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Millions of workers in the United States live paycheck to paycheck. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, 18.2 million U.S. families pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing. To make matters worse, a Federal Reserve survey found that 40 percent of adults in the United States cannot cover an unexpected $400 expense. In other words, for almost half of U.S. adults, one missed paycheck could spell eviction or mortgage arrears.
With no government assistance on the immediate horizon and rent due, the most vulnerable renters simply do not have the luxury of waiting to see what relief may come in weeks ahead.
We are now in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Just last week, at least 3.28 million people filed unemployment claims. The federal government’s emergency bill will give most Americans a one-time payout that for many will be less than a single month’s rent. How will banks and landlords respond, in turn? And how will renters themselves respond when they find themselves, as many will, unable to make rent?
One possibility is a massive general rent strike. Historically, rent strikes have been used as a collective bargaining device to force predatory landlords and slumlords to respond to tenant demands. These could be anything from fixing an elevator to dropping a planned rent hike. Rent in this case is withheld until the issue is resolved. Often the rent money is set aside in an escrow account, to make it clear it will be paid as soon as safe, fair living conditions are restored.
Because rent strikes are ordinarily used in cases where the landlord obviously has the power to resolve the issue, a rent strike in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may not seem like an obvious solution. However, it is worth considering that while the U.S. government and some banks have announced mortgage moratoriums that will benefit many landlords, they have not insisted that rent relief or cancellation be passed on to the tenants of these landlords. And although some landlords have worked with their tenants over the last week to cancel or reduce April rent payments, many tenants will be expected to pay their rent in full.
A number of elected officials and candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Ilhan Omar, have called for the federal government to intervene and cancel several months’ rent. Last week in New York, state senator Michael Gianaris, with the support of twenty-one other senators, introduced Senate Bill S8125A, which would suspend rent in the state for three months. But on the whole, the government’s response has so far followed a familiar pattern of prioritizing the needs of property owners over those of renters.
A number of corporations have already declared their own rent strike: Adidas, H&M, Mattress Firm, The Cheesecake Factory, and Subway have announced that they will not be paying their April rent, and more companies will surely follow suit. A few have claimed they are within their legal right, under the “force majeure” clause that excuses an entity from their contract because of an unforeseeable calamity. Sadly, in the United States corporations often have more flexibility in escaping their debt than do private citizens, but it is not unreasonable to ask whether force majeure reasoning should not apply equally to residential renters.
The government’s response has so far followed a familiar pattern of prioritizing the needs of property owners over those of renters.
With no government assistance on the immediate horizon and rent due on April 1, some housing justice activists are pointing out that the most vulnerable renters simply do not have the luxury of waiting to see what relief may yet come in the weeks and months ahead. RentStrike2020.org, “an activist organization” affiliated with the Rose Caucus, Socialist Alternative, and the Youth Climate Strike, has issued the following ultimatum: “freeze the bills or we won’t pay ’em.” Specifically, they are calling for a two-month moratorium on rent, residential mortgage, and utility bills. They are not alone. Over the past few weeks, a number of groups, in the United States and abroad, have called for a general rent strike if April’s rent is not canceled.
Rent strikes have long been an action of last resort by tenants who feel their demands are not being heard and their lives are not being valued. Typically, a rent strike is a tactic used against a single abusive landlord, but there is precedent for a general rent strike. In 1907, during the economic downturn preceding the Great Depression, tenants in New York City faced mass evictions, sparking labor activist Pauline Newman to organize a general rent strike in Manhattan. On January 1, 1908, Newman, whom the New York Times called “the East Side Joan of Arc,” led 10,000 families in a general rent strike that resulted in some rents being lowered. In 1954 Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., told a crowd in Harlem, his home district, that there should be a rent strike whenever there are housing violations. During the civil rights movement, Jesse Gray heeded Powell’s call and led a 1963 general rent strike in Harlem. Malcolm X saw the power of Gray’s collective debt resistance even if it was not completely successful. “We propose to support rent strikes,” he said in 1964. “Nobody will pay any rent. The whole city will come to a halt.” Five years later, in 1969, Jean King launched her own successful general rent strike in St. Louis that helped reshape low-income housing nationally. And in 1986, renters in Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, South Africa, launched a general rent strike to combat apartheid.
The success of a rent strike depends largely on solidarity.
In recent years, rent strikes have made a resurgence. In the UK, the “Cut the Rent” movement has been organizing students to engage in rent strikes against their universities. And Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York City, Rochester, and Cleveland have all been sites of rent strikes organized against specific landlords.
The success of a rent strike depends largely on solidarity: one tenant withholding rent will almost certainly be evicted, but if an entire building strikes, tenants may well get the landlord to cede to their demands. So, what if an entire country goes on rent strike? That’s unchartered territory. But if the government, banks, and landlords do not take seriously the calls from activists and tenants to cancel April rent, we may see the largest general rent strike in history come May 1, making for a May Day landlords will never forget.
Mordecai Lyon was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and grew up between western Mass and New York City. Lyon graduated from Tufts University in 2006 and from Columbia Journalism School in 2014. After Tufts, Lyon worked for The University of Network (TUN), a former narrowcast on hundreds of college campuses across the country and from 2008 to 2010 he produced BeFree.TV, a hip-hop mini-series that aired on TUN, featuring artists Pharoahe Monch, Immortal Technique, and Dead Prez. As a journalist his work has appeared on ESPN and ABC News, as a researcher he contributed to the publication of Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It by Wendell Potter and Nick Pennimen. After Columbia Journalism School, Lyon audited eight classes with Dr. Cornel West over four semesters at Harvard Divinity School. He is currently writing case studies and doing research for Harvard Business School.
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