Tenants and activists in Eugene organize to defend their neighborhoods!

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Since Eugene Housing and Neighborhood Defense (HAND) formed about a year ago, we have been conducting social investigation in Eugene, Oregon, primarily through door-to-door canvassing. In the first half of 2021, we focused on the West University neighborhood because we identified what tenants in this neighborhood themselves referred to as “microslums”. These were shabby, rundown apartments that were typically inward facing and in alleyways. Many of these apartment buildings were visibly falling apart.

There were a few barriers to organizing tenants in the University neighborhood. Each microslum was heavily populated by students of the University of Oregon, with a consistent minority of non-student working-class tenants in each building. The material conditions of the student tenants — shuffling around from place to place without ever having time to meet their neighbors, which aided the general disinterest in organizing — were obstacles we couldn’t overcome in the beginning.

We switched our focus towards West Eugene neighborhoods, which had more established working-class renters. During this period of investigation, we organized a few public events to build relationships and identify contradictions in the Whiteaker and West Eugene. Coincidentally, there were also dozens of anti-displacement struggle stickers put up throughout the Whiteaker neighborhood, presumably by Whiteaker residents themselves. We know many tenants displaced by development in the University neighborhood move to the Whiteaker. We realized we could better unite tenants throughout Eugene by agitating around the inevitable process of the displacement of the working class from their neighborhoods under capitalism. Displacement is not carried out by our neighbors, as some opportunists would lead us to believe, but by the predatory developers, the liberal politicians and above all else the economic laws of capitalism.

So in October, we held a tenants’ forum at a park in the Whiteaker neighborhood. We presented our research into the neighborhood and spoke with tenants about their problems. Through this conversation we learned about a recent rezoning ordinance on the periphery of the neighborhood that would lead to evicting poor on-street trailer residents and aid real estate investment in the neighborhood. This invaluable lead directed us again towards the heart of the working class Whiteaker neighborhood.

Because the Whiteaker developed its mixed-use character prior to city zoning in 1948, it has remained a mix of residential, industrial and commercial areas with uneven development in those sectors. Most recently, the neighborhood has been impacted by development carried out by California corporation-owned Ninaksi Brewery and Anheuser-Busch owned Hop Valley.

HAND has been organizing against the Lane County Sheriffs for the killing of Robert Gutierrez

Corporate wealth returning to the neighborhood at the same time more poor people have been displaced in its parks and on its streets has meant increased policing in a neighborhood once infamous for its militant intolerance of police. From the 1960’s to the 2000’s, the Whiteaker embraced the “counter-cultures” from social movements. After years of failed tactics, state surveillance and disruption of radical organizing, only the aesthetics of these movements remain. Many former members of these movements still live in insular housing cooperatives in the neighborhood. But these models of housing have not done anything for the majority of working-class tenants. It isn’t a simple matter of choosing to live differently.

Throughout October, we canvassed apartment buildings in the Whiteaker and met some tenants at a particular apartment complex near the new rezoning area. There are many long-term tenants of this complex who hold leases with a property management company, while some tenants are trapped in poor living conditions through a transitional housing program facilitated by a local substance-use rehabilitation non-profit. All tenants share the same class enemy: the landlord who owns the building.

Over 50% of tenants in the complex identify maintenance as a major concern. The apartment units themselves are in a poor state and have serious maintenance problems –i.e. electrical failures, groundwater, flooding, and unlivable mold conditions. Tenants at this complex are also angry about the lack of care for the building’s common area. The grassy courtyard floods in the winter and shabby repairs have made sidewalks inaccessible for tenants with disabilities. With no grassy yard, children are forced to unsafely play in the parking lot.

As of November 2021, we have visited most of the tenants at the Whiteaker apartment complex. We continue to meet with tenant leaders and have identified contradictions among them and their relationships to the complex. We are assisting leaders in forging a path forward and drafting demands with tenants to take to the property management company.

In addition to our research and social investigation, we are learning from our shortcomings to build stronger relationships with tenants and develop stronger strategies. In previous campaigns, we united with individual tenants and failed to build sufficient relationships among them before confronting the property management company. Therefore, we left tenants outnumbered and the enemy was obscured behind the property management company’s structure. This means we need unity among as many tenants as possible at the Whiteaker apartment complex to fight the singular class enemy landlord.

From the West University neighborhood to the Whiteaker, tenants in Eugene like everywhere in the country are confronting similar struggles because housing is a commodity controlled by the capitalists. Evictions, getting priced out, untenable living conditions, abusive landlords: these conditions call on us to take action and push us forward toward the inevitable revolutionary transformation of society.

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