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Rent Strike Nation

Interest in tenant activism has surged in the face of the coronavirus. Organizers are trying to seize the moment and build a movement.

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the head of the St. Louis Federal Reserve, James Bullard, predicted that in the second quarter of 2020, the U.S. economy could see a 30 percent unemployment rate and a 50 percent drop in gross domestic product. Both of these numbers far surpass their respective equivalencies during the Great Depression, with the slash in GDP dwarfing the downturn of the 2008 crash by factors of 10. “This is a planned, organized partial shutdown of the U.S. economy in the second quarter,” Bullard said during the press call, voice quiet and flat. “It is a huge shock, and we are trying to cope with it and keep it under control.”

As most workers in this country live paycheck to paycheck—some surveys place that number at half of the workforce, others reach closer to 80 percent—Bullard’s predictions point to an economic disaster that will likely hit people hardest in the area that consumes the majority of their paychecks: housing. Millions of new unemployment filings have surfaced in the last week, with several states’ unemployment and Medicare websites crashing due to the rise in applicants. Even with some supports from the stimulus bill, renters are still scrambling to come up with rent money on April 1. A $1,200 government check doesn’t mean much when it barely covers a month’s rent in many cities.

Across the country, rents have soared as real wages remain stagnant. Nearly half of New York City households are considered rent-burdened, which means they pay more than 30 percent of their income just to keep a roof over their heads. In Oakland, California, where rents have skyrocketed in recent years, a group of lifelong residents moved into a long-vacant house in protest of the lack of affordable housing. In the wake of the pandemic in Los Angeles, where minimum-wage workers need to pull nearly 80-hour shifts just to reach the “rent-burdened” threshold, unhoused families reclaimed 13 vacant homes, both as protest and a means of survival. As The New Republic reported last summer, even in America’s most affluent cities, low-income families fall through the cracks in a system so broken that it fails to even document the rapid spread of housing insecurity.

In response to a crisis further inflamed by the coronavirus, existing housing rights organizations have been struggling to meet new calls for organizing and resources, many of which have coalesced around a radical demand: A nationwide rent strike. 

Calls for both state and nationwide rent strikes have waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s, when the Great Depression catalyzed protests against impossibly high rents, tenants banded together to win rent moratoriums from governors, fight off police evictions, and withhold rent from landlords seeking to collect from those with nothing left to give. The appeal of the tactic is clear: By withholding rent as a building, a collective, or as a community, tenants hold tremendous leverage over landlords to fight rent increases, evictions, and housing rights violations. It also draws on a resource that tenants across the country share: simple numbers. 

During one of the earliest documented rent strikes in the United States, a young socialist lawyer described the means through which tenants joined forces to prolong the strike even as eviction notices came down: “The police will execute only one eviction a day from a given house,” Jacob Panken told The New York Times in 1907. “We will arrange that any evicted family shall be harbored at once by some other family in the same house. This the landlord cannot prevent. Thus we would have an endless chain of evictions, by which the landlord will accomplish nothing.” This kind of tenant organizing is the reason rent control came to exist in New York City during the 1940s.  

The conditions on the ground today, a century later, feel remarkably similar. A national coalition calling itself RentStrike 2020 has emerged as one of the most visible organizations calling for a national suspension of rent and mortgage payments. 

“Our recent efforts have focused on circulating petitions to state governments demanding a two-month moratorium on rent, utilities, and the suspension of evictions to keep people on their feet,” Joshua Collins, a 26-year-old congressional candidate in Washington’s 10th District and a member of RentStrike 2020, told me. “Using the internet, we’ve been able to coordinate with organizations across the country to forward the steps necessary toward our ultimate end of a nationwide strike on May 1.” 

The petitions have gathered some three million signatures, and already governors and mayors have called off some types of evictions—at least for now. But there are organizers who view rent strikes as just one tool among many in the coming battle to protect the housing of tens of millions of Americans who, in a matter of days, will be unable to pay their rent—and something most Americans are seriously afraid to do.

Tara Raghuveer, the director for KC Tenants in Kansas City, told The New Republic that a rent strike only addresses one concern in a deluge of housing woes that have flooded her organization’s inbox in recent weeks. “In Kansas City, our work has shifted dramatically since the state of emergency was declared. We were in the middle of a budget accountability campaign, and basically all of that got discontinued as we have shifted to support the immediate needs of our tenants.”  

KC Tenants is one of hundreds of housing rights groups that have pivoted from long-term legislative campaigns to dealing with the immediate threat of eviction, houselessness, and income loss. As federal and state governments have floundered in their direction of services and information addressing tenants’ basic needs, organizations like KC Tenants have stepped in to fill the void by connecting panicked tenants with mutual aid networks, legal services, and public health resources.

The need for those kinds of concretes, and experienced organizers familiar with the landscape, is urgent right now: Raghuveer said that the terms used to discuss rent strikes have grown murky as language surrounding the strike passes through distorting cycles of social media.  “On the more conservative side of the spectrum are calls for rent assistance. These have largely come from the housing lobby, urging government assistance to put cash in renters’ hands so that it can then go straight on into landlords’ pockets,” Raghuveer said. “Then you have a ‘rent freeze’—like what they recently passed in Berlin—preventing rent increases in order to block price-gouging and stabilize precarious renters from hikes. You also have the most essential term, which is ‘rent moratorium,’ which suspends rent, sometimes with no expectation of paying it back, and sometimes calling for it to be paid back with a 0 percent interest rate.”

Other small groups like the Bay Area–based Tenant and Neighborhood Councils have circulated Covid-19-specific rent strike guides and set up a website to facilitate organizing efforts between TANC members and tenants facing eviction and threats from landlords.  

Meanwhile, New York’s Right to the City, one of the largest umbrella organizations coordinating tenants’ rights groups across the country, has framed rent moratoriums and rent strikes as two means toward the same end of creating a country where affordable and quality housing is available for all. Speaking on behalf of RTC, Kamau Walton said that while rent strikes are a key tactic for winning tenant struggles, housing organizers must hold a vision of both immediate relief and long-term change for tenants to win sustainable fair housing months down the line.

“We’ve heard from our 80-plus member groups that tenant organizations are organizing new rent strikes, but we’ve also been helping folks to push for emergency legislative solutions, mutual aid solutions, and really just a huge diversity of tactics to build lasting coalitions of tenants and low-income mortgage owners who are facing decisions they’ve never been forced to face,” Walton told me. “We see right now as a moment that demands more than a return to the status quo and also more than just a call to strike on Facebook. But if people are ready and organizing strikes from the ground up, then we support those efforts in full.”

In a demonstration of just how far the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus has extended, corporations ranging from The Cheesecake Factory to Subway and Mattress Firm have initiated rent strikes of their own. “Unfortunately, I must let you know that The Cheesecake Factory and its affiliated restaurant concepts will not make any of their rent payments for the month of April 2020,” Cheesecake Factory founder and CEO David Overton wrote in a letter to the franchise’s landlords. “Please understand that we do not take this action or make this decision lightly.” The refusal of corporate behemoths to pay their rent is a far cry from the dangling sheets and banners that strikers have taken up to spread participation and support, but it does expose the cracks in what was once believed to be an impenetrable hierarchy of wealth and domination. It turns out a lot of us have landlords.