Today we’ll be looking at how you can participate in a rent strike, step by step. There are lots of calls for a rent strike. We’re not the first and we’re not going to be the last! But we wanted to add our voice because there’s just not a lot of details of how to do this, especially in this very unusual moment. Basically, we’re asking, if we could organize a COVID-19 rent strike in 7 days across the country and across the world, what would be the first step?
Warning: You alone skipping rent is not a rent strike and is very dangerous. A rent strike is a type of protest where tenants as a group refuse to pay rent until specific demands are met. You organizing your building to not pay rent together is a rent strike. But even when doing this together, the risks of a rent strike are incredibly high, including risk of eviction. Please take this decision seriously.
Transcripción en español
Mentioned in This Episode
Franz organizes with Olympia Assembly and is a host on Doomer vs. Bloomer (Another Channel Zero Network podcast). Read “Building a solidarity network guide” by Cold B and T Barnacle on libcom.org, recommended by Franz.
Listen to It Could Happen Here, a podcast by Robert Evans, quoted in this episode.
Learn more about the Spectrum of Allies, mentioned by Franz, from Beautiful Trouble.
Find mutual aid projects in your area at It’s Going Down.
Read “Tenants’ Unions: Building Dual Power in the Neighborhood” by Jay Lucien and Varlam Akrat from Roar Magazine, quoted in this episode.
Check out It’s Going Down’s “Between Eviction, Infection, And Refusal: What You Need To Know About The April 1st Rent Strike & How To Plug In” which includes a long list of local initiatives and listen to their podcast “This Is America #111: Get Busy Living” featuring an interview with someone in Seattle, Washington, who discusses a successful rent strike from several years past and talks about what went into organizing the campaign. It’s Going Down is another Channel Zero Network podcast.
Listen to The Final Straw’s episode “Doing for Selves: Open Source Supplies and Tenant Organizing” which features an interview with Julian of Tenants United of Hyde Park and Woodlawn in ChicagoJulian of Tenants United of Hyde Park and Woodlawn in Chicago. Final Straw is another Channel Zero Network podcast.
Read “How to organize a Rent Strike” and “Food Not Rent” from LA Tenants Union. For more on the LA Tenants Union, read 101 Notes on the LA Tenants Union by Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal in Commune Mag, “These Tenants Are Leading the Largest Rent Strike in LA History” By Armando Aparicio and David Zlutnick (and watch the accompanying video), and “L.A.’s Class Struggle Looks Like This: The Tenants Movement” from Black Rose. Also, listen to From Below’s episode “Organize Your Neighbors: The Los Angeles Tenants Union.”
Keep Your Rent Toronto also has sample letters and posters available.
Check out the DSA-NYC Tenant Organizing Manual.
Read “Form a Union” from Tenants Together.
Listen to Crimethinc’s episode 75 on rent strike history and tactics. Full transcript available as well.
Welcome to a special emergency episode of Rebel Steps. I’m Liz. Amy and I are currently in New York where everything is locked down. This episode will definitely be a little less polished than our other episodes, but for now we just wanted to get it out as soon as possible.
It’s a really unprecedented moment here in New York, and globally. It sort of feels like the world is ending… but there’s also some hope in the moment. We’ve seen many mutual aid projects starting. Neighbors are helping each other with groceries. People are donating and even sewing masks for medical personnel. And we’ve seen increased calls for Medicare for All. We’ve seen people realizing that they have to support one another because, once again, the government has failed us.
One idea that’s popping up all over the place is organizing a rent strike. Today we’ll be looking at how you can participate, step by step.
Before, we get into the how to, let’s talk about why you should consider participating. There are some vital reasons to consider doing this both in your building and in coordination with tenants around the world.
In your building, one reason could be that if you’ve lost your job or aren’t able to work, you may just need that money to survive. You may need it for food and medicine. That’s a really, really good reason. This is probably the number one reason people will participate in a rent strike.
Two, even if you can pay this month, a rent strike now can make sure that, as we recover from the effects of COVID 19, all of us can remain in our homes. It’s a protection for the future. And while you may be able to pay today, you might not be able to pay next month.
Three, this is also a chance to show solidarity with those who are already struggling. If someone else in your building can’t pay, you can have their back. And if you have that money instead of paying rent, you can use it to support people around you by buying food or medication.
