The below was written by Nigel Duara, CalMatters on September 25, 2020. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California. For more information, visit www.CalMatters.org.
Once a fringe tactic, rent strikes are gaining political attention around the state as renters seek payment relief amid the coronavirus recession. As the pandemic stretches into its seventh month, tenants and landlords have found themselves facing the same question: Who’s going to pay the rent if unemployment continues to hover north of 11%?
After the California Supreme Court’s eviction moratorium expired Sept. 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers extended protections for residential renters and forestalled evictions until Feb. 1 for people who declared that they lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic. Without a larger national bailout, the state deal is essentially a short-term fix that will convert back rent to civil debt, meaning landlords will still be able to pursue repayment in small claims court.
What this means for renters is that while they get to stay in their homes, the debt keeps piling up. The most radical strategy advocated by tenant advocates is a rent strike, a formerly fringe political tactic that’s getting mainstream attention. But what does that actually mean? How does it work? And who will end up paying?
What is a Rent Strike?
In theory, a rent strike is a collective action meant to force a change in living conditions. Tenants withhold payment, or part of their rent, if they don’t have access to clean water, if their apartment has an unresolved safety issue or to dispute a rent increase.
Rent strikes typically take place in multi-unit apartment complexes, where tenants collectively refuse to pay rent until a problem is fixed, essentially forming a union of tenants. But that could be changing during the pandemic as the threat of evictions looms over a far wider swath of tenants.
How Would a Rent Strike Work in a Pandemic?
Tenant advocates say, first and foremost, those who can pay their rent should keep paying their rent. If they choose to withhold it even if they can pay it, they should put that money in a shared escrow account. But for people choosing between rent and food, advocates say the choice should be food and other living expenses.
They also caution that no one should commit a rent strike of one. That’s just refusing to pay your rent. Instead, by joining with other tenants and paying into a collective pot run by activists – in some cases, as little as $10 per month – the tenants will have support from housing attorneys and tenant advocates.
What’s also changing during the pandemic is a broader call for rent strikes among people who are not in multi-unit buildings. That could include people in single family homes, which would be unprecedented.
Who’s Supporting This?
The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a grant- and membership-funded left-leaning organizing group based in six California counties, is the primary driver behind the statewide coordinated effort.
The ACCE says it is organizing tenants in Los Angeles and Oakland, among other cities, and one major Bay Area corporate landlord has 12 of their 18 multifamily buildings on a rent strike. The test of the rent strikes’ effectiveness won’t be clear until the end of local and statewide eviction moratorium, or until there is a larger federal or statewide solution for COVID-impacted tenants.
But in another wrinkle of the pandemic, rent strikes went from fringe political action to something seen as politically feasible by major labor groups. Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, joined the call for a rent strike in May.
What About Landlords?
They’re worried. Beginning just a month after the pandemic, the California Apartment Association warned landlords that a general strike was on the horizon, and indeed that some of its members had already received notices from tenants on a rent strike.
The National Multifamily Housing Council estimates that more than 13% of tenants in America paid no rent by Sept. 13 in a survey of 11.4 million units. That’s up from 11% in April.
The apartment association says it recognizes that people are experiencing financial hardship and urges its members to work with tenants to find reasonable solutions. But landlords still conducted at least 1,600 evictions between Mar. 19 and the end of July in 40 counties, including more than 400 evictions since Newsom instituted an eviction moratorium on Mar. 27.
The apartment association argues many landlords can’t do needed repairs and maintenance without rental income, worsening the living conditions for people who may be protesting their living conditions to begin with.
Won’t People Just Get Evicted?
That depends on who you ask. The apartment association’s answer is simple: Yes.
“Landlords whose residents withhold rent to advance a political agenda have no choice but commence an eviction action and work to collect the rent that is owed,” the California Apartment Association said in a statement to CalMatters. “This is an unpleasant step and not a decision an owner makes lightly.”
Tenant advocates hope to create such a large groundswell of rent strikers that state and local governments have to step in and bail out both struggling landlords and tenants (but not large corporate landlords). To pay for it? They say, tax the richest Californians.
And practically, they argue that if 20 units in a multifamily apartment building are withholding rent, it’s much harder to evict all 20, or to then fill all 20 empty apartments with new tenants.
What’s the Goal? Free Rent?
Won’t People Eventually Have to Pay Their Rent?
Not the way tenant advocates see it. Their goal is not forestalling rent to be repaid later, but rather rent forgiveness entirely for renters who have lost their income due to the coronavirus recession. Hence a popular slogan: “No Income, No Rent.”
They also call for more moderate solutions for people who still have some income, including an agreement from the landlord to not raise rent.
The rent strike movement, in their view, isn’t just withholding money; it’s using the sole leverage available to tenants to force political changes, whether that’s a potential federal bailout of landlords and tenants, or more bills like the pre-pandemic AB 1482, which capped rent increases. The first changes would likely happen on a local level, like the existing eviction freezes in Alameda and San Francisco counties.
What Would Mass Rent Strikes do to the Housing Market?
In addition to causing immediate pain to landlords who say they will face foreclosure without tenant income, the apartment association says rent strikes would do long-term harm to the plan of creating dense, multifamily housing to alleviate California’s housing crisis.