Stevan Bradić interviews members of the Autonomous Tenants Union
During my stay in Chicago in 2019 I met with the members of the Autonomous Tenants Union, an organization from Albany Park, that fights for tenants’ rights through direct action, founded on the idea that housing is a human right. I talked to Jake Marshall, Michael Robin, and Jesse Connor. Jake Marshall grew up in the Chicago area and has been a tenant organizer with ATU since early 2017. In addition to tenant organizing he has contributed to anti-deportation organizing with the Albany Park Defense Network and is an active member of the political organization that helped elect socialist alderwoman of Chicago’s 33rd ward Rossana Rodriguez. Michael Robin has lived in the Albany Park neighborhood on-and-off since 2010. He joined the tenants union in 2016 after he and his neighbors sought help organizing against investors who bought their building and had given them 30 days to leave. Michael sits on the media and membership committees of ATU. Jesse Connor is a New York City native who relocated because of the area’s staggering affordable housing crisis. He lives in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago and has been a member and organizer in ATU since 2018.
Rhizome: Okay. First of all, could you please introduce your organization to our readers? When was it founded and what does it deal with? What kind of issues do you solve?
Jake Marshall: So, we’re the Autonomous Tenants Union. We’re based in Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago on the Northwest side. We were founded … I think it was the fall of 2016. None of us [here] actually were founding members. And it was formed, by people who were studying, or working at a community organization in Albany Park that was helping people who were experiencing foreclosure, which was a big problem for a while, in Albany park.And they had been helping people organize to fight foreclosure. And then they heard about …from some tenants in the area who were being evicted– not due to any foreclosure, just due to their big building getting bought by a developer who gave everyone a 30 day notice … and was going to renovate the apartments to rent them up at much higher prices – and so they phoned ATU as a response to what they perceived as an increase in that practice.Albany park has for the last few years started to gentrify -it’s still in the relatively early stages of gentrification, for Chicago at least. But the neighborhood is kind of unique in Chicago for having a lot of large dense buildings. And that there’s definitely a pattern of developers buying them. These are buildings that are in bad, bad repair, often with a lot of immigrant tenants who don’t have leases. And then they all get 30 day notices, and so that they can all be displaced and then replaced with often more middle class white tenants, and then overall just gentrify the neighborhood. And the ATU is responding to this by using direct action principles,organizing tenants into unions, to use collective power to resist their evictions.
R: Could you explain a little bit the specificity of Chicago,and the US in general, for our readers to have the fuller picture? So, what is the situation with tenants, landlords?What is the case here?
Michael Robin: It’s a big question.
R: We talked about that for a bit, earlier. There are certain differences [between the US and Serbia] and I think it’s important to recognize them.
Michael Robin:Yeah. Um, I mean, right now in the US it’s something around 50% of renters are rent burdened, meaning they’re paying 30% or more of their income towards rent, and that’s just been a mounting crisis. Homelessness is, you know, rising, not unprecedented, but rising and compounding, in all the large cities.It’s not as stark of an issue in Chicago as it is in places like LA or San Francisco. But in Chicago we’re seeing a lot of just, you know, manufactured gentrification with municipal players, people in government, aldermen, and business, and chambers of commerce and landlords, all working together to take a neighborhood, and you know, block by block, just kick all the working class people out and bring there, usually whiter, more affluent tenants.
R: Could you explain this a situation where a landlord would usually own an entire building because this is, from what I understood, a place of your struggle, which is the main difference [with Serbia].
Michael Robin: Yeah. So,I don’t know the real percent of how many people are renters in the US, but it’s a big number, and especially in the cities.And most of the time they’re renting from a landlord who owns an entire building. There are small landlords that just own one building. They often owned the housing stock that’s smaller, like a two flat or you know, a three flat.
Jesse Connor: You have people who have like, a small home where they have maybe like a basement rental unit within the home that they reside in. And you’ll see then when you look at like Chicago rental laws too, they kind of don’t make distinctions for the kind of rights that a tenant will have based on whether their landlord lives within the building. We found that those levers can be just as exploitative and it’s not necessarily based in any reality that there should be less protections for those tenants. But, but there’s a sort of like popular like cultural assumption almost that like the landlords who have landlord as their primary business. You have companies who are developers and property management combined into one entity. So, they construct the buildings or they purchase the buildings and renovate them and then own all the units and rent them out separately. And that’s treated as somehow different than owning your own property and renting out apartments.
