Minneapolis City Council members found their leather seats on the raised dais and looked out at the chamber. Instead of an expanse of empty chairs, they saw a sea of faces: about 80 of them in all, young and old, Black, Latino, Asian, white. Council meetings are public, but the public didn’t usually show up, so council members debated among themselves about whether they should suspend the rules and allow time for the group — it was evident that the chamber was filled with a single, unified group — to have their say. The members deliberated for 20 minutes before deciding that the people could have 10.
Vanessa del Campo Chacón rose to speak. An immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, who ran an in-home day care from her small apartment, Chacón spoke in Spanish, and a bearded young man knelt by her side and translated. This was Roberto de la Riva, co-director of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), a tenants’ rights organization that also goes by the abbreviation IX. “I’m hours or days from being evicted, and I don’t think the city has deemed this pertinent enough to be involved and to take responsibility,” Chacón said. “We want dignified homes,” she continued. “I’m asking for my daughter and for all the families that are here.” As she spoke, two other tenants approached the dais and, standing behind the council members, unfurled a huge yellow banner that read, “Don’t Evict Vanessa.”
“I’m sorry,” the council president, Lisa Bender, interjected. “We can’t allow people to come back behind the dais.” A white woman with brown curls, Bender had garnered national attention for her ideas about how to promote affordable housing in Minneapolis. She was sympathetic to the tenants, but she also had a meeting to run. Before Bender could finish, the room erupted in chants. A Black man in a beret stood up and boomed: “If we don’t get it?”
“Shut it down!” the people in the room answered, again and again.
After a bailiff escorted the tenants off the dais, Vanessa’s neighbor, Chloé Jackson, approached the lectern, pressing her hands together as if in prayer. A Black woman with plastic-rimmed glasses, Jackson was raising her teenage son, Trayvon, on the $15.69-an-hour wage she earned at the airport iStore. “We don’t know exactly how long any of us have,” Jackson said. “So, what are you guys going to do to step up to help us?” She looked at the council, waiting. “You guys get to go home tonight, sleep in the comfort of your beds,” she said. “We have to wonder about this every single night.”
This was not the first time Jackson and IX organizers had confronted the City Council. For years, Jackson, Chacón and other residents of five buildings in the city’s Corcoran neighborhood had been involved in a prolonged battle against their landlord, Stephen Frenz, and his business partner, Spiros Zorbalas. The tenants had mobilized for better conditions, resisted evictions and participated in a rent strike. They had banded together and pushed the City Council to revoke Frenz’s rental license. It eventually did, stripping his ability to collect rent. But Frenz still owned the apartments where Jackson and Chacón lived. He wanted everybody out so he could renovate and sell to the highest bidder. The tenants had another idea: They wanted Frenz to sell to them.
Today, in the pandemic economy, millions of renters are at risk of eviction. Even the expanded provisions supplied by the CARES Act — the $600-a-week supplements to states’ stingy unemployment insurance — weren’t doing enough to shield many renting families from homelessness. In May, Houston approved $15 million in rental assistance; it ran out in less than two hours. In June, cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee saw evictions spike well above average levels when local eviction moratoriums and other protections expired. The next month, the United States experienced the largest economic downturn on record and unemployment levels unseen since the Great Depression. Congress allowed federal moratoriums on eviction and unemployment benefits to lapse anyway. In August, the mayor of New Orleans asked for donations to hold back the swell of evictions in her city. During the first week of September, right before the federal moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control kicked in, eviction filings exceeded the norm by 13 percent in Pittsburgh; by 119 percent in Fort Worth; and by 310 percent in Richmond, Va. According to the latest data from the Household Pulse Survey, more than one in six unemployed tenants has fallen behind in rent payments, and 45 percent of all renters think they will probably be evicted from their homes in the coming months.
Watching this looming eviction crisis take shape, I’ve often thought of those Minneapolis tenants, whom I followed over the last year and a half. I went to report on them — the security guards, store clerks and night-shift custodians — because I wanted to see what happened when a group of tenants organized against a pair of landlords who owned hundreds of apartments generating, as of 2016, a net operating income of approximately $300,000 a month (or $3.6 million annually). Over the course of my reporting, I saw the tenants reimagine — and then reinvent — what stable, affordable housing could look like in their community. I saw them fight, and I saw them win.
As the pandemic spreads throughout the country, further exposing our vulnerabilities and inequalities, many of us are grasping for something new. Calmer heads of different stripes present solutions they believe to be realistic, asking only for what seems possible. But it’s not their lives on the line. For well-to-do moderates, antipoverty solutions are ideas, conversation topics. For the poor, they are oxygen. Besides, who gets to decide what is workable and what is not? Don’t we have to admit that in America the dreams of the rich often become realities (carried interest, unlimited incomes), while the dreams of the poor are dismissed as outlandish?