Lastly, even if you don’t decide to strike in the end, organizing your building is a good thing anyway! So regardless of what happens next, you can aim to create a building-based tenants union when this is all done that can fight rent increases and evictions. With climate change and an economic depression underway, this won’t be the last crisis we face together. Organizing now can make sure we are more resilient for the future.
Why a national or international Rent Strike?
Now, let’s talk about what the demands of a widespread, coordinated rent strike will be. For you and your neighbors, the goal of a one month rent strike may be about affording food and surviving. The goal of a more widespread rent strike is achieving political demands.
A rent strike can fundamentally change the way we view housing. Housing is a human right. Building strong tenants unions and exercising our power as tenants are steps toward ensuring housing for all in the long term.
With all that in mind, we feel that everyone who can participate in a rent strike should participate. Now, you know your own situation and we don’t want you to just not pay rent (we’ll talk about that more later). But, if you’re in a position to organize a rent strike in your building, please jump in! This is a crucial moment.
Perhaps the most attainable political goal is changing the laws so that we are guaranteed housing during this crisis and beyond. Shawn Vuillez of the Srsly Wrong podcast has an idea for that policy which he outlined in an article entitled “Cancel Rent Day” in Ricochet just last week.
He writes, quote “I propose something simple: Provinces should reimburse landlords for maintenance costs during the pandemic. In order to apply for this relief, landlords would just need to submit information about their maintenance costs over the last year… The data used in refund applications could discreetly and confidentially be used by the provinces to create new independent provincial landlord registries, which track the real costs of rental units across the country. This priceless data would give the provinces information it needs but can’t usually get to shape policy to better address the housing crisis, keep rents affordable, and create housing for the homeless. We can use rent day cancellation as an opportunity to look under the hood of our housing market and fix the problems based on the evidence.” end quote. Every government should institute a policy like this immediately.
Beyond what Shawn’s proposing, there are also the 5 demands circulating on the internet right now which apply more generally. They are:
1. **Free Healthcare.** That includes all testing and all care, both related and unrelated to the pandemic. 2. **No work.** Suspend work obligations. Guarantee food stamps and sick pay. 3. **No pay, no debt.** Suspend all rent, mortgage, utilities, foreclosures, evictions and parking enforcement. 4. **Free the prisoners.** End bail for jails, deactivate ICE and stop all sweeps of homeless camps. 5. **Homes for all.** Open up all unoccupied homes to anyone who needs one.
In a world where we can’t gather and meet and where everything is upside down, a rent strike is a powerful tactic to try and gain these demands.
There are lots of calls for a rent strike. There are calls in Montreal, Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, LA, and more. We’re not the first and we’re not going to be the last! But we wanted to add our voice because there’s just not a lot of details of how to do this, especially in this very unusual moment. Basically, we’re asking, if we could organize a rent strike in 7 days across the country and across the world, what would be the first step?
What is a rent strike
So, what is a rent strike actually? You alone skipping rent is _not _a rent strike, and it’s not organizing. You alone not paying your rent is very dangerous. It could lead to eviction and damage to your credit rating. It’s also not just lobbying political officials to cancel rent day, though you can do that too! We need every tactic right now.
A rent strike is a type of protest where tenants as a group refuse to pay rent until specific demands are met. You organizing your building to not pay rent together is a rent strike. Historically, it’s been used against larger landlords to stop rent increases and fight for better living conditions. In this moment, a national rent strike could be used as pressure to push for bigger changes.
How to Organize Your Building
So, if you’re ready to join the rent strike, make sure you start your organizing by talking to your roommates if you have them. Tell them you want to organize the building and see how they’re feeling. The last thing you want to do is not tell your own roommates about this bold plan and have them find out from a neighbor.
Franz: My name is Franz I organize with Olympia Assembly and our partner organization Olympia Solidarity Network here in Olympia Washington. I have been involved for a while with a group called Olympia assembly. We have big general assembies four times a year where we get out as many people from the community as possible in order to identify unaddressed needs and areas for mutual aid and direct action. And at one of these general assemblies, we really identified tenant organizing something a lot of people in our town were interested in getting involved in and there was this huge need for it. So out of that we formed Olympia Solidarity network with the goal of being able to address specific tenant and worker grievances.
