On April 1st tens of thousands of tenants, their incomes decimated by the pandemic, woke up without the means to pay their rent. Many more faced a choice between food, medical bills, utilities, or paying rent. Anticipating this moment, nationwide petitions, Facebook pages, and other online groups have formed calling for rent strikes. A rent strike is when tenants decide to collectively withhold rent from their landlord. It is typically the final maximum tactic in an escalating series of actions, each of which builds the level of trust and organization in a community until it is prepared to strike. Some common situations where rent strikes occur are: 1) When a landlord announces they will significantly raise rent without any additional benefits to the tenants; 2) When a landlord has announces they will be selling the building, threatening displacement for current tenants; and 3) When the building or apartments are in serious disrepair, and the landlord refuses to fix the conditions.
Rent strikes are a highly effective way of exerting tenant power. They can force a landlord to respond to tenant demands when other efforts such as letter writing, media exposure, and rent escrow have failed to produce results.
Rent strikes require planning. Without planning, a lot can go wrong. For one, if few tenants participate, the landlord will have no reason to concede to demands. Instead the strike will give the landlord an opportunity to evict the most engaged and organized tenants in their property, in one stroke setting back our long term organizing work irreparably. Organizers, adapting tactics from the labor movement, will instead aim to build a reliable, tested commitment from over 75% of their building before engaging in higher-risk tactics. To get that majority, you will need to convince tenants that you have a plan to win. Second, there must be a demand. Without a demand, the landlord won’t know how to respond in order to satisfy the tenants. Third, there must be a plan to support tenants who are participating in the strike. It is unfair and irresponsible to ask tenants to put their shelter on the line without a plan for possible negative responses from the landlord.
A mass failure to pay rent is not a rent strike, it is simply the result of a massive economic downturn caused by unprecedented layoffs. We understand why, faced with this desperation, organizers hope to escalate to a rent strike immediately, but as a movement we have learned the hard way: there are no shortcuts in our work. Mass desperation is no substitute for mass power. Columbus DSA’s Housing Committee supports rent strikes; building the capacity to strike is at the heart of our work. We hope that this crisis has revealed the desperate need for long-term tenant organizing in this city, and we encourage new and veteran organizers to join in that work. We can’t do it without your help. Thousands are on the verge of losing their homes, and only collective action can change that. We encourage tenants to reach out to the committee for assistance in organizing their buildings and communities and to join us in building tenant power now and beyond this crisis.
Columbus Tenants Union Facebook Page, @UnionColumbus on Twitter
The Columbus Tenants Union will hold its first remote meeting on Saturday, April 11th at 2:00pm, where we will discuss building tenant power in the city. Please RSVP here: Bit.ly/CTUMeeting
A Tenants Union Organizing Guide from the Philadelphia Tenants Union, including information on how to organize a rent strike during quarantine.