Michael Robin:But often what we find, the ones that own their own property, and that’s sort of an aspirational thing for a lot of working class people, is to buy a two flat to live in, you know, on one floor, rent out another. But what we often find is that tenants living in that situation will sometimes be treated even more crudely than they would be by like a professional company. Um, and like Jake said, in Albany park, we have a lot of large buildings with big courtyards, and between 50 and 80 units per building. And a lot of times that’ll be owned by landlords that own somewhere between seven and 30 buildings, like that.
Jake Marshall: Yeah, it’s very, it’s very rare to have what you were describing [before]. So we have condominiums, which is where it’s like a big building, broken into apartments where people own the individual apartments. And then sometimes the owners of those individual apartments will rent them in turn, but that’s not nearly as common. It’s usually you have either a building that’s all condos or all rental, and then you have single family homes that are typically owner occupied. Occasionally you have single family homes that are rented, where the owner doesn’t live in the building or the home rather. And I think what distinguishes ATU a little bit as well is, a lot of the anti-gentrification movements in Chicago especially, have been focused a lot on homeowners, and that’s what even the people who started ATU, they were originally looking at foreclosure.
R: This foreclosure problem started in 2008, with the crisis?
Jake Marshall: That’s when it got really bad. Yeah, yeah. And a lot of gentrification work has been focused on helping homeowners maintain, being to afford property taxes and stay in their homes, where ATU started looking at renters, in a way that not a lot of people in Chicago have. Although it’s starting to become more common to, to look at renters that way.And part of that might be because of our large number of big buildings with all rentals. Um, and so yeah, you often see, I mean we’ve fought a landlord at three or four different buildings now, the same landlord and he owns all of these different buildings, and he owns the whole building, and it’s like 30 units, all rental, and he gives every single one of them a 30 day notice all at the same time to take everyone out.
Michael Robin: So, in Albany park, I mean it’s like this everywhere, but right now in Albany park, a lot of this housing stock of these big buildings, have been in the hands of like not small landlords but smaller ones that own a few in the neighborhood.
Jesse Connor: I will say, to me, it kind of builds off of what Michael had been talking about before where, like, there’s this kind of aspirational upward mobility model of – you buy, like, this two flat building – maybe you live in one, and you rent another and you build wealth both through rent seeking with that, and also through appreciation and property value. And then maybe you buy a bigger building. And this is a process.So in a place like this, you have a lot of Polish people and Korean Americans who emigrated maybe earlier the 20th century. And as they sort of amass this housing stock and own these larger buildings, they’d be kept pretty much in poor condition, but they’d be affordable to the people here now.
Michael Robin: We’re seeing one of the major ways in which gentrification is happening, especially in Albany park, is that all these buildings that were previously in the hands of what would be considered more Ma’ and Pa’ landlords, that would, you know, people were grateful that they kept the rent pretty low, but often had really bad conditions. And now they’re all being sold off to, you know, higher quality and not necessarily luxury developers, but people, like Jake mentioned, Silver Property who we’ve fought a bunch of times that will buy the whole building, kick everyone out. Most of them don’t have leases, so they just get 30 days and they’re gone. People live there 10, 15, sometimes 20 years. And then he [the developer] will do pretty shallow, superficial renovation and then rent it out for twice or even three times the price.
Jesse Connor: And in Silver’s case I think the actual renovation work is kept pretty much in the house.Or he has like a separate corporate entity that’s still owned by the same guy, which is his own set of contractors. So I guess it’s sort of difference between here in Serbia,because here you have these companies that do their own work with the physical buildings, or rebuilding them, renovating them. But it’s still kept by the same people.
R: So, the next question is – since now we know what was the situation is, we know some of the causes, we have covered them – what is are your actions, what are your strategies? What is it that you do? You can tell me generally,and perhaps give me one or two examples.