Franz is also a host on Doomer vs. Bloomer, another Channel Zero Network podcast. In addition to doing tenant organizing in the past, Franz is currently working to organize a rent strike in her area right now for April 1. She’s going to walk us through this step by step.
Franz: Right now you know when people they laid off their job and a lot of inability to pay rent like there’s a lot of interest in tenant organizing right now.
To begin in earnest, talk to the other tenants in the building. A great place to start is leaving letters at people’s doors and putting up posters in the hallways with an email address for people to reach out to you. Usually, you’d go door to door and have in person conversations for this step, but in the current crisis, that’s not recommended.
Franz: Right now obviously having to shift the tactical way from you know maybe door knocking the best idea but flyering, continued sending notes over to your neighbor, putting them on their door or their mailbox things like that.
As a side note, it’s a great time to find out if anyone in your building is older or immunocompromised. Offer to help them get groceries or other necessities if you can! It’s a great way to support your neighbors–and build support for the strike. If you’ve already started reaching out to your neighbors for mutual aid, you’ve got a head start on this. For examples of letters and flyers, check out rentstrike.noblogs.org. You can find a link in the show-notes for a how-to guide and other useful info!
If you don’t have access to a printer right now, you’ll have to write handwritten notes. Your first order of business will be getting everyone’s phone number and email, so you’ll be able to switch to electronic communication soon enough! You also can ask if your neighbors have access to a printer as you start organizing. Someone might be eager to get involved! And if you have a printer, consider offering to print copies of things for other buildings in your neighborhood if you have contact with them.
You do need to start by leaving notes though since not everyone is going to be looking for you on facebook, twitter, instagram, etc. You need to make sure you’re talking to your fellow tenants directly.
As you start to make contact with everyone in your building, be sure to keep track of the people you’re talking to.
Franz: One thing I always pay attention to during that thinking to your neighbors phase is just gathering information and taking tons of notes. Like already seems interested, what knowledge and resources do they have, what problems or grievances did they already hold, and then also who that you talk to seems like they might be a potential snitch to the landlord. Cause that’s something that I in my organizing have dealt with in the past of tenants that are really on the landlord’s side for whatever reason. And taking note of that and being wary or cautious around those people and until you can confirm that you know they are on your side can be really important.
Since we don’t have a lot of time right now, it may be difficult to figure out who’s on the landlord’s side. But just do your best to figure out what may be going on based their reactions.
Franz: The more people in the apartment complex you can talk to and see what their past experiences with the person have been the better. Generally if you knock on someone’s door and you’re asking them if they have any problem with the apartment complex and then they’re just like very firmly saying no and then going on about how great it is, that’s a pretty good sign. Like I’ve had that happen before you kind of just have to go with your gut instinct and keep someone out like an arm’s distance if they don’t seem like they aren’t down with the work that you’re trying to do.
When people reach out to you, enlist them in organizing. If you’re listening to this when we drop it, you likely only have a week to organize before April 1 and only 5 weeks before May 1. You need all the help you can get! If your neighbors are nervous about getting involved, send them this podcast or give them one really specific task, like “Contact one neighbor today” or “Research buildings that might be owned by the same company that owns this building.”
Franz: While you’re you know talking to your neighbors whether that you know be door knocking or a quarantine note passing back and forth, figuring out like what people’s capacity and interest in getting involved as an organizer is, because, we talk about the spectrum of allies from people that are a hundred percent your ally, your co-organizer. They want to work with you and you’re down. And then you know kind of the next step over are people that are interested in the project generally supportive aren’t going to get directly involved. And then there’s the more you know neutral people on all the way over to the other side of people that are directly opposed to you. But trying to shift the people that are neutrally aligned with you to become organizers, and people that are neutral towards the campaign to become passive supporters. And recognizing that there are going to be, in its fine to have passive supporters while also figuring out who people are that are interested in like really getting involved and really wanting to push the campaign forward. Those people are going to be like super crucial especially if you’re coming at this as someone who doesn’t live at this particular apartment complex or if you are an organizer that organizing your own apartment complex and is trying to reach out and build connections with other apartment but that you don’t live in directly, finding the people that live there and talk to their neighbors that are embedded in that community that want to show up to meetings and help with strategizing is super crucial.
