One socialist’s impressions on canvassing and the ongoing challenges facing renters in Connecticut.
by Kate W. Taussig
My first day canvassing for tenants’ rights was a cold, but clear, one. My fellow canvassers and I were bundled up in thick sweaters, corduroy jackets, and winter coats. The sun was so bright that I wore the sunglasses I reserve for driving and hiking, though they fogged up quickly atop my mask. I didn’t care. I was a new socialist, and an even newer canvasser, and a little discomfort was more than a worthy price to try and empower people.
The lead organizer, Jason, took me and another newbie under his wing for our first ever canvass. Some people were eager to talk to us. We heard about pests, mold, broken heaters, water damage, and a whole host of other things too varied and numerous to name. Some people didn’t want to talk to us at all. I could tell that some were bothered by the disturbance on their Saturday. Some claimed they had no problems at all, then halfheartedly mentioned seeing roaches or mice. One difficulty we had was the number of people with whom we simply could not communicate. We encountered more than a few people who spoke exactly enough English to tell us that they spoke no English at all.
By the second time I canvassed, I was still greener than springtime, but Jason trusted me to show someone else the ropes. I’ve always been a champion talker, and I love people, so I took it in stride to train someone else. That day sticks in my mind, because we literally walked uphill in the snow. We couldn’t get into most of the buildings, and by the time we found an unlocked entrance, my hands, thighs, and nose were numb with cold. I could barely feel the rap of my knuckles against the doors we tried. On that particular day, only one person was willing to talk to us and give a name and a number for us to call. Many of the problems he listed off, malfunctioning heater, barely working toilet, and too few washing machines, struck me with how important and basic they were. Comfortable home, decent plumbing, and clean clothes are not luxuries, yet his landlord did not care to provide them. Throughout the exchange, he kept mentioning his rent, and how he didn’t want to rock the boat. It was so hard to find a decent place for such a low price. Except, it wasn’t a decent place, not without all the functioning things all people are legally and morally entitled to!
In the short time I’ve been canvassing, I’ve heard so many of these stories. People claim everything’s fine, they’re happy, and the landlord has never bothered them. Often, with a little gentle nudging, the details come out. People have learned to live in certain conditions, because it could always be worse. I was astonished at the number of landlords who simply don’t fix things. We talked to one woman who had been without heat for a week. She had young children in her home, and the landlord knew she had no heat in freezing temperatures. Nothing had been done. She had called and e-mailed multiple times. She had been promised space heaters which were never delivered. Even if they had been, she would have been expected to pay for their use herself. We spoke to her on a Saturday. No one was working in the office on the weekend, so she would have to wait until Monday to try and contact her landlord again. Until then, she and her family would just have to be cold.
None of the stories I’ve shared surprise me, though they do sadden me. I am a very lucky person. I am not, nor have I ever been, housing insecure. I can afford the rising rent. I have somewhere warm, safe, and well maintained to go if I get evicted. This is the real reason why I canvass. Having a place to lay my head and have a warm meal is considered a luxury. And yet, there are people who own properties by the armful, while so many more can’t even afford to own one place to keep the rain off their heads.
Before I became an official dues paying socialist, I didn’t know what I could do about any of this. I tried my best to help those around me, but I am only one person. One person alone can never do enough. Two people, however, can do something. Ten people can do even more. A whole group dedicated to organizing people for housing justice? That’s a lot of power.
Now, I spend my Saturdays going from apartment to apartment letting people know there’s a whole organization that is both able and willing to empower others. I know I’m in the right spot when I pull up and see Jason’s bright, red DSA hat, a whole bunch of carefully folded orange leaflets, and all the open, honest faces of those who feel the same way I do.
To get involved in canvassing for housing justice in Connecticut, contact us at CTtenantsunion@gmail.com, or join your local Democratic Socialists of America at https://www.dsausa.org
Kate is a writer, socialist, and avid collector of hobbies. Most Wednesday nights, you can find her running The Written Word, a writing group based out of Milford, CT. More recently, she has begun writing and editing for Garnet Oak Mag, a socialist publication. When not writing, she loom knits, hike at a meandering pace, and drink as much coffee as the human body can unreasonably hold.