Campaigning to Protect Tenants During the Pandemic
By Audrea Lim
Years before the COVID-19 shutdown precipitated a wave of evictions in the poorest communities in the US, Gianpaolo Baiocchi began researching how tenants could gain more security and control over their housing.
Baiocchi is a sociologist, ethnographer, professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and the director of Gallatin’s Urban Democracy Lab. He also coauthored Popular Democracy, which explores ways in which citizens can shape their communities by getting involved in strategic planning (three-fourths of all US cities provide opportunities for residents to do just that, according to the book).
While helping to establish participatory budgeting in Chicago and New York City a decade ago, Baiocchi met activists with Right to the City, a national alliance of grassroots groups fighting gentrification and displacement. They were fighting to help locals gain direct control over how their towns spend tax dollars.
Most of these participatory programs, however, only cover tiny parts of municipal budgets, such as improvements to schools, parks, libraries, and streets. The activists knew that, at least in New York City, housing costs, police violence, and zoning were residents’ top concerns.
When the virus hit, he drew on this expertise when coauthoring an op-ed titled “The Case for a Rent Moratorium” in the New York Times. As the eviction crisis looms over the pandemic, this research has also positioned him to work with progressive lawmakers to craft federal affordable housing legislation proposals. This legislation could create a federal corporation to purchase vacant, tax-foreclosed real estate, then rehab the buildings and bring them up to code. Low-income community groups would then have the opportunity to organize housing cooperatives and finance the building’s purchase, increasing social housing in the US and the control that people have over their own living situations. It would also stave off consolidation of the nation’s housing stock. “People are not going to be able to pay rent. A lot of these big buildings, these rental units, are going to get in trouble, and private equity is going to make a killing,” he says.
For much of his career, Baiocchi has crafted his research through active engagement with social movements. “The scholarly view is often a thousand miles away,” Baiocchi says. “We’re talking about structural forces and contradictions and, more often than not, about why change can’t happen. If you ask an activist, ‘How did you make this change?’ they will tell you, ‘I did this.’”