In the collective pain of this moment, when our days are filled with death and fear, a new America is being conceived of and demanded. But moments are made by movements. If we want to change the world, it could be instructive to pay attention to a group of people who have radically changed their own.
Near the end of 2017, Roberto de la Riva knocked on Chloé Jackson’s door on 22nd Avenue South. Jackson opened the door, sighed and asked, “Why do you people keep knocking?”
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Jackson moved to Minneapolis in 2013, after the Mall of America hired her in its housekeeping department. She was 28 and had an 8-year-old son. Three years earlier, she became the legal guardian of three teenagers, after their mother, Jackson’s aunt, died. She and her boyfriend kept food on the table — she worked at McDonald’s; he was a mechanic — until all three of her cousins were out of the house. By that time, she needed a break and figured a new city might do the trick.
In Minneapolis, she found a $625-a-month, one-bedroom apartment in the Corcoran neighborhood, within walking distance of the Lake Street light-rail stop. Giving her son the bedroom, Jackson slept in the living room by a pinkish-orange salt lamp and an 8-by-10-inch photograph of her mother. Jackson took a series of jobs, finally landing at the airport iStore, where she was working full time when de la Riva knocked on her door. As its assistant manager, Jackson woke up at 2:30 each morning; got breakfast ready for her son; fed her cat, Kitty; and hopped on the light rail to the airport, arriving at 3:40 a.m. to open the store.
When Jackson first moved in, she found her landlord, Stephen Frenz, to be fairly responsive. But seeing the condition of the units inhabited by her neighbors, many of them undocumented immigrants, changed her perspective. Jackson often pulled out a bucket or two to catch the leaks. But to sit at a neighbor’s table for coffee, she often had to step over some half-dozen buckets. Many units had roaches and mice, filthy carpets. (Frenz told me that Jackson’s leak and those of other tenants were mended and that tenants’ lack of cleanliness caused the pest infestations.) “I felt so bad,” Jackson remembered. “These are people who didn’t know English, and I felt like this man was taking advantage of them.”
Still, Jackson didn’t see herself as the protesting type. She had never signed a petition or taken part in any kind of political organization. But de la Riva was telling her to stop paying rent. She leaned against her door frame and listened.
IX had brought a lawsuit against Frenz called an Emergency Tenant Remedies Action, or E.T.R.A., suing him for repairs and damages. It was one of the first major actions the tenants’ organization had taken since de la Riva founded the group in 2015 with Jennifer Arnold. De la Riva explained that after they filed suit, Frenz challenged whether IX had secured the cooperation of a majority of the building’s residents, as required by state law. To prove it, Frenz submitted leases and a record of a noise complaint for units unaccounted for in IX’s lawsuit. Members of IX’s legal team toured the building and were shown one unit with children’s shoes outside the door. But they noticed discrepancies in Frenz’s account. Inside that unit, there were no trappings of a lived-in home, like toys and books. Some pest-control records listed certain apartments as vacant, but reissued invoices removed that designation. IX’s lawyers subpoenaed the utility company and discovered that the apartment units they suspected were vacant had no electricity accounts. It appeared to be fraud designed to kneecap the tenants’ E.T.R.A. case. (Frenz declined to comment on these events, which eventually led to a perjury conviction that Frenz is currently appealing.)
IX’s lawyers also noticed that the building listed Spiros Zorbalas as the party responsible for the mortgage. That gave them pause. Zorbalas had acquired a reputation as one of the city’s most infamous landlords, racking up a large number of housing-code violations. A local paper had called him “the Slumlord of South Minneapolis,” and in 2011 the city of Minneapolis revoked his rental license. When Frenz appeared to purchase around 35 apartment buildings from Zorbalas in 2013, he assured city leaders that Zorbalas had no financial stake in his former properties. But now here was Zorbalas’s name on the mortgage records. The tenants’ lawyers dug into stacks of public records and discovered that corporate entities owned by Zorbalas owned a majority stake in Equity Residential Holdings, which Frenz managed. In other words, to get around the city’s sanctions, Zorbalas had effectively, as IX’s lead lawyer put it, “sold buildings to himself.”
