NARRATION: Protests demanding stronger protection from evictions during the coronavirus are happening nationwide.
PROTESTORS: Housing is a right! Fight! Fight! Fight!
NARRATION: In New York City’s Bronx borough, more than 80 percent of homes are rented and many renters will be vulnerable when state and federal bans on evictions end and rent again comes due.
JUAN NUNEZ (TENANT ORGANIZER, NORTHWEST BRONX COMMUNITY AND CLERGY COALITION): There was a housing crisis before, and I’m telling you -– I can’t even put it into words, really, how bad it’s gonna get. Whatever’s happening in the Bronx, it’s happening all over America, but it’s always more intense in the Bronx. Always.
YOSELYN GOMEZ (TENANT LEADER, COMMUNITY ACTION FOR SAFE APARTMENTS): We don’t have a job. How we going to pay the rent? How we going to buy food?
NARRATION: The Bronx has a rich history of tenants banding together to keep people in their homes. And it dates back to another moment when the country’s economy stood on the brink of collapse. A moment when mass unemployment and mass homelessness went hand in hand.
NEWS REPORT: The years of the Great Depression in the United States found able-bodied men and women unable to find work to support themselves and their families.
MARK NAISON (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY): In the early thirties, people were getting evicted from their apartments. There were shantytowns all over the major cities. There were big shantytowns in like Central Park and in Bronx parks.
NARRATION: It was a time when American Communists found a foothold in New York politics as advocates for the city’s most vulnerable. Locally, they organized themselves into councils that worked on behalf of unemployed people, and they relied on compassionate neighbors who took a stand.
MARK NAISON: In the beginning of 1931, the unemployed councils decided that they were going to concentrate on stopping evictions. Their concept was that a landlord had to pay marshals to take out the furniture when you evicted a family. And if you could organize neighbors to put back the furniture then it would actually be cheaper to keep people in their apartments than it was to pay to have them evicted. What you had to do, though, was have a cadre of people who are willing to get arrested and possibly beaten up by police over and over again.
NARRATION: From late 1931 to mid-1932, more than 180,000 eviction notices were served citywide. And residents of the Bronx were among those most willing to resist. The battle of the Bronx raged throughout 1932 in a series of rent strikes and a succession of planned demonstrations in which hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would turn up to confront authorities attempting to carry out evictions.
MARK NAISON: There’s nothing more painful than seeing the sight of a family out in the street with all their possessions. It may have started with a few communists putting the furniture back, but probably 10 times as many people were doing this just because they were angry at seeing their neighbors and saying, “I’m next.”
NARRATION: By one account, tactics like these helped restore as many as 77,000 families citywide back to their homes. But after President Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 and gave emergency relief to cities like New York, activists shifted tactics. Instead of staging rent strikes and physically blocking evictions, they pressured these new agencies to distribute money to tenants unable to pay rent.
MARK NAISON: So you had this crisis where you could have had mass imprisonment of activists, but all of a sudden there’s money coming in to New York City for the unemployed. The anti-eviction movement really was a very powerful and effective movement, but the government action brought it to an end.
NARRATION: Today, activists worried about mass evictions and mass homelessness are once again calling on lawmakers to provide relief.
JUAN NUNEZ (AT PROTEST) What do we want?
CROWD: Cancel rent!
JUAN NUNEZ: When do we want it?
NARRATION: Thousands of New York tenants and landlords are facing difficulty paying rent and mortgages. How bad things will get when eviction bans lift is hard to say, but New York City’s pre-Covid eviction numbers may offer some clue. In early 2020, before the pandemic, more than 200,000 tenants had pending eviction cases in city housing court.
JUAN NUNEZ: It’s already bad. And then, once winter gets here, what are they going to do? Are they going to push everybody out during the winter time? What going to happen, are you going to put everybody in a shelter during a pandemic?
NARRATION Tenant leaders in the Bronx say they’re already organizing renters to band together, pressuring landlords to fix longstanding problems in buildings, ease the burden of current and back rent, and commit to suspending evictions until the pandemic is past.
JUAN NUNEZ: The idea is to get everybody in solidarity to make sure that their neighbors don’t get pushed out. Because this is the mentality in this country where it’s all about me, me, me, as long as I’m good, I don’t care about the next person. And this over crisis, you can’t think like that now.
YOSELYN GOMEZ (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): No, the pandemic didn’t kill us but five or six month of back rent isn’t going to kill us either because we have a right to live in peace.
NARRATION: In a moment when demonstrations for racial justice are happening weekly across the country, Mark Naison says it likely won’t take much to mobilize protests – and even active resistance – against evictions.
MARK NAISON: We have a whole generation who have had a taste of fighting for justice. Are they going to let people get thrown out in the street? Right in front of them? I don’t think so.
NARRATION: And residents of the Bronx say they’re ready.
JOSELYN GOMEZ: Bronx have history of fighting. We have young people, we have old people who fight on the street for our rights, no matter what age you are.
JUAN NUNEZ: History repeats itself. And if it’s our turn to go on a rent strike and have to push back and make sure that people aren’t evicted through eviction blockades, then that’s what we got to do because it’s in our blood, honestly. This is literally life or death like especially after Covid. Either we stay in our homes or we go out into the streets and we die and people are not going to go out, are not going to go out like that, not in that borough.