“We’re seeing more militant direct action:” Tenant groups fight evictions with power drills and other tools

As state and federal protection efforts fall short, landlords and local authorities face intense reactions from renters


Responding to an eviction in progress in South Central Los Angeles, tenant organizers didn’t call a defense attorney. They called a contractor, who came equipped with a power drill.

When a local landlord removed a resident’s belongings and changed the locks on his apartment a week after he missed rent, Paul Lanctot, an organizer with the Los Angeles Tenant Union, said he put out a call to a network of supporters. Soon after, more than 30 tenant organizers arrived at 9316 South Figueroa Street, and physically blocked a moving van loaded with the tenant’s belongings.

While some linked arms to keep the van from pulling out of the driveway, others formed a blockade around the back entry to the apartment building, where the contractor got to work. In just 5 minutes, he removed the lock and opened the door, and organizers rapidly moved the belongings back in, according to the organizers.

The building’s landlord, David Wohlman, told The Real Deal he was “overwhelmed” by the group’s response. When the tenant stopped paying rent, Wohlman said he tried to move him to a cheaper property. But those efforts led to the sudden backlash — which the landlord characterized as a “riot” — and in the end, the tenant stayed put.

“If I’d known this would have happened, I would have just left him in his house,” said Wohlman, founder of the transitional housing nonprofit Uncle Dave’s Housing. “We’ve never had anything like this happen before.”

If I’d known this would have happened, I would have just left [the tenant] in his house. — David Wohlman, Uncle Dave’s Housing 

Physically getting evicted tenants back in their homes is a key strategic play, argued Trinidad Ruiz, another member of the LATU. “If you don’t have possession of the home going into court, you lose, because you’re already evicted,” he said.

In Los Angeles County, where an estimated 60 percent of residents are renters, evictions are under the jurisdiction of the sheriff rather than each city’s police department. In recent months, however, local police have carried out extra-judicial evictions at the behest of landlords seeking to boot non-paying tenants. In the first 10 weeks after L.A. issued a pause on evictions in late March, police were called to carry out more than 290 lockouts, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times.

Elsewhere around the U.S., eviction efforts are gaining momentum — despite moratoriums that were put into place in 27 states this spring — and a growing number of landlords are suing to dismantle eviction bans.

“We’re hearing there are illegal evictions across the country,” said Lisa Marlow, a spokesperson for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Landlords are ignoring [state] moratoriums because they do not know or because they just need their money.”

More than 50 million U.S. workers have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic, while confirmed coronavirus cases around the country have surpassed 4.5 million, according to data from the Labor Department and John Hopkins University. President Donald Trump announced on Aug. 3 that he may take executive action to impose a federal moratorium on evictions, as negotiations over a new U.S. Covid relief plan stall in Congress. “A lot of people are going to be evicted,” Trump said. “But I’m going to stop it, because I’ll do it myself if I have to.”

But the president did not offer any more details on an executive action to that effect.

At the same time, a moratorium on evictions for federally backed mortgages saw little enforcement and lapsed July 24, and many of the state moratoriums are expiring too. In an effort to counter that, tenant groups like the LATU are using more aggressive tactics to prevent evictions — especially in regions where few protections exist.

“The reason we’re seeing more militant direct action from tenants is because of weakened protections,” said Patrick Tyrell, a staff attorney at Mobilization for Justice, a nonprofit organization that provides free civil legal services. “What else can they do?”

Locked in arms

A throng of tenant organizers recently surrounded a New Orleans city courthouse in a concerted effort to halt evictions.

Dozens of court workers, attorneys and others were physically blocked from entering the building as the crowd cried out “shut it down” and “housing is healthcare.” Unable to open, the courthouse had to reschedule not only evictions, but other proceedings as well, according to a representative from the New Orleans City Court.

Benjamin Teresa, co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab in Richmond, Virginia, said there is no enforcement mechanism or penalty for landlords who disregard a federal eviction moratorium.

“So, effectively, enforcement has fallen to tenants — the group least prepared to carry that burden,” Teresa said.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the eviction rate in 2016 was nearly double the national average of 9 eviction filings for every 100 renters, according to a landmark study by Princeton University.
The Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky estimated that another 340,000 people are at risk of eviction going forward.