It’s not hard to understand why. Zorbalas had bought a considerable amount of troubled debt from Frenz, and without Frenz, Zorbalas might have had to liquidate his entire Minneapolis portfolio, comprising hundreds of units. “The money I was making, I was rolling,” Zorbalas told me. “I was taking rent from $500 to $695 a month as soon as I could without doing any renovations.” The men were in too deep to walk away when it became apparent that the city no longer approved of their partnership. Ultimately, too, they thought the city was overstepping. “I had no reason to declare to the world that I was in business with Spiros,” Frenz told me. When I asked him if he had concealed his business partnership with Zorbalas in court, he said: “Of course I did. But it wasn’t relevant at that time.”
The revelation that Frenz was in business with Zorbalas set off a chain of events. Tenants brought a class-action lawsuit against the two landlords, seeking the return of their rent. Then, in December 2017, the city revoked Frenz’s rental license, and with it, his legal ability to collect rent — which was why, de la Riva was explaining, Jackson and her neighbors should not pay Frenz anything.
Jackson thanked de la Riva and closed the door. She thought about what she had seen and experienced since moving into the apartment. She thought about Trayvon. Later that day, Jackson spoke with one neighbor, then another, about what de la Riva had said. To get across language barriers with her neighbors, she used Google Translate or enlisted a bilingual teenager.
The court soon installed an administrator to oversee Frenz’s five buildings in Corcoran, which came to be known as the Corcoran Five, and tenants paid the administrator their normal rents. The Five were not much to look at. Built in 1962, Jackson’s building was a nondescript, three-story brick rectangle with air-conditioning units tilting out the windows. Chacón’s building, two doors down, was wrapped in dark gray vertical siding and had small concrete balconies. Windows were broken, and appliances had been removed from some vacant units. Tenants couldn’t miss the large, homely signs Frenz had affixed to the front of each property advertising his business, the Apartment Shop. Still, all the buildings were on the same block, and the tenants had made a home in them. As families discussed ways to stay put, some entertained the ludicrous possibility of collectively owning the Five. No one knew how they’d do it, but then again, the tenants had become familiar with that feeling. They had begun to act upon their dreams, not their reality — to hold an end in view and figure out the means along the way.
Jackson began warming to the idea of buying the properties. She had long tried to avoid this path, hoping to live a quiet life. But haltingly at first, then all at once, Jackson was becoming, as they say in the movement, “politicized.”
A new kind of housing movement has been growing across America. In city after city, renters have begun to see themselves as a class, with shared interests and problems, and to organize together against evictions, profit-centered development and landlord disinvestment. When Covid-19 hit the United States, the country was already reeling from a severe housing crisis. Tenant organizers doubled their efforts. “People are more desperate because of the Covid outbreak,” says Lisa Owens, executive director of Boston’s City Life/Vida Urbana, a community organization that was founded in 1973. “But they are also way more organized.” The reason they are more organized has to do with the Great Recession.
The foreclosure crisis of the late aughts displaced millions of families, renters included. In California, for example, an estimated 38 percent of all foreclosures in 2010 were rental properties. In the lead-up to the housing crash, predatory lenders targeted Black and Latino communities, pressuring residents to refinance under riskier conditions. By 2006, more than half (53 percent) of all home mortgages purchased by Black borrowers were subprime, compared with 26 percent of mortgages purchased by white borrowers. “It was like a tsunami,” says Andres Del Castillo, who was an organizer for City Life in East Boston when I spoke to him. “The recession was the wealth in our communities being pulled out and put into this tidal wave that crashed down and rearranged the landscape. All that wealth was poured back to investors to buy up our neighborhoods.”
Rents continued to rise after 2010, pushed upward in part by foreclosed-homeowners-turned-tenants entering the market. Nationwide, median asking rent has more than doubled over the last two decades — rising to $1,002 in 2019 from $483 in 2000, unadjusted for inflation — significantly outpacing renters’ incomes. In 2016 alone, 3.7 million eviction cases were filed, representing just over eight eviction cases per 100 renter households. This number far exceeds the 2.9 million foreclosure starts issued at the height of the 2010 crisis. Tenant groups tried to sound the alarm, but the national media had moved on from stories about housing. So, the organizers got to work, forming alliances and establishing infrastructure.
“We’re in a 1920s moment where we might see massive tenant actions around the country that could unfold over the next several years,” says Tony Samara, program director for land use and housing at Urban Habitat. With millions of Americans unable to make rent because of job losses or reduced work hours, national and local tenant organizers called for rents to be canceled, harking back to rent strikes that swept across cities during the Great Depression. “I see people beginning to enunciate what a different world can be in this crisis,” says Davin Cárdenas, a field organizer for the Right to the City Alliance, a national organization focused on tenant rights. “Many people are rejecting the idea of normalcy. Normal was the problem in the first place.”
