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The Era of the Endless Rent Strike

Out of work and with little savings, millions of tenants are already part of a movement. They just don’t know it yet.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 11 percent of tenants across the United States didn’t pay rent in April—a 4 percent jump from the same time period the previous year. While a widely circulated version of the survey conducted at the start of the month found that nearly a third of all renters hadn’t paid by April 1, more made either full or partial payments as the weeks stretched on.

The data still tells us something important, though: Millions of people can’t pay their rent every month, pandemic or not. And on the other side of that: Even as millions of people lost jobs and income due to the Covid-19 crisis, and even as many cities enacted eviction moratoriums, people found a way to pay. It’s scary not to, after all.

Rent is the “bill that people are most socialized to feel the responsibility to pay,” Tara Raghuveer, the director of KC Tenants, told me. “Unraveling that responsibility is a really complicated project.” She compared the pandemic to the 2008 financial crisis—a moment in which a whole new class of people have come to politicize themselves around issues of health care and housing—but said that mass collective action around rent strikes remains a heavy lift. “I wish I could paint a really rosy picture for you,” Raghuveer said. “There is a way forward, but in the absence of that ability to gather together in a meaningful, regular way, I just think that it’s all the more difficult to politicize people around their experience.”

But as material conditions worsen on the ground and a recession looms, more and more people will find themselves unable to pay—whether or not they experience that as a political problem. And so, much as with student debt, millions of people in this country have effectively been forced into a rent strike already. The challenge is in building a sense of solidarity across these de facto strikes of one and removing the shame and sense of isolation that hang over rent payments in this country. Early efforts to string together a nationwide rent strike are still getting off the ground, but the thing about rent is, you have to keep paying. It’s a constantly renewing opportunity to organize more people, push for legislative relief, and politicize the conditions under which we live. As Hannah Appel, a co-founder of the Debt Collective, told me in February when discussing how common it is to default on student loan payments, “We are already a collectivity; we just haven’t seen one another yet.”

People are renting in America at a rate the nation hasn’t seen in a half-century—as of 2017, the total was up to 75 million, per the Pew Research Center—and they’re paying more than ever to do it. On Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the price of vacant rental units more than doubled over the last 20 years, while Pew revealed that in the same time, the median American income grew only 5.4 percent. The strain caused by skyrocketing rents and stagnating wages exacerbated existing houselessness issues even before the coronavirus; with the pandemic in full swing and millions out of work, the simple fact is that paying the rent for many is steadily becoming an impossibility.

As Julian Smith-Newman, a member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, told me, the housing crisis in America is “perpetual.” Prior to the pandemic, housing insecurity was widespread in all corners of the nation, a result of decades of racist and imbalanced zoning laws, weakened protections around rent control and stabilization, and the active disinvestment in public housing and infrastructure. But with the addition of a record wave of unemployment and tens of millions of people a single missed paycheck away from financial instability, the problem has become impossible to ignore.

Still, government responses to the problem have been wildly inadequate. Florida paused evictions for six weeks, while New York’s moratorium was set for three months; the city government in Richmond, California, put an end to all rent increases, as did the state of New Jersey; within the state of Texas, evictions were paused by the state Supreme Court only through April 20, prompting local judges in Dallas and Harris counties to step in and extend the freeze.* But not a single one of these locales took the step of suspending rent payments for tenants. (And if you can believe it, local landlords still tried to evict tenants anyway.)

Local organizers have stepped in to fill the gap and provide an outlet for the mounting frustration: Groups like KC Tenants, LATU, and the Debt Collective, along with hundreds of others, have been working nonstop since the virus gripped the nation to politicize the millions of Americans who may not yet see themselves as party to a political struggle.

But these are difficult campaigns to pull off in general—and especially in a time of social distancing. The lack of physical presence, not just of the organizers themselves, but of potential members, has affected the entire operation. Stripped of the ability to gather in person, KC Tenants has moved all of its meetings online, including a weekly two-hour tenant meeting every Saturday. Raghuveer said that many of the new attendees are finding the group through social media, where KC Tenants stays active by updating followers about changes to local housing policies and calling out landlords trying to take advantage of vulnerable renters. Those posts in particular have resulted in high engagement for the group, which Raghuveer feels has been “drawing people into our organizing space, which is great.”

