Hammer It Home

Scenes from Los Angeles’s tenants movement

Once tenants take a hammer to their bedraggled floor, they may not want to put it down. The work needed to be done and the landlord refused. Why stop there? What’s both mundane and intoxicating about this transgression is that it holds the seed of a political struggle, one that can only grow when taken out from the individual bedroom and brought into the context of a collective.

Over half a million renters in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area live in housing classified as uninhabitable or unaffordable, and the number continues to grow, a 2023 Department of Housing and Urban Development report found. As many of these buildings have been left in the hands of slumlords, reparative direct actions have become a central question for a growing tenants movement. Across LA, organized tenants carry out DIY projects to mend and build what they need and their landlords won’t provide. In the process, tenants are discovering ways to wrench back control of their homes and communities.

Because the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) lacks vacancy control, landlords are incentivized to push long-time tenants into leaving RSO units, which number over 600,000. Landlords have been known to illegally change their tenants’ locks, a practice that became more prevalent during the Covid-19 eviction moratoriums. Others resort to a slower violence: Guided by the fantasy of emptying a unit without having to carry out an eviction on paper, many landlords launch a campaign of neglect, hoping that if they let apartments fall apart and living conditions become unbearable, tenants will willingly seek housing elsewhere. This is one view into the mechanics behind an extensive crisis of displacement and dispossession: From 2019 to 2023, over ten thousand Angelenos became unhoused, bringing the city’s total unhoused population up to 46,260, according to conservative numbers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s annual point-in-time homeless count.

“In the beginning, so many of them were against us because they felt like we cut in line for housing. But they finally understood the reason why: It’s not that we’re only fighting for us—we’re fighting for them also, so now they see the broader picture.”

Covid-era tenant protections shook up the terrain beneath the tenant-landlord relationship, causing some tenants to fall deeper into a chasm, while giving others newfound vantage points. Emergency measures bailed out landlords while confusing tenants into borrowing money to pay rent, bought tenants time to organize while inciting landlords to act outside of the law, and kept some tenants housed in a state of uncertainty: Would their right to housing still stand when politicians declared the pandemic to be over? But since the city’s final eviction moratoriums expired in the spring of 2023, eviction filings have exceeded prepandemic levels. Lacking lawyers to represent all their cases, a vast majority of tenants are going to eviction court alone. Tenants’ remaining rent debt was due this February, and those in rent-stabilized apartments just received their first rent increase in four years. This crisis isn’t new. LA has long attracted vulture landlords and real estate investors, particularly since the enactment of the Ellis Act in 1985 and the Costa-Hawkins Act in 1995, which weakened rent control laws and prevented their expansion; meanwhile, the metropolitan area’s lack of public housing leaves the fate of over a million low-income renters to the whims of a market dominated by speculation. With few to no options for affordable housing, these tenants have little choice but to stay and fight. For them, and for middle-class tenants who are increasingly confronted by their own precarity, the tenants movement offers an antidote to the alienation of displacement, the language to properly understand their own circumstances, and the tools for tipping the scales of power in their favor.

At the core of this movement are a set of member-led organizations whose mission is to build power and class consciousness among those who do not control their own housing, predominantly renters and unhoused residents. This mission, it’s important to stress, is distinct from that of housing advocates, who generally seek solutions to the crisis within housing itself: its demand and supply, and the entities that build and regulate it. For those in the movement such as myself, DIY (or DIT: doing it together) repair and building projects are a powerful tactic that encapsulates the movement’s wider ambition of prefiguring a world in which stewarding a place and planting roots are predicated not on ownership but cooperation.

WORKING-CLASS ANGELENOS aren’t strangers to doing it themselves. In the late 2000s, the city’s willful neglect of basic safety infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods like Boyle Heights impelled members of Union de Vecinos to fill potholes, install street lighting, and coordinate regular street cleanups. Not long after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared a state of exception in March 2020, a community of unhoused people living at Echo Park Lake built the domestic spaces that society had robbed them of:showers, a living room, an outdoor kitchen, and a community garden.

To the northeast, during the first of the unusually heavy spring rains that coincided with lockdown, unhoused people, some of them with families, moved into thirteen empty houses in El Sereno. From the 1950s to the ’70s, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) seized properties along a narrow stretch that cuts through Alhambra, El Sereno, South Pasadena, and Pasadena under the pretext of building the 710 freeway—a project it didn’t officially cancel until 2018. These houses were in various states of disrepair; some were leased out by Caltrans, while others were left to decay. Emboldened by the CDC decree, squatters defied the authority of the California Highway Patrol and took over some of these abandoned residences. Understanding that the term squatter is virtually a slur in the conservative vocabulary of US housing discourse, they called themselves “reclaimers” instead.

