The following article is the feature analysis of Issue 37 of The Abolitionist (printed June 2022), an interview with Critical Resistance (CR) member and Senior Organizer of Communications at Right to the City Alliance, Kamau Walton on movements for housing and prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition. Read the full issue on CR’s website here, support CR send free newspapers to thousands of prisoners in jails, detention centers and prisons internationally with a paid subscription today. If you are locked up or know someone who is imprisoned who would like to receive a free subscription, sign up a prisoner here.

Homes Not Cages: Intersecting Movements for Housing Justice and Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) Abolition

By Kamau Walton of Right to the City Alliance with Molly Porzig, Critical Resistance

The Abolitionist: What is Right to the City Alliance and what work do yall do? As a long-time Critical Resistance (CR) member, can you talk a little bit about why you started working on housing issues?

Kamau Walton (KW): Right to the City Alliance (RTTC) is a national alliance made up of over 90 member organizations on local, state, and regional levels organizing around housing and land. Our work includes renters’ rights, building alternatives such as community land trusts, and policy work like the opportunity for tenants to purchase buildings before small landlords sell them to bigger corporate landlords. RTTC connects members doing aligned work across the country to share strategies, best practices, and ways of scaling up strategies to expand impact beyond local contexts. Member organizations work on a range of social change issues, and the alliance is guided by values and principles that stand against state violence and policing. While RTTC is not explicitly focused on housing, our housing work is situated under the Homes for All campaign, where organizing for renters’ rights and community loan funds takes place.

I’ve been a member of CR since 2010, where I developed my politics and commitment to abolish the prison industrial complex (PIC). My first job after college was organizing around homelessness in Washington DC. Then, I was homeless, and organized around a shelter about to be closed in the financial district, which taught me about intersectionality—the intersecting factors that lead people to being unhoused. Housing justice isn’t only about putting people in buildings with four walls, but also about addressing the root causes of what pushes people out of shelter. After years of organizing with CR and waging campaigns against the PIC, I started working at RTTC, focusing once again on housing but this time with more campaign and coalition-building skills and more developed PIC abolitionist politics.

I’ve learned that people struggle with housing instability on multiple levels. When we talk about homelessness and being unhoused, it’s not only about the folks that are out on the streets; it’s also about overcrowding in the homes we do have and not being able to live in spaces that accommodate all the folks we know and love, or having to hold down three-to-four jobs and side hustles in order to hold on to shelter, which is especially common for folks with records, transgender families, and gender nonconforming folks. When I worked with formerly incarcerated transgender and gender-nonconforming communities through the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) in San Francisco, every Friday we worked to rehouse people.

I’ve learned through my own personal experience and through years of organizing that housing instability is a major barrier to people getting politically involved and having the capacity to wage organized resistance against systems of oppression for liberation. On the national level, RTTC works to build a united front around how to unify the social movement left to build a long-term strategy to win what we as a larger collective need for our people, and we anchor that in housing in particular. In other words, we’re trying to move the needle of “housing justice” further to the left. We aim to generate solutions that are not dependent on capitalism, and instead focus on investing in our communities and self-determination for our people and the land.

How is the housing system intertwined with systems of policing, imprisonment, surveillance, and criminalization? How is the PIC used to manage housing issues? 

KW: Policing is a direct tool of gentrification. One example is the criminalization of youth who hang out in groups when there aren’t other safe spaces to go or the ones that exist are grossly underfunded. Cops as well as gentrifiers criminalize youth of color and working-class youth as gang-affiliated, or enforce anti-loitering or anti-truancy laws.

Policing is also used throughout the housing system. Nuisance ordinances penalize landlords and encourage them to push out tenants if the cops show up at their properties a certain number of times within 30 days, or if alleged “crimes” occur at a property. There are no exceptions for folks who need emergency assistance. The fact that the cops were called and showed up at the property is enough reason for eviction. There are also official “crime-free” leases, which allow for the legal eviction of tenants when any “criminal” activity occurs, even if the tenant was the person who experienced the harm or violence. Some housing activists see individual cops as well-meaning because they might warn of evictions and organizers have time to mobilize barricades to prevent them. But in these cases, the cop isn’t doing their actual job. This proves that cops shouldn’t exist, not that some cops are good.

Additionally, many barriers to affordable or public housing discriminate against people with records who are on parole or probation or wearing ankle monitors, or people who don’t have documentation—whether it’s undocumented folks, unhoused people who don’t have IDs, or maybe transgender folks whose IDs don’t match up with their government surveillance records.

