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Jax Democratic Socialists take on tenants rights and fair housing

Siddie Friar, Reporter

In their monthly meeting Thursday, the Democratic Socialists of Jacksonville discussed plans to organize around housing justice and tenants rights, noting that ‘housing is a human right.’

From their website, “The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is the largest socialist organization in the United States. We are a political and activist organization, not a party; through campus and community-based chapters, DSA members use a variety of tactics, from legislative to direct action, to fight for reforms that empower working people.”

Part of the reason housing was selected as the strategic issue for the group is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people who were already in precarious financial situations that now may be dire as a result of cut hours or lost jobs. 

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), a non-profit law firm dedicated to providing free civil legal assistance to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it, gave a presentation on the current state of housing and eviction processes in Jacksonville. 

Their presentation explained that an executive order given by Governor DeSantis suspended evictions across the state between April 2 and June 1. Set to expire on May 30, that order was extended at the last minute to July 1.

The moratorium on rent evictions is exclusively for suspension of non-payment of rent due to Covid-19, meaning that landlords can still file suits for other reasons. While the moratorium applies across Florida, the specific rules are different county by county. 

In Duval, the local courts state that no new non-payment rent evictions can be filed until July 1. In Clay, cases may be filed but the court will decide if they can proceed. 

The CARES act restricted some evictions through late August, but only applies to landlords who participate in a Federal rent assistance program, like HUD or Section 8, or those who have a federally backed mortgage. 

JALA Representative, Mary DeVries, indicated that in general “more evictions in Jacksonville happen on the Northside. Many are low income families and are issue related. Tenants will try to get a landlord to fix an issue and end up facing retaliatory evictions.” 

The campaign was easily connected to the ongoing civil unrest across the country. “When we are fighting for housing rights we are fighting for black lives,” Organizer, Tefa Galvis said. “This campaign will help in the long term to give stability to a community of color that has perpetually been violated and discriminated against.” 

Some of the ways Jax DSA aims to organize around this issue include developing a Tenants Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights would include the following aims:

Improve the COJ Housing Code 

Currently, there is a speedy eviction process in place. Once a tenant is served, they have five business days to respond. Conversely there is no speedy code inspection process. This effort would demand a code inspection for tenants upon move in or upon the request of the tenant. They would like to see the Certificate of Occupancy (CO) permit for a building be made available to tenants and they would like to see stronger code provisions implemented for mold and rodents, which are two of the biggest issues for tenants in our region. A noted case was the Eureka Gardens example; a low income property which drew national attention for the laundry list of code violations found in every single apartment unit. These inspections came after residents had tried for years to get city inspectors to come out with no success. 

Landlord Accountability from COJ

Many of the protections in place favor the landlords at the expense of tenants. Jax DSA would like to see tenants put in a position of power where the city is looking out for the tenants as much as they are the landlords. They would like to see an increase in fines for landlords who do not respond to requests for basic building improvements and a progressive discipline to those fines, which they say will ultimately put more money into circulation for public housing in the long term. They would like to see citations against properties/landlords documented on the Certificate of Occupancy and have those citations ‘stick’ to the property so tenants are aware of any past issues. Additionally they would like tenants to be given a copy of the CO upon move in. 

Affordable Housing For All 

Perhaps the most poignant of demands, Jax DSA would like to see an increase in the number of public housing units and an increase in the quality of those units. Ultimately they would like to see the decommodification of housing and more funding put into quality public housing programs. 

“Something like 40 percent of Jacksonville’s budget goes to JSO,” Facilitator, Alex Ingram said. “We can pivot that money away from the militarization of the police towards affordable housing, which seems like a no brainer right now.” 

It was explained that this Bill of Rights is a living document, meant to be expanded on in order to best identify and meet the needs of the people. 

Participants shared their own stories about housing injustices toward the end of the meeting. “My family dealt with three or four landlords in the past decade who were just horrible,” UNF Junior, Brin McKellian said. “The demands listed here would have fixed every problem we had for that whole decade.” 

The JAX DSA is hoping to form alliances with organizations who also want to organize around housing justice. They invite anyone who has housing issues to reach out for support. Their website has more information on how to get involved. 

Additionally, JALA invites anyone who is fearing eviction to reach out to them as well. 

___

For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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