A few weeks earlier, organizers gathered at a cafe at the edge of the Corridor, as locals call the abandoned project’s footprint, to discuss formalizing their campaign under the banner of Reclaiming Our Homes (ROH). Cici, a lifelong El Sereno resident who was unhoused at the time, heard about the group’s plan and pledged her support. She had a background in home maintenance, a big tool collection, and friends in the building trades. When they got her call, Cici says, they immediately jumped on board: “These guys would get up in the middle of the night, tell their wives whatever excuse they had, and come and help us.” They repaired plumbing, electrical, flooring, windows, and more in the thirteen houses, paid through donations ROH raised online. Having the repair crew from the beginning boosted the reclaimers’ communal self-esteem, Cici notes. The speed and skill with which the refurbishments were made also sent a clear message to neighbors, elected officials, and the press that the reclaimers were serious about building dignified homes in the shells of these empty houses. Moreover, it shows that they could maintain properties in the Corridor better than their owner, Caltrans, could. According to residents, the agency also allows houses it does rent out to decay: An elderly neighbor of Cici’s fell through her bathroom floor and broke her hip after Caltrans refused to make repairs for many months. Now, its tenants in the vicinity go to Cici when they need repairs done, paying her out of their own pockets. Speaking to me from the house she reclaimed, Cici says that becoming the go-to handyperson has helped her win many neighbors over to the reclaimers’ cause: “In the beginning, so many of them were against us because they felt like we cut in line for housing. But they finally understood the reason why: It’s not that we’re only fighting for us—we’re fighting for them also, so now they see the broader picture.”

For tenants in the movement, that picture superseded any other commitments that summer. The city erupted in a wave of eviction blockades fueled by the anarchic energy and urgency of the George Floyd rebellion. Activists mobilized in great numbers to affirm the right to shelter in place. They made barricades out of furniture, plywood, scrap material, and even their own bodies to block evictions and shelter tenants from the police, sheriffs, and in many cases, hired goons. The LA Tenants Union (LATU) started a rapid response network for illegal evictions and replaced its dominant symbol, a key, with a pair of bolt cutters. Activists affiliated with ROH summoned a large crowd on Thanksgiving Day to defend a second wave of reclaimers against eviction by California Highway Patrol officers armed with assault rifles and battering rams. In March 2021, the rage, militancy, and dedication developed over the previous year compelled hundreds of protesters to stand with the unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake, who by that time numbered 193, as they resisted eviction, which, in turn, elicited a mobilization of 400 officers by the Los Angeles Police Department. Over two years, those in the tenants movement proved to each other that they were capable of siting their struggle in the territory of their homes rather than in the halls of power, taking control instead of pleading for sympathy.

ONE SEPTEMBER DAY IN 2021, with the opaque, banal facade of the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) office looming behind him, Abdul Hood read a poem into a megaphone. He was flanked by members from the union’s twelve local chapters, myself included. We were there to protest LAHD (which has itself been evicted from its building since) for enabling slumlords, forcing working-class tenants to endure unsafe living conditions, and facilitating the physical demise of LA’s affordable housing stock. Hood, a member of LATU’s South Central Local and Flower Drive Tenants Association, spoke about his experience with what he called “paperwork drive-bys,” the enormous bureaucratic burden that tenants are made to bear as they navigate a corrupt code enforcement system all the while witnessing the diversion of resources toward the criminalization of homelessness and poverty. He concluded his remarks with verse:

We can’t ask you for help
If you’re not really going to help us
So LATU says get out the way
And let us get it done
Because we help the tenants
And you seem like you want to help the landlords.

LATU was founded in 2015 to collectivize tenant struggles across the city. Since then, members have taught each other about their rights, helped each other organize their buildings, and filed complaints against intransigent landlords. But the first phase of the pandemic revealed new opportunities for union activity; membership grew quickly. Owing to this infusion of energy and optimism, LATU began to see the limits of the advocacy it had kept central in its organizing up until then: The type of activism that has members becoming expert unpaid caseworkers, tweeting at their city council member to no avail, and, yes, chanting on the steps of city hall, hoping someone inside was paying attention. The same tactics had been used by progressive nonprofits and housing advocates for decades, yielding few tangible victories. While these groups might applaud California’s civil code, which guarantees the right to safe housing, tenants have little recourse to ensure that their landlords maintain adequate housing in practice. And because LAHD doesn’t provide the enforcement mechanism it purports to, advising new LATU members to follow the complaints process would effectively condemn them to unsafe conditions as they wait months or years, often in vain, for the law to take their side.