Jake Marshall: So, we have a concept that we borrowed from another organization based in Boston called City Life,or in Spanish, Vida Urbana.They have a concept called the Sword and the Shield. And the idea is that if you’re going to fight an enemy, you’re going to have your shield.Our shield represents our legal rights as tenants as either citizens or even as non-citizens. So ATU has a law firm that we partner with called the Community Activism Law Alliance, CALA [currently: Beyond Legal Aid]. They’re are really great organization. And so the tenants that work with us get representation in courts. And they help us do “Know your rights” clinics and workshops. We distribute a lot of materials about your rights as tenants. But in the end, we view this simply as a shield and that you can’t win a fight with just a shield. You also need a sword. And that sword for us is that direct organizing, direct action, based around the values of solidarity and mutual aid. And that’s where a lot of other organizations will simply find you a lawyer who will represent you in court and maybe get you a few extra months in your apartment,whereas we start on the basis that every single eviction is unjust and every single person who’s being evicted [is being unjustly evicted]. The ultimate goal should always be to get them to just stay in their apartment.And for that, you need a little extra leverage, which comes through organizing tenant unions and fighting the landlord as a group and that with both the other tenants in your building. And that comes with this idea that your landlord owns your whole building. So your neighbors, when they fight with you, you’re all fighting the same enemy. And then also fighting with other tenants in the neighborhood. We’re a collective and everyone turns out to each other’s stuff. And those are more like protests and other types of direct action recall that’s outside of the legal system that’s meant to demonstrate our power over the landlords and show, you know, that idea of like, “the boss needs you,you don’t need the boss”, that for us is:“the landlord needs you,you don’t need the landlord”. It’s not just a matter of having your rights granted to you by the government, but that we’re trying to actually take the power to control our own housing ourselves. Um, and that’s the main spirit of what we’re trying to do.
Michael Robin: You mentioned also rent striking, so it’s not just picketing or protesting, but actually using the collective power of tenants and their relationship to the landlord in order to affect change. So, you know, refusing to pay rent as a group. Um, and that’s basically that.
R: Julia [Duerst] told me, when I talked to her two days ago, that you have some ways to pressure, especially those companies that own a significant number of apartment buildings, pressuring them publicly, and this can have sometimes even better results, than, for example picketing.
Jesse Connor: Well the picketing … we have like a ATU Tactics Zine of different tactics that we can use as part of the overall strategy. But, but because of the legal situation that Jake was describing, where ultimately, the way things are codified currently, the landlords do have this legal right to the property,and they are within their legal right to evict people. So a lot of the work has to be done on, sort of, almost like a moral framework and on a pressure, like, public pressure framework, where even if you can’t appeal on a moral level to landlord, because they’re driven by this profit mode, you can try to make it less profitable for them by making them unpopular publicly.So, right, there’s a lot of, kind of, like shaming tactics and really publicizing the eviction, publicizing the stark kind of moral issue underlying it where you have people who have done nothing to incur this eviction – they paid their rent, they’ve lived here for 20 years,they have kids at the schools – but because they’re almost like, the equivalent of living on top of an oil well, and having the oil company come in and bulldoze your house and f**g build an oil Derrick on it. It’s just that the land itself is valuable to put something new on it and there’s no legal mechanism stopping these developers from kicking people out. So they just get kicked out. So, no one, none of them really want to publicly be identified as the developer or the landlord that does that, because it’s bad for business. And they have pretty sophisticated, well worn, rhetorical propaganda tactics. They’re talking about how they’re part of this essential cycle of “improving the neighborhood” – improvement is a big word – and you know, like,“this building was rundown”, “there were rats” and stuff,“so we want to make it nicer”, “we want to make it so it’s a healthy place to live”. But it does not become a place to live for the people who have lived there all this time.
R: Have these tactics worked in some cases?
Michael Robin: Yeah, I was going to bring it up.
R: This was interesting to me, from the perspective that these people [landlords] would do something or react to these tactics, because they would,in the end, need to either rent other apartments that they own, or just because of their public image, which would be affected.
Jesse Connor: We can make this way. We can make it kind of toxic for them to have relationships with public officials. So, going again to Silver Properties –we use FOIA, Freedom of Information Act requests, which is just a legal mechanism in the US where you can obtain public records, and we’re able to identify ways in which that developer worked with the member of the City Council who represents this neighborhood or did represent this neighborhood at that time, to show that she had worked with him to facilitate his purchase of the building and the evictions. And because of that, that developer had to basically stop donating money to that politician because it became publicly toxic otherwise.
