and potential mass resistance. I would think they too would have nothing to gain by letting that mixture fester and explode, and would therefore want to forestall it. Unless, that is, some of them literally want chaos. Unless some of them literally want social break down. Unless some of them want to plant their knee on the neck of the resulting dissent and disruption, and in their dreams rise above it, entrenched as authorities in command.

I just don’t see, writ broadly and largely, who else has an interest in even allowing much less pursuing mass evictions.

So, to me, perhaps due to not understanding and thus not seeing the flaw in the simple reasoning above, I can’t see the powers that be letting mass evictions proceed unless they literally want chaotic, violent, social breakdown that they can then call ugly, and can then rally against and try to crush, all to win an election.

Or I suppose maybe they just haven’t got a clue – or are entirely caught up in habits that don’t fit this moment and in internal squabbles and the like – but I find myself doubting that.

So maybe I am entirely misreading this unfolding nightmare – but I think in the next few weeks we will learn something about just how far into decay and dissolution Trump is willing to travel, to come out on top. And while witnessing it, we better try to organize to fight back. The complex crisis choice that we face isn’t to demonstrate and build means to demonstrate even more, and then more – or to beat Trump at the polls. It is to do both.

I can say what I would ideally love to see, from my lonely apartment isolation. How about a national campaign held until two simple demands are met – (1) no evictions until unemployment is down to 4% or less, and then and thereafter, in any event, no evictions of the unemployed, and (2) a cancellation of rent payments since Covid and for that same duration, subsidies for small household rent properties, and a shift of mortgage payments to the end of their payment period with no greater payments due at any time, for all withheld payments.

Yes, it would be hard to pull off, but it would also be a winning hand. Especially if each successive month more people joined in withholding rent and mortgage payments, including, for example, cops, and if each month adds new demands regarding maintenance, safety, etc. Every month it goes on, big landlords lose more revenue. We get better organized and seek still more. They pay. We grow.

Anything remotely like that would have to begin where there are organizers and organizations to pose it, galvanize it, and work for it – but once rolling in a few cities, then maybe in smaller towns and rural areas, and in southern and midwestern cities that lack activist infrastructure, infrastructure would spring up. It is a better picture than depression level homelessness from coast to coast.


  1. David Dobereiner August 25, 2020 5:54 pm 

    Excellent piece. I too have two friends in the fire threatened area. One has had to abandon his family home, in hopes it will still be standing after the fire subsides. In the other case a friend’s family, including her parents, have seen their home burn to the ground, but luckily themselves still survive.

  2. avatar
    Michael August 25, 2020 10:04 am 

    The US is a collection of rich (minority) and poor (majority). Collectively, however, the US is not a poor country, it is massively rich, while many suffer.

    There are, then, certain basic human needs: food and shelter head the list. Then comes health care. Next, employment and education. Is it not now time to find a way to guarantee meeting these needs for all? But first we have to admit that these basic needs are a right. Once we can do this, we need to think of what the whole world can do to provide such meeting of needs for all, and to some extent erase borders as definers of whose well being we are interested in. This is not idealist pipe dreams, it is a reason for existing and working. And, finding genuine satisfaction in life.

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