As a decentralized, member-funded, member-led organization, LATU offers the infrastructure for tenants to take risks without worrying about what donors or board members will think. With the backing of the collective, tenants, as the experts on their own conditions, realized that they also held the tools to improve them. The fortitude of the Echo Park Lake residents and the success of Reclaiming Our Homes further emboldened them. In October of 2021, LATU members met to discuss a new tactic: repair and deduct. Not only did this blueprint ensure that union members would have safe and adequate housing, but it also leveraged the collective power of a tenants association (TA) capable of tipping the power balance between those who own property and those who don’t.

But to form a TA, one must first organize one’s building—a process codified in LATU’s “Six Steps for Self-Repairs” primer. Because of the perils involved, the union stresses that only dues-paying members who are active in their local chapter should take the initiative. After successfully forming a TA, organizers work with their fellow tenants to identify and document all habitability issues in living units. After logging these issues in a notice form provided by the union, tenants collectively deliver it to the landlord at their house or office. If fifteen days pass without any improvements made—the period specified in the notice—tenants can carry out the repairs themselves, deducting the cost from their rent.

BEFORE REPAIR AND DEDUCT, LATU’s strategy for addressing habitability followed the proper procedures outlined by LAHD: document safety issues, file complaints through the department, and hope that this will activate a Rube Goldberg machine in which an inspector comes and the inspection compels LAHD to force the landlord to hire someone to carry out the needed repairs. In the event that a landlord refuses, tenants can pursue a Rent Escrow Account Program (REAP) case, which, after a waiting period and a hearing, lets tenants pay reduced rent into an escrow account managed by LAHD until the landlord complies.

Dont Rhine and Colin Beckett, members of LATU’s Hollywood local, talk to me about the realities of REAP. In the late 2010s, they found themselves working with a group of tenants, the Las Palmas TA, that represented the last remaining building of working-class Latines living in central Hollywood following a prolonged campaign of what Rhine and Beckett stress was social cleansing. The landlord had wanted to evict tenants from the building, tear it down, and replace it with luxury condos. The TA opened a REAP case against him, after putting up with years of plumbing problems, mold, and unmaintained landscaping that threatened to damage the building. One of the TA’s most active members was a cabinetmaker by trade who thought he could address the issues himself. But the TA hoped that by forcing the landlord to spend money on repairs, it could make it more cost-effective for him to keep the building rather than carry out ground-up construction. Rhine and Beckett say that REAP inspectors were indifferent, implying that if tenants were facing an eviction down the line, there would be no point in making their homes habitable in the meantime. (REAP later denied this was official policy.) The hearing process, like others witnessed by LATU members, confirmed what they know to be true: While REAP promises to punish landlords and provide relief to tenants, it often buys landlords time to press campaigns of neglect and harassment. Over the years, officials presiding over various LATU members’ REAP cases admitted to being landlords themselves, weren’t prepared to provide Spanish-language translators, and tripped over themselves to appease landlords—who in some cases were accused of sexual harassment on top of the egregious neglect of their tenants’ homes. REAP hearings are now held over the phone, and tenants are helpless bystanders while their fate gets passed back and forth like a Frisbee from the landlord to a bureaucrat. Before a REAP decision was made, the Las Palmas tenants were evicted and priced out of Hollywood. They moved to other neighborhoods, surrounding counties, and even other countries. The landlord was denied building permits at the end of all this, and the site is a parking lot to this day.

Rhine notes that part of social cleansing is the “ripping out of knowledge” from a neighborhood, preventing tenants from benefiting from the political education of those who came before them. Through its locals, LATU attempts to build institutions for those lessons to continue to circulate in the face of displacement. Reflecting on the Las Palmas TA’s struggle, LATU organizers realized that the union needed to provide an infrastructure that would empower tenants to take risks and use their ingenuity. Now, TAs affiliated with LATU initiate their own repair and deduct campaigns.

IT’S THE FIRST RAINY NIGHT in October 2023, and a few neighbors sit chatting in a Mid-City apartment. Folding chairs fill in the gaps in a circle of couches and armchairs, and the smell of arroz con leche wafts in from the kitchen. Yolanda, who grew up in the building and is now a member of LATU’s Language Justice Committee, arrives with a briefcase of multiple-channel audio receivers, devices that allow all LATU meetings to include live interpretation.

