If I Were a Rich Man: Rent Strikes as a Response to COVID-19

If I Were A Rich Man: A Series
By Serena Saunders

Join Feminist Majority Foundation intern Serena Saunders each week in If I Were a Rich Man as she explores the topic of money–as it relates to feminism–to provide young people with the information and resources they need to survive, thrive, and fight economic injustices. This week, Serena’s exploring rent strikes as a powerful tool to respond to financial concerns from COVID-19.

How Are Renters Faring in the Midst of COVID-19?

For millions of Americans, the COVID-19 crisis is causing incredible financial strain without an end in sight. More than 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past month, and even more are struggling with reduced hours, wages, and benefits in light of stay-at-home orders and shifts in work procedures. As a result, regular bills like food, housing, utilities, car loans, student loan debt, and others are more difficult to pay.

While there’s relief at the federal level and many states are stepping in to provide assistance, one large group of people has been conspicuously left out of many aid packages: renters. A suspension on rent hasn’t occurred at the federal level, where public and federally-assisted housing residents could have been most directly helped. States, too, have a complicated patchwork of eviction suspensions, but there doesn’t currently seem to be any cancellation of rent and utility payments. This means that renters who are protected from eviction during the pandemic will still have back-payments to make after the crisis, despite any potential changes in employment due to COVID-19.

About 36.6% of households across the country–about 43 million households–whether that be an apartment, single-family home, or mobile home, are occupied by renters. Many households faced unduly large rent burdens before the pandemic, spending more than 30% of their pretax income on rent. Rent-burdened households “have higher eviction rates, increased financial fragility, and wider use of social safety net programs, compared with other renters and homeowners,” creating a pattern of instability and fragility that puts them at even greater risk now. It’s not surprising then that about 31% of renting households didn’t pay rent at the start of April 2020, compared to 18% in April 2019. While this number doesn’t account for those who pay on different timelines, such as on the 15th, it’s still truly unprecedented.

What Are Rent Strikes, and Why Now?

For some renters, the choice not to pay their rent was based on a deliberate, coordinated, collective effort. This is called a rent strike, one of the most useful tools tenant organizers have. In a rent strike, an organized group of multiple tenants in a property don’t pay rent, making it extremely difficult for landlords or property management companies to take action against–or even evict–everyone participating, increasing renters’ chances for a successful action. Rent strikes have historically started by working with other tenants to file requests for rent reduction and paying rent late as a group. Coronavirus, however, has sped up this typical timeline. 

For Rent Strike 2020, a national activist collective that’s sprouted out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has created an urgent ultimatum: a 2-month suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments, or rent strikes. The group is “working to build strike infrastructure to allow the American working class to fight back against the interests of the wealthy and weather this crisis safely.” Strikes are occurring in New York, Los Angeles, Alexandria, Austin, Chicago, and other cities. Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for New York City-based Housing Justice for All, said of the strategy, “How can we convert thousands of people being unable to pay the rent into thousands of people who are taking collective, intentional, political action together?” This is only the first wave of non-payments, as tenants organize in preparation for upcoming May payment dates, and it’s also likely that these will be linked to governments’ probable continued inaction on ordering payment waivers and not just suspensions or delays.

Why Is This A Feminist Issue?

Housing is recognized as a human right by the United Nations’ International Bill of Rights: it’s directly correlated to physical and mental health, access to drinking water and sanitation facilities, and other aspects of human safety and dignity. Now is not the time to be pushing more people into houselessness. Low-income people are most likely to suffer the economic impacts of this crisis, and we have the chance now to both reach out to those most vulnerable and ensure their well-being, as well as rethink the system that existed before: “The current crisis is laying bare the tenants rights crisis that has already existed for years, and it’s becoming harder to pretend the status quo is sustainable.”

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