“They Can’t Do Nothing About It”: Fighting for Housing Justice in Winston-Salem
In this post, our correspondent Jacob W. looks at housing organizing in Winston-Salem.
As eviction proceedings ramp up and housing takes center stage in the Covid-19 crisis, local housing organizing is an essential way to fight back. The Winston-Salem based organization Housing Justice Now has been taking actions in immediate response to the eviction crisis while also deepening its organizational efforts in long time tenant associations .
Winston-Salem has the 16th highest rate of evictions in the country according to Eviction Lab. Since the 1990s manufacturing has declined by 32 thousand jobs in the area. The result is that even as housing has been built, a large portion of it ignores low-income residents. Much of the housing is left over from when industry was a major part of the economy, but that has meant that improving the condition of aging housing stock has been a major challenge. Daniel Rose, an organizer with HJN, explained that while gentrification is becoming more of an issue, the more pressing challenge to organizing in Winston-Salem is “grinding poverty” and state laws that leave tenants at a disadvantage.
Housing Justice Now started as a conglomeration of leftists, including DSA members and members of the defunct International Socialist Organization, in Winston-Salem who looked at the crushing poverty and high eviction rate and saw a need for intervention. It now operates with both DSA and non-DSA members, and serves as the housing branch of the local DSA chapter. What started as conversations focused on higher-level housing issues such as rent control, gentrification, and community land trust evolved into focusing on the immediate need to combat evictions. The guide published by Stomp Out Slumlords helped form a basis of some of the work done by HJN and led to a combination of clogging the courts and building tenant power as a strategy.
Cliff Tew, an organizer with HJN, discussed the formation of the group: “A group of us getting together to find a way to organize and get tenants fighting back against the landlords in our local city. We kicked around a few ideas, like community land trusts, or build[ing] tenants organizations. And that’s what we ended up with. We set up a hotline that tenants could call if they were facing eviction and didn’t get lost in the system.” Deciding on which buildings to help organize can happen through media outlets, the eviction hotline, but also word of mouth.
Anti-eviction work remains an important part of HJN. A moratorium on evictions occurred at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic but has since been lifted. Phillip Carter, a HJN organizer has recognized a change, “Once the moratorium was in place we didn’t get a lot of calls. But we know we have a lot of people coming. We had a lot of people in eviction court last week, this week. We are preparing our membership, teaching how, why and prepping to canvass neighborhoods to organize more residents. To get them to know their rights, and their power when they are organized.”
During the moratorium there was still work to be done. Tew said that hotels and motels were often calling police to evict people, despite it being illegal. HJN organized by publicizing the evictions through local newspapers and demanding the city follow the moratorium, and now claims “they are almost entirely halted.” Other rallies, and anti-eviction work has remained central to HJN’s work, especially as the moratorium has ended, and organizing has been needed to continue pressure on the city.
What started as an anti-eviction focused project has also developed into a tenant organizing project. The process of fighting against evictions illuminated the practice of what Carter refers to as “Slumlord Privilege,” or the fact that slumlords get preference in evictions, disputes with tenants, and conditions of buildings. Anti-eviction work led directly to tenant organizing work, “For us we stopped wrongful evictions,” Carter said. “Then when we saw how many people were going through it, we started organizing, then we saw the dilapidation, and helped them organize against slumlord privilege, then we saw enforcement as a major issue.”
Landlords have responsibilities to their tenants already, but if the housing authority doesn’t enforce the rules then tenants bear the burden of combatting unjust evictions and demanding their landlord make necessary repairs.This can mean they are unjustly evicted, denied repairs, and left to live in Through the anti-eviction hotline HJN identified that one of the most important issues was that the housing authority wasn’t enforcing safe conditions for tenants. Carter pointed out that landlords have much more resources, and the ability to get the attention of the housing authority more than tenants. HJC’s work focuses on increasing the knowledge of tenants rights so that people can identify, and fight back against unfair practices, while also getting the housing authority to uphold its end of the bargain in enforcing safe living conditions.
For nearly two years HJN has helped organize Crystal Towers, a 200 unit public housing facility in Winston-Salem. The result has been an active, fighting tenant’s union. Last year talks began to sell it to a private firm, which would include relocating all the residents. The local housing authority has claimed the high maintenance cost is what has prompted them to put the building up for sale, citing a $7 million price tag.. However, Housing Justice Now and the tenants of Crystal Towers filed a FOIA and revealed that the 7 million dollar cost was over the span of 20 years.
The immediate physical needs of the building are closer to $200,000. Struggles over living conditions continue even as the fate of the building is in question. When organizing at the building started, Housing Justice Now got involved through word of mouth. Carter explains, “We found one or two people. We empowered them, we coached them to get other people to our meetings, and helped them form an organization.”
The lasting effects of the organization has been the ability to consistently challenge the living conditions of the building. Crystal Towers houses primarily elderly and disabled residents. The approach of HJN is about empowering them to fight and change conditions.
