Mutual Aid Means Survival in Texas as Winter Storm Collides with Housing Crisis

Fueled by warming temperatures in the Arctic, the deadly winter storm that froze much of the country last week collided with a housing crisis that has exploded during the pandemic. Despite a federal “moratorium” on evictions, activists in Dallas, Texas were already fighting to keep people in their homes before the storm hit. To learn about how people came together to survive as temperatures plunged amid deadly power outages, Truthout’s Mike Ludwig spoke with Cooper Feste, an organizer with a local tenants’ union called Dallas Stops Evictions.

Music by Dan Mason.

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Mike Ludwig: Hello everyone, Mike Ludwig with Truthout here, welcome to Climate Front Lines. As usual I’m coming to you from New Orleans, Louisiana, where Mardi Gras was freezing cold last week and, of course, mostly canceled due to COVID. We had some power shortages in Louisiana, but the situation was much worse for our neighbors in Texas, where millions of homes lost power and water service during the brutal winter storm that froze much of the country and left dozens of people dead.

Scientists saw signs of climate change in the winter storm – warming temperatures in the Arctic are disrupting weather systems and pushing colder air into other parts of the world. We are clearly not ready for this. I’ve lived in the North and South, and I don’t know if people realize that many homes in southern Texas and Louisiana, for example, are not insulated like homes up North. It takes a lot of energy to heat a house, and the deregulated energy grids in Texas could not handle the demand during the arctic blast, causing deadly blackouts that left people without heat in frigid temperatures for days.

The climate crisis is colliding with a housing crisis that was a problem before the pandemic but is now exploding as millions fall behind on rent. In Texas, more than 27,000 people experienced homelessness last year – a 5 percent increase from the year before, according to the Texas Homeless Network. Despite a federal quote un-quote “moratorium” on evictions, activists in Texas were already fighting to keep people in their homes before the winter storm hit. I wanted to learn more about how people came together to survive as temperatures plunged and the power went out, so on Friday I spoke with Cooper Feste, an organizer with a tenants’ union called Dallas Stops Evictions in Dallas, Texas.

Cooper Feste: So, Dallas Stops Evictions, we’ve started organizing with tenants and the houseless community. So we’ve sorta had we sorta to two different fronts. And that’s also reflected in what we’ve been doing since the storm started. There’s a camp called Camp Rhonda that we helped residents of, people just houseless, the houseless community, near a shelter in Dallas who couldn’t get in, didn’t want to get in for multiple reasons.
And so that had been a regular occurrence where we we’d you know, be out there with them, help them set up. Set up a mailbox tents. We did a tent drive community areas. And so that’s that we’ve, we’ve had that connection with the houseless community near the Austin street shelter in Dallas.

From there, basically whatever the blog before the storm, it was being threatened with with being swept up by the city. So that, that had already been, yeah, people had already been organizing to, to help that community. So once this happened, People aren’t already known about camp Rhonda. We were immediately able to get all, all of the residents who wanted to go to hotel to enter a hotel for, from last Sunday until this next upcoming Saturday.

So, good amount of time. I believe it was last Sunday, but yeah, so we got a bunch of donations too, to get the residents of Camp Rhonda, into hotels. And now was about 23 residents. A lot of them stayed back and we set up a warming center at the camp with you know, like insulated tents and you know, heating machines.
So, and then also we did, you know, kept doing food like food and clothes drives getting people out there. So that’s sort of what we’ve been doing on that front. Because I, like I said, there’s, there’s two different fronts we’re on basically with tenant and houseless organizing.

ML: Right. I’m interested, there’s so many intersections here. There’s houseless organizing, there’s tenants organizing, and we have this climate change connected winter storm. That, that has been so damaging.

CF: Yeah. There’s a lot. There’s a lot to talk about basically. But, yeah, so that, that has been done as the the Dallas houses committee. It’s, there’s a lot of different organizations working on that as well at Dow stops evictions with the Camp Rhonda stuff.

ML: Could you tell me a little bit about the kind of network of mutual aid groups that have said something that they’re coordinating together in response to the storm?