Michael Robin: She had to promise she wouldn’t take the donations from them anymore after she was interviewed in one of the city periodicals.
Jesse Connor: And then, after that – it’s obviously not the only reason that she lost the office – but she was challenged by an openly socialist candidate who made a lot of use of that narrative – like regardless of what this politician says, she has been very friendly to the people evicted, people in this neighborhood – and the socialist than did win the office as a result.
Michael Robin: A lot of them will, and Silver in particular, would co-host community events as like a partner or a sponsor. And so, just making them sort of toxic so that the new cafe doesn’t want to put Silver’s name on it as a sponsor of their fundraiser. Or another new nonprofit in town used to have a relationship with him and have him [Sliver] as a sponsor -they’re storytelling nonprofit – we sort of pressured them a little bit and they don’t really touch him anymore. He’s actually their new landlord. They moved in and one of the buildings that Jake helped organize, and after Silver evicted all these tenants, and put in more wealthy ones, and then a coffee shop, and an arts nonprofit. But now they’re scared to be associated with them.
Jake Marshall: Then there another case that the three of us worked on last year. We did a lot of media work, a lot of social media stuff and we actually heard directly that one of the … it was a big company owned by a guy with a sub-property manager.And that sub-property manager, she apparently was going to rent to a totally unrelated building in a different neighborhood. She had a different building. She had shown this apartment to a couple and they said they were really interested in it. And then a day later they called and they told her that they had Googled her and they saw our stuff, and that they didn’t want to rent from her anymore.And they admitted that to us.That really showed the value in this kind of media work – whether it’s social media, talking to newspapers and television stations and online news stations. But you know, these folks [the developers], they’re not necessarily ashamed of what they’re doing. But they do know that it can affect their business.
Michael Robin: We can send you some of the materials [shows me the pictures]. This is her, we put her face all over the place Julie Fritzshall.We had to delete a lot of this material as part of an agreement, which goes to show how it actually was pretty successful.
R: I have two more questions. The first one would be: how would you assess your kind of engagement so far?How successful were you from the perspective of your aims?
Jesse Connor: I think that’s a good – like,to build off of what we were talking about – where a lot of that public pressure becomes important is just beyond discouraging those developers from being active in certain places is for the actual individual eviction cases, which is ultimately the heart of the actual work being done. Despite the fact that these tenants don’t have a legal right to stay in the building, it becomes leverage for slowing down the eviction process and for getting those tenants at the very least, some kind of like financial settlement – so going back to the case Jake was talking about that the three of us were part of – none of the tenants had had a legal right really to stay beyond the 30 day notice and then the subsequent eviction process.But because of the leverage that they were able to build through using tactics like this and through having the legal services community partner, the tenants decided to stay and fight it,they were able to stay in the building an extra nine months, did not pay rent during that time. And then were also given between like 500$ to like 1500$and up to 2500$. So they were able to negotiate a like actual, noteworthy sum of money to be used for actual moving expenses, which is not customary in any way. There’s no legal obligation to do that. But that was the amount of damage that the case could be doing both to their public persona, and just from the point of view that the tenants physically were not leaving the building and it was slowing down the developer’s ability to renovate and to rent them out at higher prices. This came to a point where it was more worth it to them to actually give in and not pursue this back rent and to pay the settlement.So that way it’s a victory in allowing the tenants to stay in the neighborhood longer.Where the frustration comes in is that by still ultimately not having that legal right to stay in your building. We have these very successful, very heartening fights that still end in tenants having to move and as the neighborhood gets more expensive that often means they have to move out of the neighborhood. And that is a frustrating thing. So we’re still trying to figure out ways to really [change that]. Because it is ultimately, philosophically, the point of the organization is to challenge that property relationship. We’re explicitly anticapitalist organization. Going back to the origin – the reason why it’s called, the Autonomous Tenants Union and not like Albany Tenants Union, or Chicago Tenants Union – and I know the founders can speak on it a little better than I can – but the community center, the group that the founders had been working with before splitting off and making this its own project – had like an affiliation with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas Mexico. So, there’s that philosophical idea of creating an autonomous zone of just the people who are on the land, being the stewards of that land, regardless of what the state is trying to say. That that is real underpinning of it.That the people who live here have a right to this land, but we have to navigate the legal reality that says they don’t.