When Covid struck, many groups, including the National Apartment Association and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, called for a significant government expansion of rental assistance. But some tenant organizers began discussing the possibility of something else: a nationwide rent strike. “You’re going to apply for a huge bunch of money, just so you can pay it back to your landlord?” de la Riva asked, speaking about a stimulus package for renters. “There is a different power relationship that we’re asking of society right now.”
Many people, liberals and conservatives alike, saw a rent strike as unreasonable, even dangerous. Political allies warned de la Riva and his co-director, Jennifer Arnold, not to support the Cancel the Rent campaign while Covid was a concern. The same happened to Susanna Blankley, an organizer for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. “I can’t even tell you, not only did people on the left tell us it’s unrealistic,” she says, “they told us it’s reckless. Reckless! But I think the point is that anything is possible, actually. Now we have an eviction moratorium. Everything is impossible until it’s not. I want to be in a world where we’re thinking about what we need, not just what we think we can get.”
In May, tenant groups around the country coordinated a gigantic rent strike. Twenty thousand renters in New York City and Los Angeles alone pledged to withhold their rent. In July, tenants in New Orleans blocked entrances to a courthouse after the state’s eviction moratorium expired, protesting displacement. Rent strikes and eviction blockades have continued throughout the pandemic — just as they did almost 100 years ago, during the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern world.
Throughout the 20th century, America’s urban renters organized against rent gouging and unsafe conditions, winning significant victories. Rent strikes organized during the early 1900s in response to sudden rent hikes and, later, the lack of heat and hot water, grabbed the attention of the Socialist Party, which had overlooked tenants as a potential revolutionary force. Socialist-led tenant leagues began demanding permanently affordable housing supported by the state. In 1923, America’s first public housing project was completed in Milwaukee under the direction of its Socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan, but by 1930 the United States remained the only developed democracy without a federal commitment to housing.
As the housing and labor markets simultaneously cratered during the Great Depression, the campaign for public housing accelerated. In the early years of the Depression, thousands of tenants participated in rent strikes and eviction blockades. The urban tenant movement grew more militant, and the violence of displacement was met with violent resistance.
When marshals arrived with eviction orders, tenants hurled rocks and bottles from behind makeshift barricades. Some charged directly at the officers, attacking them with sticks. An account from a Bronx newspaper in 1932 recalls a scene where “policemen were scratched, bitten, kicked, and their uniforms torn” by tenants refusing to be evicted. In cities like New York, these efforts forced legislators to pass rent-regulation measures and to begin building social housing. Congress responded as well, passing the National Housing Act of 1934, in large part to stem a wave of Depression-era foreclosures, and the Housing Act of 1937, which seeded the nation’s public-housing infrastructure. Today, more than two million Americans live in public housing.
As the 20th century rolled on, tenant movements won more concessions. By the early 1980s, roughly 200 cities, including Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, had passed some form of rent control, but those advances were already being eroded. In the late ’60s, New York City experienced an alarming surge in housing abandonment, attributed to landlords’ inability to maintain their buildings under rent control. In 1971, Governor Rockefeller revised the state’s policy to limit the city’s ability to regulate its rents. New York City’s strict system of rent control was replaced with a new system of rent stabilization, which allowed landlords to increase the rent each year by a set percentage. Across the country, one state legislature after another passed laws forbidding cities to enact rent control. The affected cities — like Boston and Cambridge, Mass., stripped of rent control in 1994 by state mandate; and Berkeley and East Palo Alto, Calif., denied the following year in the same manner — were starkly more progressive than the state legislatures directing their fates. In 1961, nearly 1.8 million units in New York City — more than eight of every 10 apartments — were under rent control. By 2017, only 21,751 were. Today, approximately half the city’s apartments are rent-stabilized.
As states rolled back rent control, the federal government under the direction of President Reagan slashed funding for public housing, causing many buildings to fall into disrepair. By the end of the 20th century, the two major victories of the American tenants’ movement — rent control and public housing — were in serious jeopardy, and the movement itself was browbeaten and stalled.
But since the Great Recession, America has witnessed a resurgence of tenant power. When the Right to the City Alliance launched its Homes for All campaign in 2013, it had 18 member organizations from 15 states. Today, it has 91 member organizations in 48 cities from 26 states. The newest member organizations have come from Nebraska, Colorado and Tennessee, reflecting the nationwide spread of the housing crisis and renters organizing in response to it.
What do tenant organizations want? Sometimes, groups like IX simply want a landlord to pick up the phone, to rid a building of cockroaches or to settle for a smaller rent increase. The movement is rooted in specific buildings, which is why tenant organizers have the habit of cataloging wins and losses by addresses. (“At 3130 Pillsbury,” de la Riva once told me, “we won so many improvements that the buildings are now attracting gueros con perros,” white people with dogs.)