Neighbors continue to shuffle in as the meeting begins. They are helping to plan a union-wide march against rent increases on December 3 and want to go door knocking to spread the message. They deliberate over a time to do this, which proves difficult given their collective commitments to the union. “We can’t do it this Saturday, because we have Escuelita,” someone says, referring to LATU’s Saturday school for tenants, a co-learning space where members from different locals discuss new tactics and share what they’re gaining through their organizing. Another chimes in, “We can’t do it on Tuesday, because some of us go to the Flower Drive TA meetings.” Finally, they decide to split up and do outreach when they can. One of the members, Juan Pablo*, suggests asking people what repairs they need done, as a way to start conversations about landlord harassment when they go door knocking.

The group numbers fourteen, just over half of the Washington TA, which formed in 2021 to strategize around a shared condition: Their previous landlord had left their buildings in need of repair and maintenance, and their new landlord seemed set on carrying on this legacy of neglect in an effort to turn over the units so he could charge higher rents. The TA says he began to harass the tenants not long after acquiring the building and tried to intimidate them into moving out. Meanwhile, they were living with broken flooring, leaks in the roofing that caused ceiling damage and mold in their apartments, lack of working lighting in common areas, and flooding in their parking lot. Committed to staying in their homes, members filed complaints with LAHD en masse and waited for the inspector to come. Juan Pablo explains that they knew from other LATU members that this step would likely not make their problems go away. “We heard that the city and the owners pretty much work together. The city is on the investors’ and landlords’ side, not the tenants’ side— especially not working people,” he says. It turned out they were right: The inspectors came and identified areas needing work, the landlord ignored their notice, and LAHD responded by giving him extensions to complete the work.

“At first we were all afraid,” her neighbor Gabriel says, “But when the union came and told us about our rights, that’s when we got braver. Everyone united. Being alone, it’s very difficult to win.”

The tenants collectively agreed to take their housing into their own hands. They went on rent strike to get the owner’s attention. He panicked and made rush repairs, variations on the “landlord special.” When they complained, he pleaded with them over email to “please take care of the apartment.” Don Eduardo, one of the tenants, laughs, raising his eyebrows. “How can we take care of it in these conditions? He demands that we take responsibility when he won’t.” So the tenants wrote up a contract itemizing each repair they needed in the building, including a vent hood, flooring, carpeting, windows, and leaks in the ceiling. They gave the landlord a deadline, saying they would do the repairs themselves if he didn’t comply. He signed the contract, and they ended their rent strike, but the repairs didn’t materialize until the tenants took further action.

The contract and the backing of the union gave the group confidence to move ahead. Once they had a quote from a contractor, each household deducted from their rent a percentage of the total cost of repairs, proportional to their rent. In retrospect, TA members agree, they could not have gotten these repairs alone. Magdalena1 describes getting her neighbors to come out and block workers hired by the landlord to remove the burglar bars on her window. After that, the tenants started to demand an electric gate for security. “At first we were all afraid,” her neighbor Gabriel says, “But when the union came and told us about our rights, that’s when we got braver. Everyone united. Being alone, it’s very difficult to win.”

After the tenants took care of the repairs, the landlord started a new harassment campaign, attempting to use a capital improvement clause to raise the rent in order to pay for wear-and-tear roofing repairs. As the group fights this, they continue to meet, turning their private apartments into community spaces. “Before this, we just walked right past each other on the street,” says Sofia1 of her fellow TA members. “Now we celebrate holidays together.”

IN ALL OF ITS APPARENT triviality, an illicit hammer taken to an apartment floor reveals that property relations are as corrigible as loose floorboards. The tenants’ homes begin to eclipse the landlord’s financial investment; renters gain ground in the game of tug-of-war. In doing it themselves, they collapse the space between means and end—with one shot, they take care of immediate problems and seize control of their housing and their domestic lives, rooting their struggle in place.

The question of control over housing is at the root of the tenants movement in the US, where rental housing increasingly concentrates in the hands of a few corporate entities, while tenants spend a growing share of their income on rent each year, and homelessness grew by 12 percent in the past year alone. Mounting a threat to this consolidation of power requires deep relationship-building, risk-taking, and patience before it can grow and bear fruit. In the process of stewarding what they do not own, tenants challenge a system that determines their ability to shape their own environment based on class status. This same patronizing system allows a small number of people to accumulate buildings they don’t live in or care to maintain—houses they see as financial investments, not as homes.

No surprise, then, that struggles for tenant power take place over long periods of time. The movement’s gains largely manifest in the quiet transformations that sustain tenants’ continuation of daily life in their home. In the best cases, the real win is in the transformation of relationships with one another and with those who collect their rent—a class consciousness that commits each tenant to the long-term struggle.

  1. * Name has been altered at the interviewee’s request.

Sasha Plotnikova is a partisan of the tenants movement and an editor at Failed Architecture. She has a growing tool collection.