CHOP: A Big Deal

Cleveland DSA’s priority campaign “Cleveland Housing Organizing Project” (CHOP) may come to a close by a vote at Cleveland DSA’s November General Meeting. If members choose to continue the campaign, it will likely continue in a reduced scope – a canvassing-only project. CHOP has certainly been the biggest and longest-term project in our chapter’s history and was also my main focus as a member over my three years in the chapter. 

Since the first anti-eviction canvass on July 11, 2020, CHOP has engaged 226 DSA members and has visited 5,625 doors of Clevelanders facing eviction. CHOP sought to confront the violence of evictions – where working class renters are forced out of their homes so that capital-owning landlords can make a bigger profit. To this end, throughout the campaign’s 2+ years member have tried a variety of strategies and tactics including:

  • providing resources to Cleveland tenants at their doors
  • organizing tenant unions
  • building a long-lasting canvassing apparatus
  • hosting a tenants roundtable/know your resource event
  • flyering buildings
  • distributing housing educational comics
  • educating hundreds of people about the violence of evictions and why we as democratic socialists are fighting against them
Anti-eviction canvass 7/11/20
Anti-eviction canvass on 7/11/20

I attended the very first CHOP canvass on 7/11/2020. We kept the first canvass closed to the public and newer members since we had never done it before and weren’t sure what to expect. We each had a printout of our driving route, and several sheets of paper and a clipboard to physically write out our interactions at the door. We asked for volunteers afterwards to enter our results into a spreadsheet. I was horribly nervous for that canvass and for at least ten more after that. My stomach was so twisted up and jammed up inside my chest that there was no chance of me eating within several hours of canvassing time. I would knock on doors and secretly hope that nobody was home so that I could leave the flier without talking to anyone. Nonetheless I enjoyed the canvasses and got better at them. I would guess the new canvassers at my most recent canvass – 48 canvasses after my first – would never have been able to guess how nervous I was my first time!

It’s been difficult to estimate exactly how successful at preventing evictions CHOP has been over the years. Poor court records, out-of-court agreements, and defining “success” in an eviction case have impeded good outcome tracking (for example, I find it particularly irritating that Right to Counsel considers a mediated move-out to be a success, which is when the tenant gets a few additional weeks of time but is still forced to leave their home). We did make a serious attempt to measure our impact for cases filed during the 2021 calendar year, which is available here in our 2021 data release. A couple of our findings included:

  • The 520 tenants who we spoke to at the door got involved in the legal process at a rate of 57%, compared to a 38% involvement rate from tenants who were not canvassed
  • The 520 tenants who we spoke to at the door were evicted at a 30% rate, compared to a 36% rate of tenants who were not canvassed
  • The 2,070 tenants who we spoke to at the door or who got our materials had court records showing that they submitted CDC eviction moratorium paperwork at a 11% rate, compared to a 4% rate from tenants who were not canvassed

“You guys helped me more than anything in the world. I’d be homeless right now without you.”

Debra – tenant canvassed in 2021

My theory has always been that our impact on preventing evictions is even greater than court records could show. In 2021, 41% of all filed eviction cases were documented in court records only as “voluntarily dismissed” or “dismissed for want of prosecution”. There is no way to know what occurred between the landlord and tenant outside of court records in these cases, but I wonder how many of them involved tenants, newly understanding their rights due to our materials, confronting their landlords with a CDC moratorium, rental assistance, or the threat of attending their hearing with representation. CHOP’s hundreds of conversations and thousands of flyers has surely had an impact beyond just what appears in the public written record. Perhaps the tenants’ testimonials of how CHOP affected them, also in the 2021 data release, are a greater measure of our impact than any other data.  

I served on DSA Cleveland’s chapter steering committee from January 2021 – December 2021, and on CHOP leadership from May 2022 to the current time. But many members may not know that I ran for CHOP leadership twice in 2020 and lost both times! CHOP really was a shining example of a campaign with a healthy democratic conflict culture. Impassioned members ran for leadership and still stayed engaged after losing, due to the comradely culture and still having a voice in the campaign’s direction because every decision was made democratically. But it goes to show that even me, a wreck of a canvasser and unsuccessful leadership campaigner, is capable of eventually growing into something of a leader in our organization.

Tenants at St Clair Place on 4/27/22 with Cleveland DSA protesting unsafe housing conditions
Tenants at St Clair Place on 4/27/22 with Cleveland DSA protesting unsafe housing conditions

Tenant organizing was the ultimate goal of CHOP. We have always recognized that providing resources to tenants facing eviction on its own doesn’t address the root problem of the inequality and exploitation of housing in Cleveland. We wanted to change the power imbalance between landlords and tenants by helping tenants all over Cleveland form tenant unions. Members spent many months trying to organize buildings in Cleveland, oftentimes with frustrating results. Organizing is hard! Although several organizing campaigns were unsuccessful, one DSA member successfully organized their building, another building continues to hold tenant meetings to this day, and many DSA members have gained valuable organizing experience.

CHOP canvass attendance over time – showing a gradual decrease in engagement

Especially over the last six months or so, CHOP has seen a decrease in DSA member engagement. Our canvasses have been less effective for some time, since the expiration of the CDC eviction moratorium. Our tenant organizing efforts have all but stopped, and we haven’t tried any new tactics in months. The number of evictions are going up and are never-ending. I think the disconnect between our current work and what could actually structurally change the housing crisis in Cleveland has worn members down over time. Despite CHOP’s 2+ years of impact on our chapter and our community, we have to continually reassess if it is the best use of our limited time and resources. Whatever the chapter’s decision in November 2022, CHOP will continue to be remembered in chapter history as A Big Deal.

-Written by Cleveland DSA member John A