“We always say we lift up, we don’t hold up,” Carter said, “We want to get other people comfortable standing up for their rights. You get them to realize that if you don’t stand then [landlords] stomp.”
Samuel Grier, a tenant involved in Housing Justice Now has been a resident of Crystal Towers for over 10 years and got involved with Crystal Towers United, the tenant association in the last two years. Since he’s been a resident conditions have gotten worse, including issues with cabinets rotting, paint, water damage, bed bugs, and plumbing.
The process of building a tenants union has been constant. The management of the building has tried to dissuade tenants from organizing, but Grier says the efforts have persisted. Grier attends the meetings, flyers his neighbors, and tries to get them involved. “We do have core members though, steadfast and strong,” Grier said.” “I have a neighbor across and next door who get involved. He has a hearing problem, but he gets involved because he cares. We try to look out for each other.”
The conditions that Crystal Towers residents have focused on include safety, accessibility, bed bugs, and sanitation. In 2019 Crystal Towers United fought for signs and cross-walks outside their building, something essential for the safety of residents. This effort culminated in a visit to city hall.
Crystal Towers residents fighting for their own conditions injected some direct democracy into the city council. Grier points out, ““We had to present the issues to them, because they were blind to what was going on. We had 10-12 members go down and give our opinion. Not just our opinion, but what we want done. We want our lives enhanced, we are humans, we want dignity.”
In two recent cases of gains being made, Crystal Towers United was able to get guards to stop blocking the front of the building with their cars. With many residents disabled and elderly, Grier says that they used videos to illustrate how much harder it is for residents to get to the transportation if the busses and vehicles can’t park immediately out front.
When the pandemic started Crystal Towers lacked necessary sanitary supplies such as hand sanitizer and masks. Housing Justice Now organized to get residents masks, while Crystal Towers United fought for hand sanitizer. Grier explained, “When the virus started, didn’t nobody, I’m speaking about management, have facemasks, or sanitation, they put empty hand sanitizer containers. We came to the conclusion that they put those empty containers to try and ease complaints, but we were steadfast and now we have hand sanitizer on every floor.“
A major challenge that Crystal Towers United has fought for is the eradication of bed bugs in the building. When Grier moved from the 6th floor to the 11th floor because of a fire he found that there was a major infestation. Initially the organization succeeded in getting an exterminator to come and deal with the infestation, however the effort to get more regular checks by exterminators hasn’t been as successful. Grier noted how although the bed bugs were less noticeable now, they still appeared occasionally, always giving the possibility of another full outbreak.
More broadly, enforcement of clean conditions, and guidelines are often an issue in Crystal Towers. Carter says enforcement of housing conditions is “laissez faire” which has meant that getting things to change often relies on putting pressure on the city government. Housing Justice Now offers a way to connect tenants with the resources and ability to fight for their rights, “One of the most impediments to housing as a human right, is that renters are often oblivious to their rights,” Phillp said. “When they move in they are often duress. They don’t know if something is a code violation and who to contact. And then if they do contact the city, it has to get to be a publicity thing for anything to change.”
The slow decision to sell Crystal Towers comes as the city has deprioritized affordable housing. The Housing Authority has said it wants to sell Crystal Towers before any new public housing is built and according to Tew, the Mayor has tried abdicating responsibility. “Our city is captured by the wealthy, Tew said, “Our mayor whenever he’s asked always says the housing authority is separate from the city. But really all the city and housing authority need is to communicate.”
Housing Justice Now continues to organize against evictions, while also expanding tenant organizing to other properties in Winston-Salem. In Crystal Towers, Grier discussed the need to continue to organize. “The living conditions are not that great,” Grier said. ‘I’d like to remain here, and for them to do a lot more than what they’re doing. They should invest some money in the building and take initiative to repair everything.”
Though management has been negative towards the organizing of Crystal Towers United, Housing Justice Now and tenants are continuing to organize and grow support for the tenant’s union. ““[management] might not like it,” Grier said.” but they can’t do nothing about it” And we’re gonna keep struggling and fighting for change and better for the whole community of Crystal Towers.”
The organizing of Housing Justice Now suggests an important link between anti-eviction work and long-term organizing in buildings. With a public housing building the issues are less about exorbitant rent increases, and more about getting the housing authority to actively change the conditions of the building. This has meant a focus on tactics that increase visibility of these issues such as taking videos and going to the media. When HJN and Crystal Towers United went to committee meetings in the city, it was in large part about increasing the visibility of these struggles.There’s continued efforts to increase participation in the tenant union, which has meant the need to expand beyond a smaller core of organizers.
HJN’s anti-eviction work acts as an anchor of tenant organizing. During the pandemic the police department was evicting people from motels, something explicitly forbidden. HJN again has recognized the importance of publicizing these issues as a way of putting pressure on the housing authority to act on the existing laws and regulations. Other rallies around anti-eviction work accompany actions taken by tenants at other buildings in Winston-Salem too. Rather than anti-eviction work being subsumed by the task of organizing tenant unions, they work in conjunction, mitigating the most immediate threats to tenants, while building sustainable organizations in buildings.