We also see the entanglement of housing and the PIC reflected in budgets. Policing, surveillance, and imprisonment take up such a huge amount of local, state, and national budgets to the point where even during a pandemic—when the best thing to do is to shelter in place—the government only offered enough resources to address barely half of the housing problem, while continuing to invest more in policing, military, and imprisonment.

Intersections between housing and the PIC are even clearer when we consider other overlapping issues: As climate chaos continues to increase, for instance, more of our people are being displaced globally by disasters and land grabs enforced by policing and military forces, exacerbating housing and land scarcity. As we get clearer about these overlapping intersections, we gain more transformative and abolitionist wins—as opposed to symbolic or transactional wins that don’t necessarily help to build momentum toward long-term solutions.

Would you say the housing system under racial capitalism is a punishment system, where we’re exploited in order to pay for shelter? Is it even possible to untangle the housing system from punishment?

“From the Ground Up” by Bec Young, Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative

KW: The housing system under capitalism is punitive, because capitalism manages social, economic, and political problems like housing by deploying policing, imprisonment, surveillance, and other tools of punishment, i.e. the PIC. This is why housing justice must be anti-capitalist, like PIC abolition. Housing organizers now are mostly talking about the housing system as extractive, as “rent as theft”, and speaking to the commodification of land and housing. There is a story of individual responsibility in regard to housing and participating in capitalism generally, where homelessness, “crime,” or any kind of hardship or “misfortune” like struggling to pay rent is considered a personal problem. Even without rent hikes or penalties, making sure rent gets paid sometimes means not paying utilities, medical bills, and child care costs. All of this is considered the tenants’ fault, with substandard living conditions as punishment for not being more successful capitalists.

Corporations have capitalized on the pandemic and economic crisis, and we are seeing a lot of wealthy people snatching up land and buildings. Some of the work I do through media communications is to challenge the idea of housing as a source for private individual wealth building, and instead reframe housing as co-operative building, where our resources generate shared or communal living opportunities and ensure stable and permanent housing for everyone, rather than paying rent to benefit a property owner elsewhere. RTTC has been developing interventions to move housing and land out of the speculative market and into long-term solutions like limited equity housing coops and community land trusts to ensure they’ll be held by the community permanently—and not used as a site to extract profit and resources from working-class Black and Brown people.

What housing organizing was happening at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020? What were some strategies and demands that were moving forward, as well as opportunities or challenges?

KW: In March 2020, there was a rapid call for general rent strikes. In some ways this was a mis-assessment, especially regarding how many people were willing to participate in a national rent strike. People couldn’t pay their rent on April 1, 2020 due to historic job losses, and they took out cash advances, used credit cards, or picked up side hustles to make sure rent was still paid before the end of the month. For many, there wasn’t a pause to question: When millions of us suddenly lost our jobs, when staying home means staying alive—why should we be paying rent right now? Or why is rent, debt, or mortgage relief not a part of the broader response by our government? Instead of radically questioning, we instinctively went to a crisis response, a “Let me do what I need to do” individualist mentality for survival.

Even though the call for rent strikes didn’t resonate with enough people to be a viable national strategy, some RTTC member organizations, like the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities in New York, organized tenant unions and rent strikes on local levels. Whether it’s a prisoner strike inside or a worker or teacher strike, all strikes require immense base building. While a popular strategy within the housing movement has traditionally been to focus on renter and tenant organizing, the foreclosure crisis of 2008 and decades of exploitative housing practices like predatory lending revealed the range of economic classes impacted by the housing system. Therefore, when we called to cancel rent during the beginning of the pandemic, we were also demanding the cancelation of mortgage and utility payments, because people needed running water to wash their hands. RTTC started working more closely with Human Impact Partners to organize health workers and medical providers to name housing as a public health issue and a necessity, especially with the shelter-in-place ordinances.

This was crucial organizing, because when the US Centers for Disease Control recommended the eviction moratorium, it paled in comparison to the policies in cities and states where there were already bans on evictions during COVID. It was a clear move by the administration in a time leading up to a very contentious election. What hasn’t been widely recognized, though, is that formerly imprisoned people, people with conviction history or arrest records, or folks whose trauma from police interactions has impacted their jobs or ability to stay in the country, were all being pushed out of their homes—eviction moratorium or not. These covert or de facto evictions have been nearly impossible to track as they are supposedly “voluntary,” or otherwise not moved through the courts.

