I live on Capitol Hill in Seattle. I call myself a wandering Jew because I am continually chased around town by rising rents. Since 2011, I’ve moved three times. At 78, I find each upheaval more daunting physically and psychologically than the last.
Today, when I look around my studio apartment I see pictures, books, a handcrafted Guatemalan tapestry, Tiffany-style lamps, sculptures and other pieces, none of them valuable. It is not much to own after a lifetime of wage labor. But I love them. They depict my love of color, art, poetry and memories of my life in a community of socialist feminist Marxists.
Every year I wonder if the next rent increase will price me out of Seattle. As a retiree from a union job as an administrative assistant, I have a pension. Without that income I would already be sleeping under a bridge. My social security is important but it doesn’t cover the monthly bills.
My income is fixed but there is no cap on rent. There are few rules to keep landlords from profiting from the “hot” market by jacking up prices. According to a 2019 article in Crosscut, a Washington online publication, “rent for a studio apartment in King County has gone up by $645 since 2014. Supplemental Security Income has gone up by just $50.” That’s the problem in a nutshell.
Fear of homelessness started early in my life. My Jewish family lived in a working-class Bronx neighborhood. We were visited frequently by Uncle Joe, who was socially isolated, paranoid and feared people. He became my symbol of instability. I feared being isolated like him and becoming homeless.
Unfortunately, these fears are grounded in reality. In the United States 20 percent of older women live in poverty and over 25 percent live alone. Across the nation there is a desperate need for stable and decent living conditions for the elderly and others.
Even when you have a place to live you worry about losing it. My downstairs neighbor was kicked out of the building for getting behind on her rent — the leading cause of eviction. And women and people of color are more likely to be ousted, eviction frequently leading to homelessness.
I have been threatened with eviction for refusing to pay a utility bill that went from $70 to over $95, even though my rent was paid. I was able to challenge this because my years of activism taught me how to find resources and fight back. But my combined water-sewer-garbage bills are still “allocated” by a company in Texas hired by my landlord and this means I have no way to verify what is really owed.
Renters are at a tremendous disadvantage when negotiating for a fair housing situation. The laws favor developers and landlords because they own the buildings, the mayor, and most of the city council. And, of course, this situation happens across the United States.
Reforms are urgently needed. How about national rent control, a massive increase in public-owned housing, and a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Real estate developers and landlords should be regulated so buildings must include over 50 percent of the housing priced to 25 percent of renters’ income. And federal laws should prohibit all housing discrimination, including against formerly incarcerated folks and immigrants regardless of legal status.
In southern California, Freedom Socialist Party comrades are leading a community effort called End Homelessness Now – LA. The campaign fights for solutions. It proves that the city of Los Angeles owns, or could acquire, “many underused and vacant properties that could be remodeled or developed into permanent supportive public housing, better shelters, and safe parking for cars and trailers.”
Despite chronic housing uncertainty, I find stability in my politics. My home is the Freedom Socialist Party because there I have the ability and power to challenge capitalism on a daily basis.
In August I protested at ICE headquarters in Seattle in defense of immigrants as part of a national series of Jewish-led rallies. I was proud that Jews were defending the right of Central Americans and Mexicans to search for a safe home.
Thanks to the party, I feel connected to the world. There is great comfort in understanding why I, and so many others, are in this precarious situation. And knowing that together we can challenge the capitalist root of the problem.
Weller is a retired Oregon public worker and lifelong radical. Send your thoughts and questions to: email@example.com