digital collage with a yellow background. on the bottom left, three people holding "No Evictions" signs stand on the right side, a black-and-white cutout of a photograph of a Latinx man looks directly at the camera. diagonally down from the top left corner is a dotted black line with "renters' debt" curving along the loop
Designed by Lara Witt

We Owe You Nothing is a series by The Debt Collective and Prism looking at four different kinds of major debt: student loan debt, medical debt, carceral debt, and renters’ debt. Our goal is to shift the narrative around debt and break the false idea that it is a personal, moral failure and that “easy” money management advice and a bootstrap mentality are the only solutions to financial freedom. The pieces will uncover debt traps, highlight collective organizing tactics, and celebrate the growing debt abolition movement. As The Debt Collective says, “Alone our debts are a burden, but together they make us powerful.” Read the complete series here.

According to data from the National Equity Atlas, around 688,000 households with children are behind on rent payments in California. This puts them at risk of eviction. 

I’m an organizer with Union de Vecinos, the Eastside Local chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union. Union de Vecinos is made up of committees of neighbors facing similar issues, such as cleanliness, potholes, or speeding on the streets. However, with gentrification, rising rents, and harassment, a lot of our committees have turned into tenant associations. 

Housing is a human right. During the pandemic, we saw how vital housing was. Homes became schools where kids took virtual classes and stayed connected with their peers. Homes were places for family, safety, and joy. But households face severe stress when parents are worried about making next month’s rent, or landlords are breathing down their necks about the previous month’s rent. This stress then transfers from parent to child. 

When Union de Vecinos reached out to unhoused LA tenants living in RVs, we expected most tenants to be single men. Instead, we saw newborns and young children living in trailers with their parents. They had no access to showers or bathrooms, and many families lacked the means to cook their own meals. 

In other housing situations, we saw 12-year-olds trying to read and translate unlawful detainers—also known as eviction lawsuit paperwork—from English to Spanish for their parents. These documents are difficult to understand even for those with university-level education.

For many tenants, homes aren’t just places to sleep—they’re also storage spaces for work materials. I once worked with a tenant who lived near Mariachi Plaza, an area in LA where many mariachi musicians would congregate and find jobs. It was crucial for musicians to live close by so they could store their uniforms and instruments and rush to jobs when needed. In one case, a landlord illegally evicted a mariachi and took five of his instruments, supposedly to make up for back rent. The man was worried and alone. He would stutter and mumble when he spoke with me. But, when the tenants union learned of his situation, 50 people came to help him get back into his home. That’s the power of collective action.

A tenants union is similar to a labor union, except it’s in your own house. You’re fighting somebody—like your landlord—who benefits from your labor and takes a chunk of your money every month. Tenants unions are vital components of a society where people have agency and power over their own lives. People start to think, “this isn’t just the mariachi. This could happen to me. This could happen to all of us.” 

During the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, many small mom-and-pop landlords went into foreclosure. Big banks and lending companies had capital, so they bought housing units. The main goal of corporate landlords is to vacate and displace all rent-controlled units because they’re paying below market rent. Some do so by offering “cash for keys,” where landlords push tenants to vacate their homes for cash. Other landlords will refuse to do repairs or, conversely, start intense renovations, forcing tenants to endure loud construction all day and night. Gutting and updating units can also be a pretense to demand tenants leave during the projects or a justification for rent increases that are unsustainable for tenants. 

When our union organizes with tenants, we want to show them how they own the building. Some tenants have lived in their buildings for decades, having paid the mortgage and taxes many times over, but even those who are newer tenants or live in buildings that aren’t paid off yet face staggering rent prices. No matter the case, tenants’ rent money pays for landlords’ wealth. One of our buildings has $200,000 in rent debt because tenants couldn’t pay rent during the pandemic. Now, they’re in conversations with the landlord to try and use that debt as leverage to buy the building—in the landlord’s eyes, having some money is better than having nothing.

Eviction and homelessness are long, drawn-out processes. Hundreds of thousands of tenants in LA carry that mental and physical toll. What would it look like to add 100,000 more people to the street? We must fight for our right to stay while also taking over our space joyfully. We clean up the streets. We have parties and movie nights and play Loteria. We celebrate Las Posadas, a religious festival commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey to flee persecution and find housing. 

It’s not enough just to fight; we also have to get to know each other.

Are you or someone you know facing eviction, or do you owe back rent in the state of California? Use this Tenant Power Toolkit to fight back. 

As told to Maddy Clifford.

Leonardo Vilchis-Zarate is a community and tenant organizer with Union de Vecinos, the eastside local chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union. He works with tenants to build power in their homes and blocks...