But even as its numbers have grown, it’s difficult to ignore the lack of face-to-face interaction that’s foundational to the daily work of an organizer. Thinking about the current housing movement in relation to Occupy, Raghuveer lamented the lack of a communal space for people to join together and see one another as part of a wider struggle. The Zoom meetings and social media work have been successful, but nothing compares to being able to gather with members and their families on a weekend. There’s also the matter of people who aren’t reached in these online spaces. Tenant organizing is built on the simple interactions of neighbors. That changes when you can’t go around knocking on doors in your building or neighborhood.

“There is so much opportunity, and so many people are being radicalized, but our venue for expressing that rage collectively is so limited,” she said. “Many organizations, including ours, are getting really creative and figuring out ways to take direct action and build solidarity during times like these.”

In California, Smith-Newman said LATU has been facing a similar situation, in which people have already identified the unfairness of their personal rent situation as part of a larger problem but need the extra push to politicize themselves as part of a broader collective. It’s also scary to act alone. And even as some individual tenants may feel ready to withhold rent, safety comes in numbers. This is hard when talking to your neighbors face to face is a health risk.

Before the pandemic struck, LATU, which now boasts 13 chapters, had already been growing exponentially since 2016, when it had just two. “I’ve done a lot of political organizing, and I have never in my life had so many doors open for me,” Smith-Newman told me. “The moment you say, ‘Do you have any issues with your housing or your ability to pay rent?’ the doors swing open, and people start talking.”

Since the pandemic broke, Smith-Newman said his chapter of LATU has been “flooded” with requests for assistance and new members. Part of this is thanks to the organization’s commitment to partnering with mutual-aid efforts—the South-Central local, for instance, has been joining with local neighborhood groups and delivering food to the elderly and those at risk. LATU has also been committed to a mass bilingual flyer campaign, which the group has continued online, where it posts every message in both English and Spanish.

Chris Casuccio, who goes by “Winter,” a member of the Debt Collective living in Philadelphia, has also been thinking about this kind of partnership recently. The Debt Collective is focused on various forms of debt cancellation, with a student debt strike campaign being the centerpiece of its efforts. But Casuccio said the collective has started considering how best to join arms with tenant unions, citing the work of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, which just called for a rent strike ahead of May 1. It has the Debt Collective thinking about how it can connect its work to local efforts while continuing to do the national organizing that it’s known for.

“Any one given household isn’t really dealing with one type of debt. They’re dealing with multiple types of debt,” Casuccio told me. “From there, you can begin to help folks in different areas realize that it’s kind of designed that way, that the whole system is designed to put us into debt in all the different ways.”

The organizing is also directed at local governments. Beyond bringing tenants together, organizers want to use those numbers to get legislative relief. Ahead of rent day in April, the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance issued a call to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to cancel rent for four months, freeze rent levels, and permanently rehouse all houseless residents, only to be met with silence. Its demands were soon echoed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who joined WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show to lay out the issue and call on Cuomo to suspend rent. “People aren’t striking because they don’t feel like paying rent,” the congresswoman said recently. “They’re striking because they can’t pay rent.”

“It’s the first time in my lifetime I’ve ever seen both city, state, and federal level, the discussion of canceling rent or canceling mortgage payments just outright,” Casuccio said. “That is just a completely new idea for so many people. And once that thought is out there, people realize how you can always renegotiate the financial arrangements that make up our lives.”

During the past two months, the very act of organizing itself has taken on a new look. Video conference calls, social media pages, group text chains have all gradually replaced the physical, in-person aspect of the job to adhere with social distancing. But the goal at the heart of the work is the same as it’s always been: to politicize and radicalize the countless people who feel they’re alone in being fucked over by an unjust system. That’s not something that will happen overnight, but these are campaigns built to last over time. Rent Day comes every month, after all.

* An earlier version of this story referred to Richmond, Virginia, rather than Richmond, California.