Metro DC DSA is a large chapter, but we sometimes struggle to find our place in the snarl of nonprofits, political institutions, and community organizations at work in the nation’s capital. Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS), a campaign that began as a collaboration between an experienced organizer and a housing lawyer but has since drawn in dozens of DSA members and sympathizers, has quickly become one of our most successful projects. In November 2018, SOS was highlighted when DC Jobs with Justice, a local coalition of labor and community groups, recognized MDC DSA for its local activism. The campaign’s work has only expanded since then, but it hasn’t always been a straightforward process.
In the pieces below, SOS organizers look at their corners of the project and reflect on the lessons they’ve learned in the past two years. We hope they’ll be useful for other chapters as they work out ways to build working-class power in their own communities.
LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE
Ray V., project impresario
Our initial project idea in the spring of 2017 was simple: mobilize tenants with eviction cases to flood the landlord-tenant court in an effort to grind the machinery of eviction to a halt.
The numbers initially seemed impressive. We found one person can knock doors for a maximum of about 50 households threatened with eviction in an afternoon. This included time to get into apartment buildings and have worthwhile conversations with the people we contacted. If we turned out 10-20 people every two weeks (canvassing more frequently than that led to burnout) and canvassers worked in pairs (which we always do), we reached about 300-500 households per canvass.
But we’re lucky if a third of those people are home when we knock. At that pace, we can only expect to talk with about one-tenth of the roughly 30,000 households sued in landlord tenant court every year in Washington, DC. Our data analysis suggests that for every ten face-to-face conversations we have, one tenant who would have otherwise missed their court date shows up. Although we were making a positive difference in people’s lives, this effort alone could not create a critical mass of people to drastically alter the court’s daily operations.
Nonetheless, our Know-Your-Rights canvass provides an entrypoint into embryonic struggles breaking out all around us. When we canvass, we meet tenants who have sued their landlord, started petitions about building conditions, or joined a tenant association. A surprising number of tenants we talk with have been sued for deliberately withholding rent in protest. Gradually, we’ve adapted our strategy and oriented our work towards supporting these struggles. We help angry tenants formulate demands to unify their neighbors, foster organization, and plan collective action to take on the landlord. We are also supporting organizing projects in five properties across the city, developing a training program for our cadre who are learning to organize on the fly, and beginning to think about building an umbrella organization to unite militant tenants from different buildings, all while continuing our canvassing and court support programs.
Still, one thing hasn’t changed: our overriding goal from the beginning of the project of connecting with ordinary Washingtonians who aren’t predisposed to come to DSA meetings, helping them unite in collective struggles to transform their material circumstances, and thus gradually rebuilding the working class as a political subject.
ON THE GROUND AT COURT
Landlord-Tenant Court is one of D.C.’s many windows into a failed system. 95% of tenants who attend their hearings do not have a lawyer representing them, while only 5% of landlords arrive unrepresented. Each morning starts at 9AM with roll call. The clerk reads off the names of cases being heard that day. If you do not say you are there, or your name is Trujillo and the clerk does not know how to pronounce it, you receive a losing “default” judgement.
SOS’s bread and butter has always been Know-Your-Rights canvassing, but in 2018 we added court support as a new component. Court support volunteers attended roll call on dates when we knew large sections of tenants we’d canvassed were scheduled to appear. Attending roll call was initially meant to be our final “touch” in the campaign to overload the court. In this last push, we could encourage tenants to speak with the free pro-bono attorneys who staff the court each day, and remind them to opt for consent agreements over highly-constructive consent judgments. (In a consent judgment, a tenant signs away their rights and can be evicted immediately if they fail to hold up their end of the deal.)
This strategy failed for two reasons. First, the U.S. Marshals who work as Landlord-Tenant Court security guards decided organizers distributing legal information flyers was “solicitation” and kicked us out of the building. Nearly every time we go to court, guards force any volunteer who wears something less formal than a suit or is too conspicuous while speaking with a tenant to leave. Second, we misjudged tenants’ frustration with the court’s grim, faceless bureaucracy. Tenants often chose to negotiate directly with their landlord’s attorney rather than wait for hours to get advice from an overworked advocate.
Much as we reworked our initial plan to overload the court, we’ve also had to rework how we connect with tenants while there. Our outreach at court is now much more targeted. We only speak with tenants living in buildings where we are building relationships. This allows us to connect them with ongoing organizing in their building, rather than simply offering to show them where they can wait in line for a lawyer (though we occasionally do that as well). Court support remains one of the more frustrating aspects of our project, and one I hope to spend more time refining in 2019.
FROM CANVASSING TO ORGANIZING A BUILDING
Sam M., with Stephanie B.
Working with SOS was my first experience with real organizing. Naturally, it was also my first experience with the highs and lows of organizing, its successes and failures. I started canvassing with SOS in October of 2017, and began organizing in a building that December. The newness was certainly conducive to a practical kind of humility! There were missteps and many low moments I could mention. Here, though, I’m going to share a high point. This one stuck with me.
It was our first major meeting after a big victory. The landlord had agreed to change management companies and do serious renovations and exterminations of the building. The turnout was one of our biggest yet: over forty tenants. A city councilmember attended and was promptly asked if he could help with the dog shit in the corridors. (Dearest reader, he could not.)