Keep in mind that some people will want to participate in the strike but may not be able to take part in the organizing. They might have kids at home or still be working so be understanding of each person’s situation.
As you enlist your neighbors, make sure you have a way to communicate with each other.
Franz: Something that I’ve really learned is whatever communication platforms tenants are already using it probably just what you should go with. Our organization tends to use like Signal which is an encrypted messaging app for like internal communication, but most tenants that we talked to are already going to be on that app. The fewer barriers for people getting plugged in and getting involved the better. So figuring out what types of communication platforms people are used to using and comfortable using is super important. So just like a regular texting group or a Facebook group. An app I really like to use Group.Me cause it’s a really easy way to set up texting groups where doesn’t just get all messed up because everyone has a different type of phone and group messages don’t always work well between like iPhone and android and flip phone. Group.Me allows anyone to be joined in this group without necessarily having to have the app downloaded.
Next set a date and time for a call. Again, this would usually be in person but because of the health risks, a call is the best option.
Franz: Really what’s important is scheduling a meeting and meeting you know either in person or, in our current circumstances, trying set up digital calls whether that be through you know Zoom, Google hangouts. Jitisi is another one that’s less big capitalist tech company. It’s encrypted so that’s one that I like to use.
As you organize a time for the call, also set up an agenda and prepare. Make sure you have someone prepared to facilitate the call and someone ready to take notes. Here are some things you’ll want to cover.
- Introductions where people can get to know one another.
- Are there any immediate needs in the building that we can address now? Since we’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s a good idea to check in on everyone and do some mutual aid in the building if you aren’t already!
- How much of the building is here? Does anyone here know the missing units and can someone reach out to them?
- How are people feeling about striking April or May 1?
- What questions do we have?
- When’s our next call?
During the call, make sure everyone has a chance to ask questions and talk about their needs and concerns.
Franz: Letting tenants take the lead in the meeting, especially people that are newer to organizing, like being able to find the right balance between having an agenda that you stick and get through the things you need to talk about, but especially focusing on giving the people involved and effected, all the people involved and effected, not just the people that were already organizers before this, ownership over the project and the feeling like they do have the ability to fully participate and effect the course of this campaign. Leaving lots of time for check ins and people like say how they think that things are going and if they’re comfortable with the direction that this is going in. Because you know tenant organizing, and especially organizing for a rent strike, is something that is very high and very high risk for the tenants involved and so making sure that they are onboard with everything that’s happening, and that they not just feel, but they truly are the source of the action being taken. And like their ideas are being enacted and that they have the ability to shape the campaign I think is super important.
Make sure that people are leaving with action items. In the notes, make it clear who is responsible for which task and follow up on these as the days go on. Since this is a major project and you just have a week if you’re aiming for April 1 or 5 weeks if you’re aiming for May 1, I’d recommend setting up daily calls and staying in close contact with people you’re organizing with.
Franz: I’ve never participated in a campaign that had like such a short turnaround time. You know it’s like trying to get as many people onboard for like an April rent strike and you know a week as possible. And so typically what we do is we’ll do weekly or every other week meetings depending on how urgent the campaign is. In times like this I could see daily check ins being absolutely crucial. And if it’s not daily meetings that maybe not everyone can commit to, just daily communication whatever that looks like through the digital platforms and checking in with people and confirming where they’re at and what the strategy is and what we’re doing and making sure everyone is comfortable moving forward with that.
You’re going to need to just repeat these steps until you have most of your building onboard. As you go, you’ll need to strategize. The first part of strategizing is developing your demands.
Franz: When in the past Oly Sol [Olympia Solidarity Network] has started a new campaign the very first step is through these meetings with tenants through you know the door knocking and figuring out what people grievances are. Really trying to like consolidate specific demands. Right now the demand is kind of is if we don’t get paid because we don’t have jobs, we can’t and we won’t pay our rent. And even you know the folks that you know do you have the money, have the savings, or haven’t been laid off yet are also not going to pay it in order to stand in solidarity and protect their fellow tenant who aren’t able to pay. And so the primary demand is just allow us not to rent this month or we aren’t going to pay this rent this month and you’re not going to evict us or punish us for it. But you know potentially using this as an opportunity to figure out like what are the other problems that you know you’re having in your apartment complex. What are the other problems that are happening across the board. That oftentimes is landlords that are not doing repairs in a timely manner, like oftentimes not in the legally required time frame. Or it could be landlords violating privacy laws or it could be you know any number of things if you’re already talking to your neighbors and you’re already organizing the groundswell of grassroots support for pushing for demand, it’s an amazing opportunity to throw some other demands in there as well.