CF: Yeah, we’ve definitely been coordinating together and yeah, we’re coordinated in this Dallas houseless committee as well, but then we’re also operating, you know, wider than just that. And doing- there’s Feed the People DFW, they’ve been getting food out to everyone. Yeah, they’ve been getting a lot of donations and putting it to good use. And then there’s North Texas Rural Resilience. Who’s been a mutual aid organization that also works with the Dallas houseless committee.

There’s the Funky Town Fridge and Fort Worth. We haven’t really worked with them, but they’re yeah. A downtown Fort worth basically. And then, yeah, there’s like not my son harvest project. Let me think of some of the, the Dallas harm reduction association or initiative. There’s so many different organizations involved.

And me personally, I’m more on the, I head up the tenant organizing. So this is, I’ve had to shift over a little bit to that, to that front as well, so I’m learning a lot more about that as well, but basically there’s a ton of organizations doing mutual aid work and getting a lot of food out there.

ML: Tenants organizing so important. There’s also a lot eviction resistance here in New Orleans. There’s also people organizing in a similar way to support people who are camped out, who cannot get into a shelter, who don’t want to get into a shelter and are constantly under threat from being kicked out of where they live by the police. And of course, people who are housed are also under threat of being kicked out by landlords, even with this eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control, we’ve still seen evictions all over the country. And this storm kind of shows why that is so dangerous, especially during a pandemic.

And I wonder if you can speak to a little bit of your tenants organizing and what you’ve experienced since the storm hit, like what the weather has been like. And if this has driven home why tenants need to be organized together.

CF: Yeah. I can definitely speak to that. So we’d been getting, you know, a lot of the conditions that we’re seeing you know, burst pipes you know, flooding, cause yeah, if you’ve, if you’ve seen, there’s a bunch of burst pipes all over Dallas, the state of Texas Just, I don’t, I, I guess it’s caused by, you know, changes in air pressure or water-

ML: Large pipes, right? Not just like pipes and people’s homes. Like lots of people have lost water. Okay.

CF: Yeah. Just ridiculous amounts of flooding. There’s a bunch of different people. They have multiple people in Dallas Stops Evictions whose houses and apartments have been flooded. If you’ve seen that picture of the ceiling fan with the dripping icicles in Austin, that was most likely caused by flooding, and then it froze up. Basically people’s roofs are just leaking because upstairs, you know, different neighbors, different people who’ve had to, you know, maybe vacant apartments who have people who have been evicted or people seeking shelter elsewhere because their power’s out there.

If their water’s not dripping or, you know, they’re not home. A lot of this flooding and leaking in burst pipes is because people aren’t in their apartment. And so the people downstairs, like you have multiple people, they’d be like, yeah, my upstairs neighbors aren’t homem the pipe burst, everything is flooding. I’ve no idea what to do. No one really knows what to do. And the systems in place, the emergency emergency management. Or the emergency system, you know, landlords and apartment complexes have in place, don’t really work. They’re not responsive and that’s because it’s not really profitable for landlords to immediately respond to different emergencies.

But yeah, so we’re seeing the importance of tenant unions and that we’ve been able to work with our tenant unions to distribute water, see what’s going on at their apartments. You know, people are like, we have Google forums for all the tenants at Oaks at Five Mile and Rolling Hills Place.

So we’ve distributed Google forms to fill out, you know, what they’re dealing with. And then we assess what we need to get over there and the tenants help distribute. Cause you know, we’re trying to build, work with tenant leaders as well. Not just, you know, we’re not just representing tenants, we’re working with tenants who want to fight in the struggle for better housing beyond just their apartment complex. So, that’s the importance of tenant organizing that we’ve seen so far is, is that the tenants are, have been helping each other out, we’ve been seeing if they have like, maybe they’re one of the few places in the apartment that has hot water, has power or something, you know, uses a charging station.

You know, be it like a shower for people to take showers there. So yeah, beyond the winter storm, there’s just so much, so much just abuse and just disgusting housing situations in South Dallas and with the eviction moratorium, there’s a, there’s a judge in South Dallas who basically just ignores it. And I could just go on and on about all the disgusting things happening in Dallas with evictions, with pipes, mold, leaks, no power, no heat. People had been at Oaks at Five Mile, they’d been weeks without, yes. This is an apartment complex in South Dallas.

ML: They were without eat for weeks up until the storm.

