I often find that the midnight calls that come in are the most compelling. I don’t always answer the phone when it rings at 11:30 p.m. . . . but when I do, I am sometimes greeted with the most interesting cases and the most sincere tenants, ready to do whatever it takes to right the wrong they are facing.
Such was the case with Mona last night. She lives on the west side, 35th Ave. west, but she wouldn’t tell me how far north she was. Maybe Glendale. Anyway, there’s a new landlord, and he’s evicting so many of the long time, low rent residents who are perennially two weeks behind in their rent – because that’s when their checks come in. But Mona is not in that category; she, too, gets a check, but she has paid rent on time for over five years. And although the landlord has sent people a five-day notice for being 42 cents behind on their rent, with its concomitant $25.00 late fee, Mona has made sure never to be in that situation.
The landlord is renting the newly vacated apartments for $200 more than he had been. Understand: these are $500 rents going up to $700, not $1,500 to $1,700, so the extra $200 means a lot to these tenants. But at the same time, he has cut off the hot water. “Hot water isn’t needed in the summer,” he says.
Mona and I spoke for a long time. She told me the new families moving into this Hispanic neighborhood are undocumented, with three families, often 12 people or more living in 2-bedroom apartments. That’s why the landlord was able to get away with charging so much: he knew these people are stuck, and there were three incomes coming out of the apartments.
Mona asked me what she thought she should do. Organize the building, I told her. But both of us knew that was not going to work: people as exploited and as fearful as the new tenants aren’t going to want to raise their voices and stand out.
This reminded me of a job I worked at when I was in my late teens, Broadway Auto Top in Chicago. They put “factory” equipment, like vinyl tops (those were the rage back then) on new cars and undercut the factory price to the dealers because they were using undocumented labor, not UAW. I was a “car hike” which meant I drove the new cars to and from the dealer. It was a job I loved, getting to drive the newest cars, Corvettes and Jaguars, all day long. But the Mexicans there who put on the vinyl tops and other work, including the skilled labor of cutting into car roofs and welding in sunroofs, worked at least 12 hours a day, and there were children as young as 12 working there. Some of the workers didn’t have cars and I would often drive them home, and there’s where I got the first glimpse of this type of living situation: families living three to an apartment, talking turns sleeping on mattresses on the floor. People complain about immigrant labor, but no one was complaining here: not the landlords who rented out those slum apartments at enormous rates, not the factory, that paid them back then, when the minimum wage was $3.00/hr (which is what I was making driving cars), less than a dollar an hour. Not the car dealers, who got a break on the cost of their new cars. Not their customers, to whom the dealer passed along some of the break. Maybe the union was complaining, the UAW, but as with us, they understood this was an un-organizable situation. And of course, the people who railed against undocumented workers while benefiting from their labor hated the unions as well.
But I digress. The category of landlords in Phoenix and in Chicago and in New York City and everywhere else in the world include the most bottom-feeding pieces of crap you can imagine. And so often, there’s nothing you can do to these landlords, because they rent to people who can’t speak up, and the people in the building who can are alone. The landlord/tenant relationship mimics the social relationships in the world, where one class of people own the housing, and the factories, and the banks, and a different, poorer class of people work there. I stumbled into doing landlord/tenant work 35 years ago, since I lived in a slum building in Manhattan and organized a rent strike, and I’ve continued to do it on and off, in one form or another, since then. This is my contribution to the world. The poet, Alice Walker, says that activism is the rent you pay for living in the world, and nowhere is it more needed than in the struggles that live in the darkness all around us by day and only come to light in telephone calls at midnight.