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Rent Strikes Are Here. Rent Strikes Are the Future.

With the economic ruin coronavirus is sure to bring, #CancelRent isn’t so much an act of defiance — it's an act of survival

The Cheesecake Factory, a brand that normally boasts more than $2 billion in annual revenues, is feeling broke amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. So, the brand is doing what a lot of regular Americans wish they could: Cheesecake Factory is going on a rent strike

Corporate leaders aren’t calling it that, of course. The company noted in a statement that “unprecedented times” mean making sacrifices at the nearly 300 restaurants it operates; it’s shuttered 27 locations and many more could fall. But when April 1st comes around, the Cheesecake Factory won’t be cutting a check to any of its landlords. And it’s becoming clearer that it’s merely the first of many retailers that are planning to withhold rent payments until their finances stabilize.

Small-business owners with leases and renters across the country are facing the same fork in the road today. Faced with months, if not years, of life-changing economic drought, people are choosing to pocket their rent and use the cash for other necessities — be it feeding their family, paying off previous debts or even anxiety-saving for potential coronavirus medical costs. And from California to Ohio to New York, people are using the moment as a form of activism, showing off their strike by hanging white sheets and rallying neighbors to join in. 

Interest in the phrase “rent strike” has spiked like crazy in the last two weeks, and it’s easy to see why: The salaryman and wage-worker alike are paranoid about layoffs. Many, like those in the hospitality business, are watching their entire industry begin to crumble. Those who are lucky to have retirement accounts and assets have watched their accounts implode in the last few weeks. 

The debate around rent strikes isn’t a conversation led by well-read activists. What most would consider radical direct action during normal times has become just the pragmatic next step for people trying to stay afloat. People are counting their money and realizing they have next to nothing to give to their landlord. In turn, it’s inspired questions of what our landlords are actually giving us

It certainly doesn’t look like our political leaders and national institutions are going to be able to do much, with a massive stimulus plan that won’t do enough to help working-class Americans, given that $1,200 can’t cover more than a month or two of rent, if that, in many major cities. The only kind of direct housing assistance being debated right now appears to be for people who have mortgages, and even that’s in flux; bankers say they want to extend help, but with no forgiveness for missed payments and only if the federal government can bankroll them. Instead, eviction protection, the freezing of rent increases and other housing-assistance tools are being negotiated on a state and city level. Many of these proposed measures can prevent people from ending up on the street, but many will do nothing to blunt the impact of a limping economy on individual lives. 

The pandemic has only accelerated a crisis that’s been in the making for years. Renters have been struggling with the pressure of stagnant wages and rising costs, compounded by housing shortages and speculative investment. The proportion of Americans who are “rent burdened” (spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing) has grown rapidly since 2000, and coronavirus can only make that worse in coming years. 

These financial pressures, and the rent strikes they inspire, are embroidered into the tapestry of American history, reaching as far back as the 1840s with the Anti-Rent War, sparked when heirs of a wealthy landlord tried to collect past balances from tenants who didn’t have the money. Rent strikes sparked up in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, and a wave of strikes spread across the nation in the 1960s and 1970s as renters rallied against unsafe conditions and housing shortages. 

And as in centuries past, many modern landlords seem as vile and full of shit as ever, even if many are now desperate to try and convince you that they’re “one of the good ones.” The internet is littered with examples of landlords trying to cash out via evictions, whether it’s by booting a struggling renter so they can raise the rate for a new tenant, or using loopholes to take entire buildings off the market and flip them for a profitable sale. One landlord in Dayton, Ohio decided to tell residents that “if you can’t get a job, move out.” There seems to be little recognition that housing is the most important element of a person’s financial stability, and dramatically affects a person’s mental health. Our god-awful world runs on money, and landlords think they deserve it, even as their tenants’ accounts burn barren. 

Actually embarking on a rent strike, however, is a minefield. Housing activists note that the No. 1 key is power in numbers; otherwise, odds are high that you’ll get an eviction notice in the blink of an eye. A guide from the L.A. Tenants Union, for example, is wary: “It is a big risk and escalation to organize for a rent strike and withhold rent or rent increases that haven’t been made to your home. We advise that it is only done in larger buildings where most all of the tenants in almost every apartment unit are participating,” warns the group’s memo on organizing a rent strike. 

In many cases, it’s evidence of substandard living conditions and neglect that gets power in the hands of renters. The context is different when there’s a pandemic going on, of course; as one alleged “lawyer” explains on a widely shared 4chan post, a silver lining may be that local civil courts are closed or jammed and unable to process evictions, giving striking renters a small loophole for protection. It’s also unclear how local eviction protections will work long-term if they don’t also forgive rents in the meantime. 

It can be daunting to face off with a landlord, especially a corporate entity or petty rich guy with money and time to harass residents, whether it’s by turning off utilities or just constantly threatening the long-term consequences of having an eviction on your record. But once you talk to neighbors, get a spreadsheet going and create solidarity around a building-wide strike, it’s worth working with local activist organizations and the media to get a news story around the effort, as public attention can tilt the scales. “Strikes can be very effective [because] the sting of negative publicity can be more compelling to avoid than the rent that’s actually being withheld,” argues Daniel Bornstein, a San Francisco lawyer, in a VICE article.

Whether the strikes unfolding across America right now work or don’t, it’s clear that the rise of coronavirus has sped up our collective realization that an economic model in which people give away half their income to have a roof over their heads isn’t a sustainable one. As with other forms of big business, the landlord class will jostle for position as the dust begins to settle on the pandemic, looking for ways to wring out what little renters are left with. This is the kind of behavior that leads more and more folks to wonder whether the people they pay actually serve a purpose, or if they’re just leeching off the profitable side effects of housing being commodified and a core hotbed of inequality. 

We’re taught in the American capitalism experiment that we have to build our wealth by making practical decisions and thinking long-term. Standing at the fork in the road, renters are wondering what will have hurt the least when they look back in a decade or two. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in that context, withholding rent doesn’t sound radical. It just sounds like the right thing to do.