CF: Yeah, they, I mean, they’ve like, I’ve been telling people, they’ve been people that we’ve been working with. Before this have been facing these conditions, even before they’d been facing floods, flooded apartments, they’ve been facing cutoff power, cut off water. With no relief from the landlord. So yeah, we’ve been seeing these conditions even before the storm we’ve been seeing. Yeah, power cut off water, mold, leaks, floods. You name it.

ML: So the storm basically exacerbated already existing conditions and inequalities and housing. Sounds like there’s a lot of landlords that need to be held accountable. That’s very difficult to do under laws in Louisiana and Texas. For people who aren’t in Louisiana or Texas, we have some of the fewest tenants protections in the whole country. This is by design. We have right-wing legislatures. It’s very difficult to hold your landlord accountable and Louisiana, you can’t even withhold rent if your apartment is flooding or if there’s damage. If you withhold rent, you can be evicted. And that’s it. I assume it’s a similar situation in Texas, but it sounds like this tenants union not only is a conduit for mutual aid during this disaster, it also can kind of set the grounds for starting to hold landlords accountable.

CF: Yeah. It definitely is the same in Texas. So we’ve had press conferences where we, you know, first we formed a list of demands, such as, you know, fix all apartment units, stop all the evictions. You know, all the things that needed to be done there. And so we’ve been harassing the landlord a little bit and I’m calling, I’m texting him. We found his number, we found his address and we gave him, you know, a couple, we gave him like a month to address these issues. He still, he still hasn’t replied to anything. Yeah. We’ve been messaging him on Facebook as well. You know, blasting his face across social media as well. The landlord-

ML: For which apartments, how many people do you think live there?

CF: Probably about 70 units occupied. There’s a ton of vacancies there. Yeah, there’s I think, it’s the beginning stages of gentrification, but, you know, we’re seeing possibly that taking shape with how many people they’re getting out of there while also fixing out the apartment when they leave, but not fixing up the apartments of the tenants that are already living there. But yeah, about 70 people.

ML: And so even beyond that apartment building, what is the situation on the ground now? What are people living through at the moment?

CF: People are living through — at Oaks or generally across Dallas?

ML: Generally across Dallas.

CF: Yeah, they’re basically living through burst pipes, which has caused flooding. And so there’s people that can’t get out of there. They can’t let, they don’t have anywhere to go. There’s people that don’t drive. There’s one of the tenants we work with, her mom has her apartment was flooded, but she has nowhere to go. And she’s been in the cold without power, without heat for a couple of days. We’ve been scrambling to get a hotel room and that’s just one example of people in the cold people and they’re in a flooded apartment. No water. And also, boil water advisories have been out for awhile now, which is hard without power, but yeah, the water treatment plants have been down.

So we’ve had to boil our water or drink you know, a bottle of water. So we’ve been rushing to get bottled water out to people. The grocery stores are, you know, pretty empty. There’s still rolling — not rolling blackouts, just blackouts. And yeah, people are really struggling. There’s there’s just a lot of terrible stuff. I think that about sums it up.

ML: I mean, who do you look at to blame here? Do you all see as a union, do you see, I mean, obviously landlords have created these conditions in the first place and you can fight it, but even beyond landlords, there’s huge housing inequality in Texas in the South. And also it seems like the energy grid and the utilities in Texas particularly just could not stand up to this storm and these storms do happen there. This one seems to be exacerbated by climate change, but it does get cold in the winter, sometimes in the South. But whether it’s systemic issues, do you all see at play?

CF: Yeah, we we’ve discussed it. We see capitalism as the issue. We see the lack of infrastructure in place to address emergencies like this and all of that being done, all that lack of infrastructure is because it’s not profitable. And we’re seeing that the state — the state’s on it’s own power grid so it doesn’t have to deal with the national regulation or federal regulations.

So we see that as for-profit, as specifically a way to entice power plants, investors, stuff like that. So, yeah, we’ve also seen the greed of ERCOT, which has had countless — I would think it was like five, five executives have faced have faced prison time.

