Portland tenants organizer Margot Black debunks the “problem tenant” narrative

Years ago, as advertising proliferated and the harvesting of personal data began, I divested myself of membership in social networking sites. But with mounting legal problems after resisting years of civil and criminal harassment related to development in this northeast Seattle neighborhood, I decided to give Twitter a try. As a woman resisting forced eviction at the hands of a corrupt neighborhood watch and its speculator friends, I need help. If I am correct and there is a nationwide trend for speculators to harass tenants out of their legal contracts and domiciles to force properties onto the market, the only way to show the pattern is through communication between tenants’ organizations nationwide, at least in major metropolitan areas on both coasts.

I don’t have many followers as of yet, but since joining Twitter I’ve begun to follow tens of tenants’ rights organizations, many of them involved in the crucial, existential battles of tenants to keep roofs over their heads in the face of vast displacements. These forced migrations are underway in major metropolitan areas like New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Portland.

Joining Twitter quickly yielded results as I messaged a New York City tenants organization (@NYTenants, I think it was) and learned they were seeing cyber-crime—cases of cyber-bullying and defamation—used in attempts to force tenants from their homes. As baffling to police as it can be to its victims, cyber-crime, a prominent feature of my own real estate mobbing, is tailor-made for use by speculators who cannot afford to be caught.

Seattle is undergoing heavy gentrification with rampant teardowns, but the awareness of the dynamics of displacement appears to be less well developed here than in some other metropolitan areas. Perhaps this is because tenants in Seattle are generally younger, less experienced, and less inclined to activism than those in New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area. Another factor could be that the bite of advocacy organizations is blunted when they depend on public funds for their existence. In any case, years back, when the harassment of renters in my area appeared to be limited to the unfortunate human being I call “the nasty neighborhood watch lady of the northeast,” I went to the Seattle Tenants Union to get help. About the first thing the counselor said to me was, “Have you considered moving?”

It was a great disappointment to me, someone who had gotten valuable information from the Tenants Union in the past and briefly volunteered for them, that the staffer was quick to suggest a “solution” that would please those who not only sought to tortiously interfere with a tenant’s right to enjoy her legal rental agreement, but to harass tenants out of a neighborhood in a drive to gentrify it.

After all, what has happened to me is not a simple dispute with a neighbor. Instead, an anti-renter neighborhood watch has sought to vilify renters in the neighborhood and, with active involvement by real estate agents, builders and speculators, to turn over rental properties for speculation.

Any time an organization that claims to represent a neighborhood begins to harass tenants, this is a matter of corruption that should concern the city. There are precedents for cities to sue neighborhood groups that harass tenants.

The staffer flatly told me that the funding of the Tenants’ Union had been slashed and that they found it difficult to continue operations. It was as much as they could do, she said, to counsel tenants on the in’s and out’s of their rental agreements.

In the face of wavering support and a climate hostile to the interests of tenants, perhaps this was an unavoidable retreat. But how can tenants’ rights organizations discourage harassment of tenants if they do not encourage tenants to hold their ground and insist upon their rights? Moreover, I would argue that when predatory speculators see tenant harassment as an easy way to force a “reluctant seller” to make a deal, the easier it is to dislodge tenants from their homes, the more appealing the strategy. Predatory crimes select easy prey.

We have to look at the bigger picture of what is happening, and that means looking at trends across the nation, for example, cases in which tenants are stripped of their rights by Chronic Nuisance Ordinances (CNOs) and “no-fault” eviction. We need to study the conditions that combine to create situations such as my own, in which neighborhood watches and their speculator friends grow so bold that they barely hide the motivation behind their attacks on those who have the audacity to rent single-family homes in “their” neighborhoods.

This is why the statement by Portland Tenants United organizer Margot Black caught my eye, and why it’s relevant to all of us, tenants and organizers alike. Black’s statement is a response to the galling demand by what she calls the “landlord lobby trifecta” of Portland—MultifamilyNW, the Rental Housing Alliance and Oregon Rental Homeowners Association—for her to apologize for saying that “[m]ost homegrown Oregon landlords tend to be white and racist” (“I Am Not Sorry: It is Renters that Deserve an Apology,” https://medium.com/@ptu/i-am-not-sorry-apology-is-owed-to-renters-8f981a95d5f0#.l47fmfa5a). It seems to me, that the mere fact that a “lobby” is demanding an individual activist to apologize for voicing her opinion, reveals their unwillingness to regard those who rent their homes, and those who advocate on their behalves, as equals. Like a real estate mobbing in which a tenant who insists on her rights sees them evermore trampled in “clearing by smearing”, the trifecta’s demand for Black to apologize is at once an attempt to get back at her for speaking her mind, to intimidate her, and to put her in her place.

Black saw the demand for what it was, an attempt to change an uncomfortable subject. She held her ground and argued that strengthening protections for tenants does not impact ethical landlords. And the way she did it was by explaining that Portland business interests that profit off of renting housing have sought to evade the law.

Black gives the example of how, in Portland, the right to rent a home—the right for those who do not own land to have a home—is historically and intrinsically tied to race. Whether based on race or the “No Section 8” that so often hides race in class, there is widespread tacit acceptance of discrimination against those who lease their homes. This acceptance is expressed by the attitudes of neighborhood watch groups and home owners in anti-renter neighborhoods such as my own. It is codified in Chronic Nuisance Ordinance (CNO) and other laws that treat the “renting class” as a disorderly underclass deserving of having their legal contracts for shelter vacated for crimes and misdemeanors that mortgage contracts ignore. I was buoyed by the counter-demands for apologies made by Black and her fellow organizers at Portland Tenants Union. Their recognition of the “narrative” of the “problem tenant” is relevant to us all:

We demand an apology for each and every no-cause eviction ever issued, for misleading the public and policy-makers about the process of for-cause evictions, and for the unconscionable perpetuation of the “problem tenant” narrative used to justify retaining the inhumane right to issue a no-cause eviction. Just as landlords do not wish to be painted with a broad brush by being called racists, tenants who have received no-cause evictions do not wish to be described as dangerous and destructive miscreants whose neighbors are fearful of them. Victims of no-cause evictions include mothers, grandmothers, students, teachers, social workers, church-goers, engineers, librarians, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community, politicians, journalists, and many responsible, law-abiding, community members.

In my blogs these last months, I have referred to the mobbers’ narrative and the narrative of victimization that the tenant is denied by the “clearing by smearing” strategy of mobbing. Black’s reference to the “problem tenant” narrative strongly rings the bell for me, having watched as tenants down the street from me were defamed as cocaine dealers sent to anger management training, and having been subject to courtroom statements that my presence next door prevented a home owner and his girlfriend from having kids.

I see a narrative too. Not just one used in my own neighborhood, and not one limited to Portland or even to the northwest. The real narrative is one in which those who profit off of those who rent their homes increasingly see fit to strengthen their bargaining position and increase their profits by undermining the legal rights and standing of their business partners and clients: Those who rent. And this they do by perpetuating the myth that, as the mother of the south mobbing house owner told me when we met, “most [renters] aren’t very good people.” Where exclusion was once based on race, now it is based on the essentialist argument of bad character. Poor character is, of course, an established attribute of the renting class. Yes, Donald, those renters are some bad hombres.

We’re still struggling to ensure that minorities and families do not face housing discrimination. But we must also look at extreme cases, like mine, where speculators take for themselves the entitlements of gentry as they teach neighborhood councils, block watches and home owners how to “bring up” a neighborhood and evade charges of housing discrimination by using real estate mobbing—”clearing by smearing”—to end the renting of single-family homes in favor of tearing them down. ▪



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