And a weekly Census Bureau survey found that one in four people in the U.S. are now “housing insecure,” meaning they missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment, or have little confidence that their household can pay August’s rent or mortgage on time.

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“Without rental assistance, the outlook is bleak,” a letter sent to Sen. Mitch McConnell from the Homeless and Housing Coalition read. “We will see longer lines of hundreds and thousands of Kentuckians — only this time, it will be around homeless shelters and not employment centers or the unemployment office.”

Many evictions in Kentucky are never documented, according to tenant advocates and legal experts. Consisting of little more than changing a lock and putting a person’s belongings in front of their house, such evictions, or “set-outs,” multiplied in the early days of the pandemic.

Tenant organizers fought back, filing lawsuits against local city governments to halt the practice, said Joshua Poe, who co-founded the Root Cause Research Center. “We got a team of lawyers and filed several lawsuits around set outs and won,” Poe said. “When there was pushback, it stopped a little bit.”

But he and others are pushing for a deeper impact. A tenuous statewide pause on evictions for non-payment will last until Gov. Andy Beshear ends Kentucky’s formal state of emergency, which went into effect in March. In the meantime, evictions for other reasons continue.

Many renters are unaware of the federal limits on evictions for federally-backed mortgages, according to Poe, who is working to identify evictions that have occurred in properties covered by the moratorium. “I haven’t seen an instance where the judge has asked for that information,” he said.

Poe estimated that 15,000 evictions could be filed starting July 25, after the federal eviction moratorium lapses. His group has taken to Zoom-bombing virtual eviction proceedings in Louisville — which in some cases do not include the tenant — to keep evictions from going forward.

Poe said he hopes to push lawmakers in Kentucky to pass “just cause” eviction, which would place the burden of justifying an eviction on the landlord. For now, Poe said his first priority is to repeal Kentucky’s noise ordinance, a law that allows landlords to automatically evict a tenant after the police have been called to the property three times.

Evictions due to such complaints have increased in recent months, said Beaux Revlett, who organizes tenants in Lexington, Kentucky, where evictions resumed on July 1. “There have been significantly more evictions for nuisance complaints, which a lot of people interpret as a pretext for non-payment,” Revlett noted.

Landlords in Kentucky do not have to present evidence in court to justify an eviction. That poses a challenge for defending against frivolous evictions, especially when tenants are not represented, Revlett said.

Calling on Congress

Pro-tenant lawmakers hope to use what clout they have in Washington D.C. to demand policy that will curb rising evictions.

While such policies will surely face headwinds in the Republican-controlled senate, Trump surprised many when he announced his own plans to “stop evictions” while Congress tussles over the next round of pandemic relief. For now, though, any executive actions from the White House are subject to the president’s whims.

In the meantime, some members of Congress have been pushing for greater tenant protections on the federal level.

  We’ve seen that unfortunately there are a lot of corrupt landlords that exploit any vulnerability, and right now, in the middle of a pandemic, that vulnerability has exploded. — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jamaal Bowman hosted a virtual eviction defense workshop with the New York tenant group Housing Justice for All last month.

“We’ve seen that unfortunately there are a lot of corrupt landlords that exploit any vulnerability, and right now, in the middle of a pandemic, that vulnerability has exploded,” Ocasio-Cortez said during the remote meeting.

Tenants elsewhere are also planning eviction blockades and other direct actions after months of demanding eviction moratoriums have gone unheeded in states like Missouri. There was never a full ban on evictions in Missouri, where Tara Raghuveer, of Kansas City Tenants, said 1,000 evictions have been filed in a single county since the courts started back up in June.

But like Kentucky, many evictions in Missouri are carried out before there is any documentation.

Raghuveer’s organization, which maintains a tenant hotline, has received an increase in reports of tenants being paid to leave their apartment. She said that, although many tenants are unable to pay rent, there will always be strong demand for the lowest-income segments of housing.

“People are extremely desperate and they just need a place right now,” Raghuveer maintained. “They’ll do anything to get back in.”