The second part of strategizing is figuring out a little more about your landlord and tailoring your response to what you find out.
Franz: The first step, figuring out what your demands actually are and then second step, figuring out who the target is. So usually that is going to be a landlord, but depending on what kind of landlord they are, there’s going to be a lot of different considerations. Like is it a single individual that owns one complex with twenty units? Is that a large corporation that owns apartment complexes across the country? Is it a nonprofit that prides itself in providing affordable housing to low income tenants? All of those different scenarios are gonna require different considerations and different tactics.
In a typical tenant organizing campaign, next you’d use tactics such as delivering a letter to the landlord or occupying an office, and those just aren’t possible now.
Franz: Once you figure out those first two things- what your demands are and who the target is and what specifics considerations you have in pressuring them, it kind of comes to figuring out what the tactics you have available to you and when it makes sense to employ them. The solidarity network model, what we try to focus on is a constant escalation of tactics. So starting with something fairly small and benign and being able to like constantly kind of ramp up the pressure. So our first step is pretty much always, once we’ve consolidated the demands, we write a demand letter. We’ll deliver that demand letter to the landlord usually in a big kind of showy flashy way that demonstrates our like grass-roots people power. That you know it’s going to be particularly hard right now you know when we need to be socially distancing. And so figuring out how to adapt that tactic and all the other tactics that we normally have in our tool belt is something that’s going to be particularly difficult and takes a lot of consideration and thought. But going off of these kind of like established models of tenant organizing and trying to like modify and adjust them to these specific circumstances is something that we can be doing right now.
In light of coronavirus, one idea is getting your letter signed by organizations and tenants from elsewhere.
Franz: Having not just tenants in the building but you know well known organizations throughout town maybe like well known individuals and just as many people as possible showing this groundswell of popular support behind these demands definitely serves the same function of the demand delivery where you’re just trying to demonstrate the amount of support and people power that you have behind these demands.
As you and the other tenants scramble to organize your building, you can also be looking for a larger network. Find the buildings that are owned by the same landlord or company and organize with them. If you pay by venmo, you may be able to find tenants in your landlord’s payment history. Reach out to Tenants unions in your area, or if there’s not one, reach out to ones in neighboring cities and areas and see what resources they can offer. Look around online for other organizing happening in your area. Put up posters and flyers and street art so while people are taking walks they see them.
Franz: We’re stronger when we do this together and if you know you as an individual just decide not to pay your rent this month, there’s not gonna be a whole lot of power behind that. And ultimately your landlord is going to be in the more advantageous position in that scenario and so really emphasizing that we need to organize for a rent strike. We need to be talking to our neighbors. We need to be getting people on board. We need to be reaching outside of our existing milieus and agitating as many people as possible participate in this. And then you know when April rolls around, ideally we have the necessary threshold to make it safe for people to actually withhold their rent. If that can be achieved and specific apartment complexes or against specific landlords, that’s awesome and amazing and should be absolutely counted as a win but also recognizing that there is a lot of gray area between like an absolute win and an absolute lose and it’s important to use anything that’s less than an absolute win, absolutely celebrate the victories you did have. Publicize your victories. Use it as a means to inspire more people to action and put out there like the methods and tactics you used for other people to replicate and then use that momentum to continue to push for an even bigger rent. Start an even more effective, more all encompassing rent strike next month or push for the other demands I was talking about the other grievances tenants might have in an apartment complex and hopefully sustain this tenant power in the long term. Thinking about how you wrap up the campaign is super important or how you wrap up one stage of a campaign and move on to the next and continuing that momentum and learning from mistakes and learning from areas that you may consider a loss and using wins you catalyze further action into happening.