But as with all social movements, the smaller battles are never divorced from a grander vision. The sociologist Todd Gitlin once said that racially integrated lunch-counter sit-ins didn’t just protest segregation but abolished it, inaugurating “a new way of life,” a “little utopia.” In the same way, when tenants gain a bit more control over their homes, they move one step closer to securing full control over them. This is the world that many tenant movements are working to bring about.
Landlords have taken notice of the rise of tenant mobilization. “It’s a bigger part of the conversation today,” said Robert Pinnegar, president and chief executive of the National Apartment Association, a trade organization for the rental housing industry. “The adversarial environment really is taking a toll on the people who run the rental housing.” Although corporate landlords have increased their market share, landlording in America remains an intimate business. An analysis based on nationally representative data from 2015 estimated that of the 48.5 million rental units in the country, a little less than half (47 percent) were owned by individuals, and the rest were owned by businesses, from small-scale ventures that managed a handful of units to major players that managed hundreds. As such, many landlords are actively involved in the everyday business of property management, from the price of drywall and lumber to local politics, which can get ugly.
In August of last year, IX staged a protest at the headquarters of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, an organization representing rental property owners and developers. Tenants hung a giant banner that read “People Not Profits” and chanted, “Down with the landlords!” Later that month, tenants and landlords packed City Hall during deliberations about a proposed local ordinance that would cap security deposits and restrict tenant-screening criteria. Some landlords who testified were booed. “Imagine you invest your time and energy and your heart into this, and then that’s the response,” says Joe Abraham, one of the landlords who testified. Abraham is the principal of Pergola Management, which owns 750 units in the Twin Cities. “It’s like a punch in the face.”
To property owners like Abraham, Stephen Frenz no more represented the typical property owner than IX represented the typical renter. “There is a very small number of people who are engaged,” Bernadette Hornig says about tenant organizers. Hornig’s company, started by her husband’s grandparents in 1958, owned approximately 4,500 apartments in Minnesota and Wisconsin. “It’s rage politics. It’s the idea that you have to tear everything down in order to build it back up,” she says. “I don’t believe that.” These property owners saw increasing supply as the solution to the housing crunch. “We agree on the problem,” Abraham says. But he thought the solutions proposed by tenant organizers aren’t “workable in the world that we live in.”
One of those solutions is the creation of democratically controlled affordable housing. “We want to transition from this extractive model that takes away people’s wages and forces them to live paycheck to paycheck to a model that’s regenerative,” says Davin Cárdenas, of the Right to the City Alliance. “People would have control over the communities that they live in.” Tara Raghuveer, the director for People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee campaign, a grass-roots movement striving to establish the right to housing, puts it this way: “In our vision of the world, there isn’t a profit motive connected to housing, period. Housing is truly a public good.” (Disclosure: I worked with Raghuveer on her undergraduate thesis.) In this world, there is no whatever-the-market-will-bear rent setting. Indeed, there are no landlords. But the end goal isn’t simply to transform all renters into homeowners, each family on its own mortgage, but to reform the fundamental way we live by decommodifying housing.
“Commoning” is the term, and its little utopia is the creation of homes that are collectively owned and controlled by the residents. Within this framework, housing is neither for speculating nor profiteering, nor even wealth building; it is only for living. In Minneapolis, IX is pursuing tenant-owned cooperatives. A popular version of this model, known as “limited-equity cooperatives,” involves residents’ purchasing co-op shares and paying low monthly fees to cover the building’s upkeep. If a family moves out, it can sell its share for slightly above the original purchase price, but only slightly. Bidding up the sale, even if there are plenty of takers, is seen as anathema to the social mission of the cooperative, which is to establish permanently affordable housing.
Decommodifying housing would “destabilize an entire industry, not to mention affecting pension funds invested in rental housing,” says Pinnegar of the National Apartment Association. An estimated 87 million Americans own real estate investment trusts through their savings portfolios.
But there is a long tradition of commoning in urban America. Starting in the late ’60s, poor New Yorkers began rehabilitating apartment buildings abandoned by their landlords, many damaged by fire and years of neglect. You could earn a spot in the buildings through “sweat equity,” pitching in with time and labor. The city got behind these efforts, transferring the title of dozens of buildings to tenant organizations that created co-ops. A decade later, in Washington, low-income tenants, led primarily by Black women, began “carving out the commons,” echoing the title of Amanda Huron’s instructive book. Between late 1979 and late 1980, tenants created 17 limited-equity cooperatives in the nation’s capital, comprising 1,000 units, often buying run-down properties and sprucing them up themselves.