Let me, let me try and pull this up, but yeah, about five have faced prison time for the company. This is the Energy Reliability Council of Texas. It’s supposedly a nonprofit, but they’ve made nearly $232 million in revenue. You know, annually basically, but this is this basically as opposed to oversea energy and in Texas, because of a disaster back in the sixties that caused people to be like, we need, you know, we need some oversight. But that hasn’t changed anything. It’s a board of directors made up of power industry representatives. Most of them live outside Texas. So this is a little tangent, but, yeah, they’ve seen five of their employees all the way up to the chief information officer sent to prison for fake billing schemes.

But they’re the only reliability council, energy, reliability council in the country that has, you know, immunity, they have the power of, you know, like sovereign immunity or something like that. So they’re there to blame as well, but we see even ensuring the reliability of energy is motivated by profit.

ML: And this is the result of years of privatization and a free market attitude toward things that everyone needs. Everyone needs stable housing, everyone needs clean water. Everyone needs energy. And in Texas we see this kind of extreme version of privatizing all these things or putting them in the hands of private industry, which is kind of the Republican pipe dream. And of course, Republicans run the state. And so you’re seeing a connection here between that general policy direction and what people are now suffering through on the ground.

CF: Yes, exactly. And another good example of that is a tragic event that happened even before, before the snow came down and it was just ice, it was like, I believe it was last Sunday and in Fort worth, we didn’t salt the roads, the Texas department of transportation decided they didn’t want to salt the roads. There was a 135 car pile up. And six people died. It was the most disturbing images that you could see coming out of social media. You see all these cars piled up. It was exactly a disaster produced by cutbacks, by privatization. And by not wanting to do public services, basically.

ML: Do you feel like mutual aid — I know that you all are different groups, often mutual aid groups, and tenants’ unions are small grassroots organizations, but do you see like the mutual aid that’s happening right now in response to this and was happening before this, as providing a meaningful alternative to people, to what the system is able to provide or not provide?

CF: At least, yeah, for now, just because of how little the state of Texas is willing to provide for its people. And you know, it’s raising class consciousness. We’re, you know, at every turn we’re exposing the greed of the state and the system for what it is and why it’s caused this. So it’s definitely shown not only an alternative, but a, you know, a way towards an alternative system. One that, that actually does this stuff on a state level that a socialist state, which would actually provide for it’s people, which is what, you know, Dallas Stops Evictions is all about, we’re a formation comprised of different socialist organizations.

But yeah, but we don’t believe it’s capable of actually providing — mutual aid isn’t capable of actually providing for all the needs of the people, that requires a state, which is run by working people, which has the interest of working people in mind. And that’s not what Texas is, but that’s what it requires to actually get people housed, to get people food during these disasters, to have power, salted roads, have transportation to warming centers which, you know, we’ve seen none of that. So, the bottom line I think for me is that and from what we’ve discussed as a tenant union is, you know, mutual aid isn’t enough. It’ll take an entire shift and in the system it’ll take basically I’ll take a revolution to actually meet the needs of the people. This is just, you know, survival pending revolution.

ML: Sure. Right, I mean, we see mutual, we often talk about mutual aid, disaster relief, where we see these like really heroic acts of mutual aid in the Gulf, South in Texas, all over the world when disasters strike and really it’s people filling in those gaps. That the system has left for us and then disaster fix. And all of the weaknesses in that system are just automatically exposed. And and my last question, cause I’ve been reporting on this and this is very related to climate. We can’t separate housing from climate, obviously. I mean, the disaster that you are living through right now shows that we cannot separate housing from climate and you are Dallas Stops Evictions.

You’ve been fighting evictions, even though there has been. Supposedly a federal moratorium on evictions due to the COVID pandemic. The idea is we don’t people. We don’t want people losing their housing at a time when social distancing is necessary to save lives. Yet that has been what’s happening across the country.
What has your work looked like in that area since the pandemic began? I know you mentioned a judge earlier.

CF: Yeah, it’s been, it’s been hard. Just with this one judge, cause we’re mostly in South Dallas Oak cliff area. But, but largely South Dallas where it’s, you know, mostly black and Brown communities historically black communities. And that’s where a lot of the, the abuse and neglect has been taking place. And judge Jones, justice of the peace. One, one in Dallas. He’s been carrying out hundreds of evictions a week. He’s making up his own roles, nowhere, nowhere on the on the CDC moratorium. Does it say you have to have proof that you’ve lost your job due to due to COVID? It just says you have to have lost payment lost you know, income, but And yeah, we even have the documentation that shows like, you know, we sign off on on what we call a five for, you know, lost, lost job loss payment all the, all the different things to, to qualify for the moratorium. But multiple times he’s like this, this document of job, loss of income loss, doesn’t say due to COVID and he’s evicted people based on that.

