From 26 December 1907 to 9 January 1908, 10,000 tenants, predominantly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe living in New York City’s Lower East Side, took part in a historic rent strike. During an economic depression causing mass unemployment and grinding poverty, landlords tried to hike rents by thirty-three percent. With their cry to ‘fight the landlord as they had the Czar’, the tenants won a partial victory, with rents significantly reduced for 2,000 households. The movement established a tradition of militant working-class housing campaigns that eventually contributed to winning vital rent controls that still protect millions of the city’s tenants today. But as the Covid crisis continues, New York City renters are again organising against rapacious landlordism.
Standing outside the four-story brick apartment building in Crown Heights she calls home, Jemiah Johnson took her turn with the black megaphone. “This building is literally killing us!” the 26-year-old mother shouted to the small crowd of neighbors waving homemade signs scrawled with phrases like DEFEND RENT STRIKERS and TENANT POWER. “My child is waking up three or four times in the middle of the night struggling to breathe.” At the November rally, she and her fellow mask-clad tenants described a long-standing pattern of neglect and shoddy repairs: crumbling ceilings, leaky pipes, walls caked with mold, repeated desultory work that never truly fixes anything.
The Covid-19 crisis has both exposed and exacerbated racial and wealth inequality in the United States. As unemployment skyrockets and tens of millions of Americans struggle with a sudden loss of income, many are unable to pay rents or mortgages and are facing eviction, foreclosure, and possible homelessness. We’ve seen this eviction crisis brewing for months, and despite platitudes about racial justice, our elected officials and corporate landlords haven’t taken any meaningful action to prevent it from hitting poor people of color hardest.
Calls to rent strike have yet to cohere into a national political movement. But as the economic crisis deepens, tenants’ fates will ultimately be decided by their level of collective organization. With the arrival of the pandemic, staying home became emergency work for a failing state. Amid disastrous negligence at every level of government, one of the most ordinary facts of life in capitalism—rent—suddenly appeared clearly as an affront. “One section of society here demands a tribute from the other for the very right to live on the earth,” Marx wrote of landlords. In the early spring, with state-level and nationwide eviction moratoriums and tenant protections in place, it seemed like there had never been a better time to refuse these bad terms. Calls to rent strike brought grassroots tenant unions to the foreground. Through the spring, thousands of people turned to tenant organizing, many for the first time.
Defective locks make for dubious building security. Walls sag with water damage and look as if they’re melting. An infestation of vermin plagues apartments. These are the conditions that some tenants in an apartment building on Sheridan Avenue in the South Bronx have endured for years. But it was the outbreak of COVID-19 in March that was the final straw. Now, 14 tenants in the 30-unit brick building have collectively withheld rent. With the help of the tenant group Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), they have urged their landlord, multinational Monarch Realty Holdings, to forgive their rent for the duration of the city’s public health crisis. The Bronx building is one among dozens across the boroughs where the pandemic has generated a flashpoint between tenants and landlords. But, in joining together to organize rent strikes, some tenants have turned their inability to pay into a form of protest, urging rent forgiveness while sending the message that they require greater government relief.
Calls to “cancel rent” are catching fire. First came a couple of tweets on Twitter. Then progressive firebrands like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed the #CancelRent movement. Now, millions are on a rent strike. Even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has declared his support for rent and mortgage forgiveness. As millions of tenants mobilize to cancel rent, they are not asking nicely or relying on lip service from politicians. Rather, millions of tenants are taking action by using a powerful time-tested strategy: rent strikes. As the desperation builds and another month of bills and rent arrears accrues, tenants are no longer politely asking for help. Tenants are rightfully taking matters into their own hands by organizing rent strikes to bring the fight to their landlords and elected officials to cancel rent. “When we fight, we win!
With the unconscionable murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis this past week, we’re reminded of the importance that the fight against racism plays in our struggle. We’ve seen admirable solidarity in those who have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against African Americans in this country. If you’re able, please consider making a donation towards legal aid for those Minnesota protesters working to advance civil rights and police reform: https://www.gofundme.com/f/g2xas-gs2020-legal-aid-for-minnesota-protesters?utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_lico+share-sheet With the economic turbulence we are all experiencing, we are seeing an exponential growth in working class consciousness throughout the world.