The push for cooperative ownership is just one of many areas in which tenant organizations have won significant victories throughout the country. Rent control has made a comeback in California, Oregon and New York, and tenant movements have gained considerable ground in cities across nation. In Boston, City Life/Vida Urbana has successfully prevented thousands of families from losing their homes to foreclosure or eviction through a “sword and shield” strategy that combines community organizing and public demonstrations (the sword) with coordinated legal support (the shield). “We’re committed to showing our community that they can fight,” says Andres Del Castillo. “It’s not just bottled up in lawyers and professionals.”
In New York, low-income tenants formed the Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) in the South Bronx and in 2013 began a grass-roots campaign for the right to legal counsel in eviction court. (Because the right to a lawyer extends only to criminal court, nationwide a vast majority of tenants facing eviction lack legal counsel.) Tenants in neon orange shirts began showing up everywhere, from university functions to City Council meetings, and expressed zero interest in compromising. Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a plan that would significantly increase funding for eviction defense. But the tenants didn’t want more money; they wanted the right to a lawyer. They won that right, which at the time did not exist anywhere else in America, in August 2017. As of February of this year, evictions are down 40 percent in New York City since 2013.
Another thing that organizers have won is elections. The progressive agendas of several newly elected members of Congress were forged by community organizations. The Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s mother, Sandra Pressley, was a tenant advocate for the Chicago Urban League. Before running for office, the Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib worked for Detroit’s Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, planting lawn signs and protesting against racial injustice. In January of this year, Representatives Pressley and Tlaib joined five other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to start the People’s Housing Platform. The legislation established housing as a human right and introduced aggressive measures to deepen national investment in public housing and expand tenant rights.
It becomes increasingly difficult to convince people of the infeasibility of their goals when they witness one outlandish idea after another become reality.
In 2018 the Minneapolis tenants began working on an offer to buy the Corcoran Five. IX approached Land Bank Twin Cities, a collection of real estate speculators whose goal is not to maximize profit but to preserve affordable housing. The land bank raises capital through a variety of means — grants, lines of credit, leveraging real-estate assets — and uses that money to acquire properties to benefit people with low to moderate incomes.
IX was making a “big ask,” says Eddie Landenberger, vice president and senior program manager of Land Bank Twin Cities. The Corcoran Five were, well, five whole buildings and in “bad shape.” On the other hand, Land Bank recognized that the Five were “naturally occurring affordable housing,” or NOAH, an in-demand and fairly safe investment. Landenberger estimated that a new apartment development in Minneapolis costs between $245,000 and $265,000 per unit to build, while NOAH units were traded at between $100,000 and $125,000 per unit. Preserving affordable housing built in the 1960s or 1970s was much more cost-effective than trying to build new housing for low-income renters. Landenberger and his colleagues began putting together an offer.
The tenants waited and hoped. But on July 31, the court-appointed administrator was dismissed and control of the buildings reverted back to the company Frenz managed. On that exact day, Frenz notified a number of tenants that their leases would be terminated, delivering the notices himself. In the heady days that followed, the Corcoran tenants came to a decision. If Frenz could not legally collect their rent because his license had been revoked, they would not pay him. The Corcoran Five entered a rent strike. Forty-nine families in all five buildings participated, each unit giving Frenz nothing but dedicating $300 a month toward repairs and, possibly, for purchasing the buildings.
Several tense months passed. Then in October it was announced that Frenz and Zorbalas had settled the class-action lawsuit for $18.5 million, a historic sum. The tenants were shocked. A lawsuit that began with a humble Emergency Tenant Remedies Action for basic repairs, filed by a pair of fledgling organizers, had ended in a huge payout. More than $13 million would be distributed to more than 4,400 tenants who had lived in the affected buildings since 2012. The rest would cover legal and administrative fees.
A few months later, the tenants received word that the Land Bank was willing to purchase the Five for $4.85 million and had agreed to sell the buildings back to the tenants at no interest. The city of Minneapolis estimated the market value of the five apartment buildings to be $4.57 million that year.
Three days before Christmas, Jackson and a few other tenants drove to Frenz’s home to deliver their offer to purchase. It was bitterly cold, but the tenants were giddy with the possibility of purchasing the Five and finally becoming their own landlords. Jennifer Frenz answered the door and announced to her husband, “Some of your tenants are here.” Frenz invited them in. The tenants handed Frenz an unofficial offer, which they had drafted themselves. “I’ll take a look at it,” Frenz said, adding, “But there has been too much hurt and damage done.” (Frenz doesn’t remember saying this line but believes it was possible he did.) As the tenants turned to go, the Frenzes gave everyone a hug and wished them a happy holiday.