A parallel victory was that the tenants managed the entire meeting. Two of our lead tenants in the building ran a tight ship, and my fellow organizer and I were only there to help take attendance and minutes. We both spoke just once to answer direct questions. After the councilmember retreated, the question was put: how do we want to be treated by this new management company? This sparked a heated discussion, which flared up when one tenant questioned another tenant’s account of being mistreated by security. Just as the meeting was about to disintegrate into recriminations, one of our core tenants in the building intervened.
She had canvassed with us for several months now, but had been generally hesitant to take the lead talking to to her neighbors, even with a little gentle encouragement. Here, she spoke concisely and without hesitancy. “We can’t fight each other,” she said. “It’s not tenant against tenant, it’s management we need to be directing our anger at. Yeah, it’s not your job to pick up trash, but if you do a little, people will do it too. We do have security, but we have to watch out for each other too.”
The conflict was quashed, and people were feeling it, with later complaints mostly directed against management. After the meeting, she made her way over to us. “I found my voice,” she said, grinning at me, and I beamed back.
“YOU WOULD HAVE ACTUALLY THOUGHT THEY’D LIVED HERE”
Reactions collected by Paul B.
(who swears he couldn’t get them to come up with any constructive criticism)
These are reflections from a group of tenants whose organizing efforts we started supporting and advising on a month and a half ago. They’d just had a very successful turn-the-tide sort of meeting with the building’s owners and management staff.
“What I found useful the most was your input about what our rights were, about how unity would be a huge part of getting a great response. I think the teamwork ethic that you guys have was impeccable. The fact that you guys showed up to do a canvass…was a great gesture on your part.”
“You’ve always been in contact by email. Any questions I have had or that I wrote to you for the group there’s always been a response. You guys always respond in an hour or so. It’s not like the next day. You guys came out and helped us with the canvassing which we were definitely new to and I think we learned a lot from you guys and we became confident with doing it. You’ve been there since the beginning with us.”
“I think your approach was perfect. All of us were a little uncomfortable going to the tenants knocking on folks doors, even though a lot of the residents you might see in passing, but your presence helped us to be able to accomplish what we set out to do. Not only that but your input, how you guys showed up, how you helped with the baby sitting, suggestions that you made like to offer snacks, things we weren’t even thinking about.”
“You pretty much prepared us for this which is an excellent thing.”
“Even with the success of our last meeting, I mean, Anna and Mackenzie, you would have actually thought they’d lived here because they were that happy.
THE DATA THAT MAKES IT POSSIBLE
Jasper C. and the SOS Data Team
It was fortunate that in Fall 2017, months after the SOS project began, the DC Superior Court system opened an online court portal to make public court information more easily accessible to the public. In the first few months of the project, SOS volunteers went to the court in person to ask for court records, but now this task could be done from the comfort of one’s own home.
Address pulling and creating walksheets is one of the more essential tasks for our anti-eviction canvassing, but it can quickly turn into dull and repetitive administrative work. Even with the online docket browser, transcribing 600 addresses from PDFs into a spreadsheet by hand can feel overwhelming. And that’s when the DC court website isn’t taking 30 minutes to load a page. We are working on automating parts of this task. First, we’ve gotten better about splitting up transcription work on a shared spreadsheet. A pool of about 30 volunteers chips in 1-5 hours early in the week before a canvass, each picking away at the pile of cases that need information filled in.
Doing addresses for the SOS campaign is an exercise in not losing the forest (the larger project of shutting down the eviction system) for the trees (which management companies are we looking at this week?). When making walksheets, one must choose walkable clusters of eviction cases while also relying on field reports and institutional knowledge of likely bad actors. Sometimes we go off of tips for badly managed properties, and sometimes we just go after known slumlords. Careful human judgment and streamlined automation work in tandem to prepare our organizers to hit the streets.
NOT JUST ORGANIZING BUILDINGS
When I moved to DC in 2017, I started organizing with Stomp Out Slumlords because it seemed like the kind of campaign you could just slot into: show up, grab a partner and a walksheet, and go. I didn’t realize that the easier a campaign looks on the front end, the more work it takes behind the scenes.
The decisions you make as you’re doing that work cause invisible ripples that can transform the campaign’s entire culture. Early on we thought we could do without meetings; today meetings are a core part of the work, as a venue for political education and an opportunity for the various parts of an increasingly sprawling and specialized project to intersect. We also dealt with burnout by canvassing less often and streamlining our preparations. Recently we’ve focused on building group cohesion, as we’ve come to recognize that people who like and trust each other are more likely to show up and “do the work”—but we try to branch out beyond the traditional happy hour format by organizing museum outings, potlucks, and housing-specific reading groups.
Yet challenges remain. The more tight-knit a subgroup gets, the harder it is for new people to plug in. Worse, the overrepresentation of cis white men can become amplified over time: not everyone feels equally comfortable socializing in a group when they’re distinctly in the minority, as women can be at our large canvasses and social events, though not in our building organizing group.
To survive, we can’t get complacent and take refuge in inertia (“as long as one remains a monk, one goes on tolling the bell”). Nor can we rely on the same people month after month. We’re building for the long haul, which means that sometimes we have to sacrifice immediate efficiency for the sake of training new leaders. Eventually, we hope to organize enough buildings that tenants themselves will take the reins. If we haven’t built an open, flexible organization by then, our efforts will have been wasted. There’s a whole working class out there to organize.