In response, RTTC worked to share local and state model policies with our member organizations because we knew there wasn’t much willingness on the national level to protect renters throughout the pandemic. Our members led some of the first eviction court shutdowns (shout out to Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative based in New Orleans, one of the first formations to shut down an eviction court), and once more courts reopened, a lot of other RTTC members followed suit. We had a national day of action in 2020, too, but near the turn of the year, the housing movement got derailed by presidential election frenzy. More fractures within the movement emerged as some progressive forces became overly optimistic of change and improvements under Biden. The burst of housing justice energy to cancel rent, mortgages, and bills fizzled out, and all Biden did was kick the can down the road and extend a moratorium until July 2021 that left swaths of people unprotected.

Now, we have countless people displaced and significant rent and utility debt accrued with no moves by federal or state levels to meet the needs of the people or the scale of the problem.  Throughout the last year, RTTC member organizations have organized on city and state levels for direct allocations of emergency rental assistance. Historically, we organized by door knocking and meeting in people’s living rooms, organizing tenants building by building. But with eviction hearings on Zoom and people facing eviction without Wi-Fi access or familiarity—or needing meetings in languages other than English—we have had to battle many additional barriers to overturn evictions and defend their housing rights.

While many different groups pivoted to mass digital organizing due to COVID-19 (mass calls, hosting big livestreams, or trying to build out listservs and large networks), this has greatly impacted our organizations’ abilities to effectively base build and stay connected with (and not get overwhelmed by) hundreds of well-meaning but new folks. We experience these flashpoint influxes of attention and interest within the PIC abolitionist movement often, any time the violence of policing or imprisonment enters the national conversation. How do we fully onboard, integrate, train up, and align new people as they come to our movements in droves, while also keeping our campaign work moving forward and staying alive together during a pandemic?

Overall, the most significant challenges and lessons have been around strategy and cohesion. Maybe externally it seemed like the housing movement was united around canceling rent, but there wasn’t a cohesive strategy for all of us to push shared demands due to the abrupt shift in conditions during the pandemic. Even with a shared base of people, we haven’t been able to make as much of an impact beyond local and state-level contexts. The lesson here is we need to continue to build a sweeping shared understanding of what is needed versus what is possible based on the conditions that exist, the level of alignment, and the capacity people have to seriously shift our material conditions.

What would you say the state of the housing movement is right now? How do you see housing justice intersect with PIC abolition, and how can these two movements advance toward collective liberation together?

KW: Within RTTC, there’s a lot happening to build our members’ capacities and sustainability for the long haul, since the last two years have been so much crisis and rapid response, or winning concrete gains to stabilize our communities hit hard by COVID and racial capitalism in general. There’s a lot of re-grounding happening. There is some building of promising platforms within the housing front, like the more progressive groups that built out and launched a national housing justice platform about a week and a half before COVID hit, which should be revisited and sharpened to help deepen alignment and explore shared strategies across the housing front. Housing is still not seen as a key priority issue among the social movement left, and it should be. We need to organize our folks to be in alignment around what’s at stake and how essential housing and shelter are, in order to ensure that our people are in stable places to throw down and show up in movement building work.

Through grassroots organizing in 29 states, RTTC member organizations have won serious victories in several cities. One of the most significant victories was won by the Sky Without Limits Cooperative in Minneapolis, which campaigned and organized around winning five different apartment complexes, mobilizing roughly 40 families around a landlord who lost his ability to be a landlord in Minneapolis for the next five years. The tenants organized to purchase the buildings through a bird-dogging campaign to track down this landlord, going to his church, and inviting folks to pray with them that he would do what he was supposed to do. They were able to win the buildings, and they formally started a co-op and a childcare co-op. They run all of their own maintenance and the organization that supported them, Renters United, is also supporting and organizing renters in other parts of Minneapolis and is hustling now for rent control statewide.

Another organization advancing a campaign with transformative demands is the Chainbreaker Collective in Santa Fe, which is pushing to win 64 acres and transformed a former college campus into a land trust. They developed a program where emergency rental assistance was directly allocated to residents without folks having to apply. They’ve created a new precedent, especially in a moment when the federal government is releasing emergency rental assistance money through the US Treasury, but impeded by state and local officials who enact barriers to accessing that relief, like requiring the burden of proof from renters as opposed to landlords. The Chainbreaker Collective worked with city officials to get them in alignment with long-term solutions that provide resources directly to the most impacted people, and to build the momentum needed to ensure the 64 acres is put into a land trust in one of the most low-income neighborhoods in the city of Santa Fe, directly across the street from one of the predominantly Brown neighborhoods.

I wouldn’t argue that housing justice and PIC abolition are separate, but complementary, because PIC abolition is integral to any fight for self-determination and community control. A more intricate analysis of housing work is needed now because there are gaps in how we’re talking about homelessness and organizing unhoused folks. We need to understand more deeply the barriers to housing for undocumented and formerly imprisoned people, and the ways electronic monitoring transforms people’s homes into cages.