Frenz turned down the offer, finding it too low. So, IX set out to raise more money. They fund-raised $600,000, mostly in grants from foundations and individual donors, and had stocked away an additional $18,675 from the rent strike, which ended in July 2019 after a court administrator was reinstalled.
But eviction notices kept coming. The tenants interpreted them as retaliation. Frenz claimed he simply needed everyone out so the buildings could be renovated and sold. Jackson kept her notice to vacate taped to her door but worried that if she did lose the apartment, no other landlord in the city would rent to her, what with her growing profile as Troublemaking Tenant No. 1.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth it, fighting this fight,” she told me. “I haven’t been able to really live my life. I can’t go out of town and see my mom and sisters, because I’m not sure when the trial will start. This eviction just seems like it has more control over my life than I do.”
Jackson and her neighbors marked the start of summer by planting a garden in a narrow patch of grass that separated two of the Corcoran apartment buildings. They didn’t ask anyone’s permission. It was a quieter kind of protest: making a home of their own, a little utopia.
With negotiations at a standstill, the tenants decided to stage a vigil at Stephen Frenz’s church on a Sunday. On a hot day in July 2019, some 200 people gathered five blocks from Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church and School, wearing shorts and summer hats and carrying signs and baskets of paper flowers. Some donned dance regalia and headdresses made of long, sharp feathers dyed hot pink and turquoise. In a white-striped summer dress, Jackson, who had volunteered to be the event’s M.C., turned on a microphone connected to a portable speaker and addressed the crowd. She thanked everyone for their support, then said: “My neighbors and I are going to start a cooperative run by the tenants. We’re going to ask the church members to stand in solidarity with all of us.”
The crowd began marching down the street. There were parents with children on their shoulders, young people wearing skullcaps, middle-age pastors in clerical collars and older people holding sun umbrellas. A group of marchers pounded drums and cymbals as the crowd sang. Our Lady of Peace was holding its outdoor annual feast after Mass, and the crowd met parishioners there. Tenants dispersed among the confused, overwhelmingly white churchgoers, passing out paper flowers, photos of tenants and notes that read: “Steve and Jennifer Frenz, who go to church here with you, are trying to evict 40 families of color. Please join us today to pray for a solution that doesn’t break up our community and our families.” Some parishioners welcomed the tenants. Others handed the flowers back and called them names. The Frenz family was at a family reunion and not in attendance that day.
“The weapons of the weak are always weak weapons,” the French historian Lucien Bianco once wrote. It’s true. Paper flowers, homemade noisemakers: it’s not much. As de la Riva told me, “All we have is willpower.” But you cannot deny that that was, and has always been, a true power in American life. The tenants and organizers felt this themselves, when they had broken past the fear. “If you’re a big landlord doing a lot of evictions,” de la Riva added, “we are coming for your portfolios.”
After the church vigil, I asked Andrew Fahlstrom, a community organizer with IX, why the group always raised such a fuss. Fahlstrom, flashing a smile, replied, “To remind them that City Hall isn’t a place of sun power but moon power.” He had first learned of this distinction from Ricardo Levins Morales, a local artist and movement elder. “Sometimes those people forget,” Fahlstrom went on. “They think the power comes from them, like they are the sun, sending out the power. But they are like the moon, shining back our power. Our actions remind them that the power comes from the people.”
In collaboration with Land Bank Twin Cities, the tenants made a second offer of $7.085 million in August 2019, which was north of the buildings’ estimated market value of $6.36 million for that year. Purchasing the Corcoran Five would have nullified the eviction process. When the deal didn’t materialize, Jackson volunteered to be the first tenant to have her case heard by a jury.
On March 5, 2020, when new Covid cases numbered only in the 60s, a jury heard closing arguments. Jackson sat beside her lawyers from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, wearing a white-and-black polka-dot bow in her hair. Tenants filled the pews in the windowless courtroom. Roberto de la Riva sat scratching his beard. Chacón followed the proceedings through a translator. TeCara Ayler, one of Jackson’s closest friends in the movement, was there, her thick black hair dyed pink and yellow. She called the look the Phoenix and would bring it out whenever she felt self-doubt creeping in. “Phoenix coming back,” she’d say, working the chemicals in. “Monster is coming back.”
The lawyer for Stephen Frenz, Christopher Kalla, went first. He argued that his client simply wanted to clear out his buildings, renovate and sell them on the free market. “That’s not retaliation — that’s a sound business decision,” he said, adding, “Make a little bit of money. Nothing wrong with that.” Jackson’s lawyer, Luke Grundman, argued that the evictions were in fact retaliatory and illegal. “This case is about a tenant facing eviction because she stood up for herself,” he said.