The Covid-19 crisis has triggered an international rent strike. Housing activists hope to build strong networks of solidarity as a financial crisis and mass evictions loom. Across the world, significant amounts of people have stopped paying rent, and in some places mortgage payments, in the wake of Covid-19. Many simply don’t have the money and now face homelessness. Rent strikes are taking place in the US, Spain, Canada, France, Britain, South Africa, and elsewhere as activists call for a stop to rent payments and evictions and for everyone to have shelter and space to get through the pandemic. Most of us would want to see housing entirely taken out of the market and be treated as a human right like it should be. That’s the dream anyway. And it’s the first time that something like that has ever felt possible with the level of upheaval that we’re seeing
Thirty-eight families in south Minneapolis will gain ownership of their five apartment buildings after spending years battling with their landlord, Stephen Frenz, who had been trying to evict them. “This is an amazing victory. I am so happy,” Chloe Jackson said in a statement Monday. She is a resident of one of the properties and board president of the tenant's rights group Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters for Justice). Eviction seemed certain once the pandemic hit since the families — most of whom are immigrants and don’t have health care or access to government benefits — had collectively gone on rent strike.
Rent strike organizing will not become widespread just because people are desperate. These material circumstances need to be joined by the understanding that another world is possible. That things don't have to be like this. That there are other, real, functional and functioning alternatives to be found in many other countries, right now today, that works much, much better than our collapsing house of cards Ponzi scheme economy, administered by a kleptocratic government controlled by real estate industry lobbyists who have systematically engineered the whole Ponzi scheme to be a Ponzi scheme in the first place.
While so many of us struggle to survive, some of the richest billionaires in the world dominate the residential real estate industry in the United States. These corporate landlords are companies owned by extremely wealthy individuals, Wall Street entities like private equity firms and hedge funds, and institutional investors. Corporate landlords include many well-known entities like Kushner Companies, Mosser Capital, Equity Residential, Related, Essex, Starwood Capital, CBRE, Blackstone, and Irvine Company. Across the country, from New York and California to Arizona, Georgia, and Florida, these companies own large apartment complexes, office buildings, hotels, single-family homes, and a significant chunk of our mortgage debt. Corporate landlords do not pay their fair share in taxes at the local, state, or federal level.
This country has been catapulted into the biggest health care, economic, and social crisis in generations. One-third of apartment renters were unable to pay their full rent in April and millions more will be in the same position in May. The three million people who signed on to the RentStrike2020 petition signals the outline of an organized response to this current crisis. To help us navigate the coming period where the inability to pay rent will likely become ever more widespread, it may be useful to get a perspective on the historical and international experiences of rent strikes. In this article we look at a few rent strikes spread out around the globe from the 1800s to today. The vast majority of rent strikes are triggered by one of two things: inability to pay due to a rent hike, or protesting landlord neglect of buildings.
In the course of the evolving patchwork of rent strikes happening right now across the US, there is suddenly a lot of talk in the press about how much the landlords are hurting. The landlords, of course, own the press, control the federal government, run all fifty states, and have a stranglehold on most of the city councils, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. My landlord, an investment company called the Randall Group that owns hundreds of residential and commercial properties up and down the west coast, reacted to the rise of a pandemic and the lockdown of the country by raising our rent, as they do every year, bringing it now to exactly 150% what it was when we moved in, in 2007. Back when I made much more money, as a touring musician in the era when people still bought CDs, when we moved in here, the rent was $500 a month.
On May Day, the first of May, the #GeneralStrike2020 (and beyond) campaign launches across the country. Learn more about the overall campaign in our most recent newsletter, "The Era of Mass Strikes Begins On May 1; First Day of General Strike Campaign." This prolonged and broad campaign will organize around a list of basic demands, as outlined here. Not on the list, but included is the demand to save the US Postal Service. The campaign will follow a three-prong strategy - resistance through noncompliance, mutual aid and building alternative systems in our communities rooted in cooperation, solidarity and participatory democracy. On May Day and extending through the weekend, there will be many activities. Read through and decide how you can best participate in the actions. There is something for everyone to do. Be creative!
From Los Angeles to San Francisco to Chicago to New York and more than 40 cities across the country. On April 25 cars rolled through neighborhoods and shopping districts, stopped in front of jails, and drove by the homes of local politicians to demand that all rents and mortgages be canceled. Every car caravan took extensive precautions to conform to physical distancing requirements. It's perverse that the government, after shutting down the whole economy, won't now cancel rents and mortgages. Make the bailed-out banks absorb the cost.