Looking toward further action is key, since April 1 is fast approaching. We need to think long term about building momentum.
Franz: The really quick turnaround thing is really difficult for me to wrap my head around. It’s very new even for people that have been involved in tenant organizing for a long time. And I think one thing to remember is that ultimately- there has to be quick action, there has to be quick turnaround- but it’s still a marathon that we’re running and not a sprint. And so I think ramping up for April 1st and trying to get people onboard for a rent strike is important and it’s also important to remember that April comes around and you pull off everything you wanted to pull off don’t count that as a loss of, use that as momentum to keep pushing for next month. And getting even more people involved and getting even more apartment complexes and even more tenants to join in on this movement because it you know I have to be a growing movement when continuous momentum, not something that we sprint for for two weeks and then give up on it it doesn’t end exactly how we want it to.
This is an unprecedented, historic moment. Let’s seize it and run with it. The Trump administration is already cracking down in a variety of ways. The only antidote to the oncoming authoritarianism is organizing and community building. We have an opening here. Let’s take it and make this rent strike a reality. If you’re a podcaster, writer, journalist, or any other kind of media maker, please consider covering this in the next day or two. We need all the perspectives we can get. We need the idea signal boosted now while there’s still time to organize. We need to normalize the idea of a rent strike on every platform.
Literally no one has organized a nationwide or international rent strike before. This is new for all of us. No one has a magic formula for it. No one knows how this might work. We have to organize our own communities and try new things.
Trying new things is uncomfortable and difficult. Talking to your neighbors who you’ve only passed in the hall before, will likely be awkward at times.
Jay Lucien of IWW, DSA-LSC and Symbiosis Federation in Milwaukee, and Varlam Akrat of Tenants United in Chicago wrote of their own uneasiness when entering tenant organizing for an article in Roar magazine.
They wrote, quote “Many of us who started the union had experience in other forms of organizing and had no illusions about how difficult building the union would be. The biggest fear for many of us was that people might get evicted as a result of our mistakes. We have since come to realize that the real harm comes from not getting involved. Our experience has taught us that in cases where tenants fight back, they are significantly more likely to get a better outcome, and crucially, to help avoid future evictions.” end quote
With a pandemic in full swing and an economic depression happening, it’s going to at least be uncomfortable anyway and more than uncomfortable for many of us. Now is the time to jump in.
Also, I just want to stress that we don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like. We’re not encouraging any reckless behavior. The risks of a rent strike are incredibly high, including risk of eviction. Please take this decision seriously. You know your unique situation best! But the reason we’re putting this out now, is that a mass rent strike creates more safety for all of us. They can’t evict us all.
To be completely transparent, for me, my landlord just owns one building. I’m in touch with my neighbors and we’ll see how things progress. But it’s not a given even my building will do this April 1. Amy, the producer of this podcast, lives in the same building as her landlord and his family with just one other tenant and so any rent strike would be a more personal conversation. I’m just offering you information that may be useful if and when the time comes for you and your building to rent strike. At the very least, we’ll be waiting to pay rent until the last possible day so we can make an informed decision and I’d encourage you to do the same.
And as we organize our neighbors, let’s build for the future. Again, helping out your neighbors and creating a stronger community in your building is a great goal, regardless of whether or not your strike. Keep that long term vision in mind as you consider this. Even though we don’t know what the future holds, we do know that those stronger communities are the best way to ensure a safer world for all of us.
In the podcast It Could Happen Here, Robert Evans said, quote “A network of human beings working together to protect one another are stronger than any bunker. They’re stronger than any state. Those bonds are not just what will save us if the state collapses. They’re the only things that can carry us through to a better future.” end quote
If you’re looking for more tips on tenant organizing, check out the show notes. If you need more general tips on organizing, look at our first season. We have an episode on how to be an organizer and an episode on mutual aid. You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for this episode was kindly gifted to us by Tutlie and also includes a few songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewee Franz of Olympia Assembly and Doomer vs. Bloomer and to Pearson of Coffee with Comrades and Will for their feedback. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider supporting us on Patreon or sharing this episode with your friends or via social media. This podcast is part of the Channel Zero Network, an anarchist podcast network run by radical media makers. Head over to ChannelZeroNetwork.com for more podcasts.