On March 6, a housing justice coalition in Knoxville, Tennessee, presented an “award” of shame to the top evictor in Knoxville during the pandemic: a landlord named Robert S. Greene. The coalition brought a trophy to Greene’s office, as well as a letter demanding he stop evicting working people.
The coalition, made up of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Democratic Socialists of America, and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, first held a car caravan protest calling for a cancellation of all rents and mortgages.
Activists drove through multiple working-class neighborhoods. They used signs and megaphones to deliver a militant message: All rents and mortgages should be canceled by the government for the duration of the pandemic!
When activists arrived at the housing complex owned by Robert Greene, the residents who lived there came out of their homes and cheered the protesters on — a visible sign of how urgently these demands speak to working class people.
There is a federal moratorium on evictions following an order by the Centers for Disease Control, however it is set to expire at the end of March. Several loopholes have allowed for thousands of evictions to still proceed. The CDC’s moratorium is also not legally binding, it is more of a recommendation.
In Dec 2020, it was estimated by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency that approximately 250,000 households in Tennessee owed back rent and were facing eviction. Knoxville PSL member Dan Warren-Castillo, who helped organize the protest, said it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people facing evictions when the moratorium ends.
“With thousands of dollars in back rent that they can’t pay, at this point the only just solution is a cancellation of rents,” Warren-Castillo said. “I think it is time now — especially with all these evictions coming up — to really put pressure on landlords and publicly shame them.”
This perspective is rapidly gaining traction. The housing coalition has grown significantly in recent months and has become popular among other established grassroots organizations in Knoxville, who have helped promote its events online.
As the pandemic rages on and tenants’ rents continue to pile up, it has become more and more apparent to working-class people everywhere that the existing moratorium is not a sufficient solution. The only tenable answer to this crisis is to cancel the rents.
The top evictor in Knoxville
Robert S. Greene has evicted 48 tenants since the pandemic first intensified in April 2020. Greene currently has 14 additional eviction filings still pending with court dates set for April.
“It’s difficult to comprehend that one person could be responsible for so much pain,” said Erin Sweeney, another PSL member who was at Saturday’s protest. “It’s completely inexcusable.”
Adam Hughes, an organizer with Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, said, “You look at the number of people Robert Greene has evicted — that’s 48 stories of heartbreak, 48 stories of people being thrown out of their homes, 48 stories of people who may not know what comes next for them. It’s heartless. It’s something we cannot tolerate.”
The coalition delivered an open letter to Greene’s office demanding that he commit to stop all his ongoing evictions. The activists vowed to keep the pressure on Greene, as well as on other landlords who see the pandemic as an opportunity to take housing away from people and increase rents.
Warren-Castillo said that the PSL is energized to do this work in solidarity with the wider working class of Knoxville during times of hardship.
“Right now it’s not me being evicted, but it has been me in the past and it could be me in the future,” Warren-Castillo said. “I know what it’s like to deal with this. Let’s work together and support each other through this.”
The Party for Socialism and Liberation has coordinated socially-distanced Cancel the Rents protests nationwide since the pandemic began. You can learn more and sign our petition at CancelTheRents.org.