At 11:30, the jury walked out to deliberate, and the tenants found an open space in the courtroom complex to await the verdict. They talked about what they would do if they lost. Jackson smiled. “If we lose, I would like everyone not to think of it as a loss. It happened. OK?” They talked about the vision of the co-op. “In the ideal situation, we have the building for 50 years, and rents go down to $400,” Jennifer Arnold, IX’s co-director, said.
“Maybe we could install solar panels. Maybe we could build a school,” de la Riva added.
Hours passed, and it began to snow. Around 4:00, the tenants learned that the jury had gone home for the day and let out a collective sigh. As Arnold jogged to the exit to pick up her son, she turned around. “When we fight?” she hollered to her friends, trying to sound optimistic. “We win,” the tenants groaned in reply.
They did win. Jackson could stay, for now. The tenants celebrated in the hallway, hugging Jackson and each other. “You know what took them so long?” Ayler said of the jury. “I bet the question they were held up on was: ‘Why do the tenants want a raggedly building?’ People don’t know how to dream.”
Two months later, on May 18, Jackson was sitting in her apartment, on a Zoom call with other IX organizers. In the middle of their meeting, several organizers received a simple text from Eddie Landenberger of Land Bank Twin Cities. It read: “We closed.” Landenberger’s text let everyone know that they had finally done it. They had bought the Corcoran Five.
The tenants yelled and whooped, Ayler the loudest among them.
“Why’s everyone screaming?” Jackson’s son, Trayvon, asked, coming out of his bedroom. He was 16 now, handsome and half a foot taller than Jackson.
“Son, come here,” she said. “We closed on the buildings.”
“Oh, Mom,” he said, reaching out in embrace. “I’m so proud of you.”
“All we needed was a chance,” de la Riva said. “We had maybe a 4 percent chance of making this work, and we did. When people really come together and put faith in a different kind of system, it’s possible.”
What are five buildings when we need five million? Can this model really spread across a nation gripped by a deeply entrenched housing crisis? I used to ask questions like this all the time, bleakly setting each small policy idea or local initiative against the towering enormity of the problem it confronted. Great idea, I’d think. Can it scale? Sometimes this line of thinking was productive, but more often it only blunted inspiration, anesthetized action. Can it scale? was just another was of asking, Is it realistic? which itself was just another way of asking, Is this social change I’m comfortable with?
Big structural change begins with small-scale models and grass-roots pressure from below. In past decades, tenant movements didn’t just stave off one eviction or lower rent in one apartment building. They won real concessions from the government, from rent control to investments in public housing, improving the lives of families far removed from the front lines of the action. After New York City tenants won the right to a lawyer in eviction court, San Francisco followed suit. Then Newark. Then Cleveland. Then Philadelphia. Home remedies don’t stay home for long. They do the double work of effectively easing suffering at the local level and providing a proof of concept for large-scale adoption.
They do something else too. By redefining what is possible, they teach us how to dream. When tenants fight so hard to defend their homes, they demonstrate that the home is something worth defending. In a country that issues seven eviction notices each minute and has normalized mass homelessness — there are more homeless children today in New York City public schools (114,000) than there are residents in Green Bay, Wis. — this is a radical departure from the norm. When tenants strain to break free of a rental housing market that has brutalized them, they raise urgent questions about the depths and nature of that market’s brutality. Is our current system working? Should housing be a commodity? Should it be a human right? Can it ever be both? And by binding their fates to their neighbors’ — seeing Jackson’s eviction notice as their problem, their responsibly, not hers alone — the tenants show us what real community can look like.
After the Zoom call ended, Jackson sat on her bed and took a deep breath. She felt a mix of relief and worry. It didn’t seem real, and when Jackson did allow herself to believe what had happened, she thought of all the work ahead: repairs to be made, a capital campaign to launch. On the Zoom call, she had actually tried to get everyone to focus on the tasks at hand, but no one could. “Wife,” Ayler had said, using their term of deep friendship. “I’m so happy for you, wife!” Jackson’s thoughts turned to Stephen Frenz. She considered calling him to say thank you. She figured he was busy with the details of the sale, but she wanted him to know that he had, in his own way, given her life deeper purpose and joy. “He taught us how to stick together and stand with each other,” she said. “There was a time when we were just neighbors, not really talking to each other. Now, we’re a family.”
The following evening, around dusk, tenants gathered outside the Corcoran Five to remove Frenz’s signs from their homes.