Michael Robin: We also talked about the idea of the no displacement zone. That was something we used a lot, earlier on. And, I think we have seen that some of these developers like Silver seem to be a little more cautious about buying up buildings in this neighborhood, knowing that they’re probably going to end up in a fight whit us.They can feel like plugging up holes, you know, in a sinking ship sometimes, for reasons that Jesse talked about.
Jake Marshall: Yeah. And then Silver for a while, from 2011 through 2017, was buying multiple buildings a year in Albany Park. We think that they evicted at least 200, probably more like 250 households, multiple people per household. And then after we organize a couple of successful cases, they haven’t bought any new buildings in the neighborhood as far as we know in the last few years. We also had a pretty big influence on that election, on the aldermanic election, largely through that Silver campaign. So we’ve had some pretty significant victories. But yeah, I mean, we want to build a mass movement and we want the tenants we work with to stay on with us and to become organizers themselves. But that’s hard when they have to move halfway across the city, because ultimately they do have to move. And you know, we’re all volunteer operation. We have no staff. We don’t have an office.
Michael Robin: Most of us don’t want to.
Jake Marshall: Yeah. You know, we do give stipends for certain types of work in limited situations, but in the last year we’ve run up against the limitations of that model, and we’re running into some capacity issues, and we’re, you know, constantly struggling to retain folks. So I think we’ve had a lot of really great short, and I would say medium term successes, but in terms of the long term goal, the building of,like a broad mass movement to fundamentally change property relations – where we’re still in progress on that, which we always knew it’d be a long, long haul anyway. So, it’s not to say that we’re not making progress, it’s just that, it’s hard to measure the progress because it’s such a broad process.
Jesse Connor: I think that’s another kind of interesting and maybe unique complication is that Albany Park, at least the zip code, or the area of the city that Albany Park occupies, is one of the more diverse by way of national origin and language. So being a volunteer organization, we’ve managed pretty successfully, for at least our public events to have them fully English-Spanish bilingual, because there’s a lot of people in the neighborhood who speak Spanish as their first language. Yeah, it’s very difficult, it puts a lot of weight on the bilingual members of the group, but it’s very, very central for this movement we’re trying to build to be a fully multiracial, multi ethnic, multilingual, have gender justice across all gender identities, sexual identities, ability levels.Which is a lot of work when it’s ultimately people trying to do it in their free time and the time that they can steal from work.
Michael Robin: And with gentrification, you know, continuing to happen despite our best efforts, we see, you know, our own organization being gentrified a little bit. Inevitably we have more leftist, young, college educated people interested in joining. And then a lot of our Spanish speaking members and immigrant members who have – most of them have families or young children – and a lot of them are busier and busier, or have to move to another city or to another neighborhood. I do want to say about the idea of this mass movement, you know, we’re only one part of a mass movement and there are groups similar to us all over the country, we’re all a little different. But you know, we’re seeing this movement is growing rapidly and you’re seeing already with – like as one dumb example – the presidential debates, housing is suddenly an issue in a way that it hasn’t been on a national level.
Jesse Connor: I don’t think it’s pretty much ever been like a national political issue. Except for like platitudes about home ownership and small homeowners. I guess it’s the first time – I’m 29 years old and I can’t recall in my lifetime presidential candidates talking about renters, period, and that’s the product of a lot of organizing around the country for that to burble up to the point where the people in the most elite strata of American policies have to at least acknowledge it.
Michael Robin: It’s not really that measurable. You can see it, like you said, bubble up. You see municipal elections dealing with it more. We sort of forced that issue more in municipal elections. We actually had a town hall for the aldermanic elections of three different wards in this area. It was very interesting, and I don’t know why any of them came cause we just made most of them look absolutely awful. But at least on a rhetorical level and a discursive level, we’re seeing the issue of housing and the issue of housing as a human right really bubble up. And I think we do play a part in that. And that feels pretty good. It’s easy to lose sight of, when you keep fighting these landlords and keep half winning, half losing against them. But yeah.
R: My final question, you’ve kind of answered it already, at least partially, is what are your core values? What is the reason for this fight?
Jake Marshall: We have our new membership pamphlet has a list of core values.You can have it with you.
R: But you are here. I mean, you can tell me in a more personal way.