RTTC member organizations have built and strengthened political relationships by joining coalitions to defund the police by mobilizing around city and state budgets, pushing states to prioritize people over policing, profit, and imprisonment. Due to the many laws criminalizing unhoused people over the last 30 years—and the eviction crisis during these last two years—there has been more conversation around the growing volume of encampments of unhoused folks in cities all across the country. Throughout the last two years, there have been a lot more efforts to tackle what else is possible beyond paying rent or owning a home, like helping people meet their needs and stopping harassment and harm from police.

What are some opportunities you think we need to seize to strengthen solidarity between the housing and PIC abolition movements?  

Photo by Brooke Anderson

KW: We see solidarity between the two movements in the ways housing and abolitionist organizations have joined forces and in many of the demands of both campaigns. Cancel Rent DC is a coalition of organizations that integrated calls for defunding the PIC in housing work, and a mix of our member groups across the country have been trying to think about more opportunities for the movements to collaborate. There’s a need to delve deeper into connections between housing, the PIC, and abolition, because right now it’s basic: Defund the police and put that money into housing. But what housing? And how do we make this divest-invest strategy work in a way that doesn’t set back either movement’s advances, especially because, as it is now, the housing system is individualist, exploitative, oppressive, and in part managed by the PIC. There are so many opportunities to sharpen and specify how to uncouple policing from the housing system for housing and land liberation.

Because the PIC is the “guard dog” of racial capitalism and used to manage various social, economic, and political problems in order to repress dissent, a PIC abolitionist analysis allows us to see that abolition is necessary to win the long-term solutions of any economic, social, or political problem, including housing issues. In other words, we can’t have cops and self-determination; they don’t work together. PIC abolitionist organizing also demonstrates that while we must organize for incremental material changes, “reformist reforms” compromise abolition by creating changes within a system we’re going to have to dismantle in the future. Abolitionist reforms are changes we won’t have to undo in our future fight for self-determination and liberation. Not every housing group needs to start throwing down against the police, but what is necessary is the analysis, communication, coordination, and clarity in the demands and in the ways that we organize. It’s not enough to have more money for housing if it comes with loopholes and attachments tying that housing to policing, surveillance, and to the criminalization of our people. How do we shape demands that are reflective of an abolitionist politic that aren’t also making more room for the PIC to infiltrate our communities?

Integrating more abolitionist practices isn’t only the necessary work of housing organizers, but also of PIC abolitionists in other sectors and movements. This more concretely fortifies our communities against the different arms of the PIC, racial capitalism, and the interests that seek to destabilize, extract from, and punish our communities—whether through money, technology, or actual bodies and people. In an abolitionist world, of course, our vision is not commodified housing. We’re not going to win abolition in a world that is set up where we still have giant corporate landlords and the rent is too damn high in most major cities across the country. Abolitionists need clear visions for stable, secure, long-term, holistic housing and shelter.

PIC abolitionists can learn a lot from the large-scale base-building and power-building that the housing movement has done quite well, especially as PIC abolition becomes more mainstream. The housing movement centers the critical role of renters, a core section of the US working class and a strategic base of people to build power with. Renters are at the intersection of a lot of different work that’s moving on the left.Can we examine more critically what neighborhoods are most impacted by both housing injustice and the PIC, and where could it make the most sense for us to strategically organize in coalition with abolitionist formations? What would it look like if we mapped out the cities and neighborhoods with the highest eviction rates in the cities and neighborhoods with the highest levels of policing, arrests, and imprisonment? Those could be key sites where we organize our people in more powerful ways to align demands for the abolition of policing with deeply investing in our communities in ways that ensure our safety, stability, permanence, and self-determination.

Applying an abolitionist analysis in other movements’ work is important because our movements need each other to ensure the wins we make are permanent, long-term, and impactful, and that we’re closing loopholes that allow our people to be destabilized or displaced. What would it look like if we were actually able to organize renters for housing justice and PIC abolition? What would the impacts of a rent strike be on the people who push policies that criminalize folks? This analysis is not only needed for housing justice organizing, but for all the different areas of movement-building work we are connected to. It’s important for all communities to be able to concretely name what is at stake for them in the fight for PIC abolition.

About the Author:

Kamau Walton (they/them) is the Senior Organizer of Communications at Right to the City Alliance. As a member of Critical Resistance, they have done PIC abolitionist organizing in Oakland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Atlanta for over a decade.