It needs evicted people based on similar little. Little rules that he just makes up that other courts and you know, the CDC moratorium itself, doesn’t, doesn’t say so basically, you know, it’s a bunch of illegal stuff.

ML: I mean, that’s very real. I mean, one of the gaping holes in the CDC moratorium is that if you face eviction, first of all, a landlord can still try to evict you. And that’s terrifying that can throw a family into crisis. And to avoid that eviction, you have to fill out your own paperwork, cite the SPC eviction and present it to court. So landlords can still harass people. They can still threaten people. They can still move to kick people out of their homes, and then people don’t have the resources or even the time to, to fight back, they can lose their homes during a pandemic.

And so I imagine this has been, what’s been playing out with, with judge Jones is, is just, is. That vulnerable people who are unable to, to call him the moratorium in illegal way. He’s just finding whatever loophole to keep them out.

CF: Yeah. Basically. And also, yeah, people are self evicting because. Because they get the eviction notice and, and then the landlord texts him. Like you better be out in two days. And they don’t know what to do. So they, a lot of people will leave. We’ve had to stop a lot of people from leaving. Multiple times people call us like, I’m all packed up. What do I do? And like, you’re, you can’t be evicted unless you go to the courts and we will be with you through the court process.

Well, we’ve been helping tenants out filling out the forms and making sure they qualify for. The eviction moratorium and, you know, connecting them with lawyers and stuff. So, so yeah, we’ve definitely seen people being harassed by landlords trying to get them to self evict. And that would not be a problem. If, if the moratorium actually, you know, said you couldn’t file for eviction, but, you can.

ML: And there was a huge amount of pressure after President Biden took office to improve that moratorium. He didn’t, the CDC did not strengthen it. They just extended how long it would be in place, which at this point is until March and Biden, pretty much said if it’s going to be strengthened, it has to be done by Congress.

And obviously Congress has not agreed on another relief package yet. That’s still up for debate. You are currently right now, you and your organization and other organizations are trying to. Help people get housed, get them into hotels. If necessary, how can people help your effort?

CF: Well they can donate our cash app is, you know, money sign Dallas stops evictions, but, but we’re, we’re also looking for. For volunteers, people who have been calling us, it’s been really cool seeing people call us and be like, Hey, how can I help? And we’ve been trying to direct people to, to different different places that need, need assistance that need you know, we’ve gotten some people to, to drive over to Oaks, to other apartment complexes with, with the resources that are needed over there with so yeah, basically.

That and you know, look out for different campaigns. We might, we might you know, follow us on all of our Instagram or all of our social media or Dallas subsidy, fictions. So look out for different campaigns. We might would come out of this such as, you know, campaigns to canceled the rent, to you know, make the, make energy public During or after this crisis.

ML: And there was also the homes guarantee. Have you, have you that kind of fits into some of the things you were saying earlier? There’s a push right now for the federal government to build new public housing. That’s not an discriminatory way and guarantee homes for anyone who needs them at a reasonable price.
That’s actually something that I’ve seen pushed out of. The tenants union in Kansas city. I’m sure that is something that you all have looked at as well, or see the need for it.

CF: Yes, definitely. We have, you know, thousands of vacant apartments, vacant units across Dallas and it’s yeah, we we’ve every step of the way we’ve called for housing, the, the houseless and these vacant apartments, these vacant units and vacant homes But that is definitely something necessary that we’re, you know, we’re probably going to be looking into tattoo, a growing list of demands we want to make.

ML: Well, thanks so much for telling us about the mutual aid in response to the winter storm in Texas.
And I hope you can stay as warm as possible.

CF: Yeah, yeah, you too. Yeah. Thanks for, thanks for having me on and let me talk about this.

ML: Truthout’s independent news and analysis is free to anyone with an internet connection. We never have ads or paywalls. To support our mission, please go to truthout.org/donate.

You can also support this podcast by liking, sharing and subscribing. We’ll be back next month with more stories from the front lines of the climate crisis. Thanks for listening.