Jake Marshall: Housing as a human right, I think is a fundamental thing, that it should not be a commodity. No one should be making profit off of housing, period. And then beyond that, solidarity, the idea of considering an eviction of our neighbor to be hurting all of us. Just because you’re not directly affected doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt you. Mutual aid, the idea that we help each other, not driven by any sort of profit or financial motive.
Michael Robin: Because we want to build that world…
Jake Marshall: Yeah, we want to build a world that’s based on cooperation.
Michael Robin: We’re not going to wait to build that. We’re trying to build it here and now.
Jake Marshall: And then maybe another stuff we haven’t talked as much about, but in addition to treating legal work as sort of one tactic among many, there’s also the fact that we’re not an electoral organization. Part of that is we’re a nonprofit in the US.There’s rules about whether nonprofits can endorse candidates or not.
Michael Robin: I want to make sure nonprofit can be a loaded term and can mean a lot of it. We’re non-for-profit on the state level. We’re not a nonprofit in the way that many people in the US see it. We’re not a 501C3.
Jesse Connor: We don’t have staff
Michael Robin: [This is why I am in] opposition to saying nonprofit. We think that the nonprofit industrial complex is problematic.
Jake Marshall: We’re not a political organization, is what I meant to say.
R: In the sense, that you are not registered as a political organization?
Jake Marshall: Yeah. So, we legally we can’t [endorse candidates] – if we did endorse candidates, we would risk a certain tax-exempt statuses and things like that. But also, philosophically we don’t want to endorse candidates. Many of us on an individual level have supported candidates and then we certainly have attacked incumbent politicians. But we do not consider elections to be where we want to focus our time and energy. We don’t think that’s where fundamental, true movement change is going to be happening. And, also, a lot of our base membership are undocumented immigrants who just can’t vote. So, we’re working with folks who simply cannot engage in a lot of those tools. So, to us that means that those tools are fundamentally flawed. It’s not just that we can’t engage in elections because of our members, but it’s like elections are flawed because the people who are affected by these problems cannot engage in them. So that’s one thing that we haven’t mentioned yet.
Jesse Connor: Connecting to what Jake said, a lot of our members being undocumented, and this stuff earlier about the makeup of Albany park, as a neighborhood where there are a lot of immigrants and undocumented immigrants from central America and Mexico, is that we do have lot of involvement in the immigration justice movement. ATU is a part of a coalition within the neighborhood called the Albany Park Defense Network. And we find that work to be very like integrally connected.People have the right to be in the country regardless of their legal status, and connected to that they have a right to live here the way anyone else who lives here, lives here. We have a right to the same quality of housing that anyone should have, the same quality of services.And because housing is the focus here,that’s kind of what it is. And I think obviously something that we, I guess don’t really include in the language that we have right now of our core values, that maybe should be, is just the idea of the United States as a kind of settler colonial project, and the idea that it is stolen land, that to be profiting off of it, or to be keeping people out of it, through the system of like border security is just fundamentally not what we jive with.
Jake Marshall: There’s actually a lot of foundation to this. Our anti-deportation work about how deportations and immigration laws are a form of displacement. And in gentrifying neighborhoods you see increased policing, increased policing leads do increase deportations. Even in a sanctuary city like Chicago where police are not supposed to cooperate with ICE, when there’s more police, there’s more ICE activity. It’s just how it goes, and that these things are related. And that,you know, we view immigration justice, anti-colonial work, anti-imperialism, to be part of anti-displacement work. Displacement is a, in a way, an imperialistic settler project tied to deportations and border patrol
Michael Robin: People have a right to freedom of movement, and to stay where they are as well, and to build stable communities, which we really don’t see much of at all here. To me it’s really important to fill that for ourselves while trying to create a world in the future where that’s easier to do.
Jesse Connor: I feel like a lot of the forces that wind up forcing people into like positions of migration to the US are largely the same forces, that then try to push them back out of the US.The political system encourages US involvement in central American countries that’s destabilizing. They often seek the same financial interests when they want to gentrify neighborhoods and push these people back out to a kind of totally untenable purgatory.
R: Thank you very much for doing this interview. I hope we’ll stay in contact and perhaps cooperate sometime in the future.
Jake Marshall: Sure. No problem. Thank you.
All photographs have been taken from the ATU Facebook page