Rent Strikes Heating up Nationwide, Say Tenant Organizers

“Tenants are becoming more willing to organize around the notion that they’re paying too much for too little and they could still lose their homes,” Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor, told the Washington Post. “That creates a kind of fearlessness because you have less to lose.”

1919 Harlem, NY, rent strike. (Credit: Wikimedia/NY Times)

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Tenants in Washington, D.C., are going into their second month of a rent strike, a tactic that organizers and experts say is becoming increasingly common as cities gentrify, the Washington Post reports.

The strike mirrors others that have taken place in Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the Post and the Toronto Star report.

“It’s a rare demonstration of the economic power that residential tenants have,” Kenneth Hale, legal director for a tenants advocacy group in Toronto, told the Star. “We don’t see it very often, but the reality is every month, residential tenants hand over more than a billion dollars to their landlords. That’s a lot of economic clout.”

The strike in D.C., in the Brightwood Park neighborhood, is being coordinated by the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), a D.C. organization that advocates for tenants’ rights. It has historically stayed away from facilitating rent strikes, the Post wrote, but “frustration with the slow pace of legal battles and rapidly rising rents in the District prompted organizers to guide residents through the process of striking.” Nine residents are participating in the strike, saying that their building owner has neglected maintenance for years. A number of neighbors have already left the building, driven away by water and fire damage, a boiler-pipe explosion, pests, mold, faulty wiring and unreliable heat and hot water, according to the Post.

The property manager, Delores Johnson, calls the striking tenants troublemakers who had too many adults living in their units, changed the locks on their doors and barred maintenance workers or exterminators from entering their units. “This really isn’t a rent strike,” she told the Post. “They just don’t want to pay rent, and they don’t want to be evicted.”

Rent strikes were once commonplace, a fixture in late 19th- and early 20th-century cities. As Matthew Desmond writes in Evicted, “Strikers…were not an especially radical bunch…[m]ost were ordinary mothers and fathers who believed landlords were entitled to modest rent increases and fair profits, but not ‘price gouging.’”

Now rent strikes are gaining traction once more. In Toronto, the success of two major rent strikes against landlords in the past year shows tenants’ power, the Toronto Star wrote. In Colorado, the state legislature had even considered a bill that would formalize the process of rent strikes, giving renters the right to withhold rent up to the amount it would cost to repair a major defect in the unit, Colorado Public Radio reported in April. (The bill died in committee in May.) And in Los Angeles, there have been a half-dozen rent strikes since 2016, the Washington Post reports, with the city leading the charge in renter activism — unsurprising, the Post says, since LA has one of the most cost-burdened rental markets in the U.S. and the largest share of renters of any major U.S. city.

“We are reaching levels of inequality that we have not seen since the Gilded Age, and so maybe it’s time to return to tactics like the rent strikes that were invented in those years,” Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, an organizer with the LA Tenants Union, told the Post.

Back in Washington, D.C., at the site of the Brightwood Park strike, building owner EADS LLC, has sued some of its tenants, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, for not paying rent. EADS has pledged to renovate 13 of the building’s apartments, as well as its hallways, in the coming months. It was unclear if the renovations had been planned before the tenants began withholding rent. The strike could take years to reach a conclusion, the Post reported, but if it is successful, LEDC organizer Rob Wohl told the newspaper that it might help tenants in other buildings strike, as well.

“Tenants are becoming more willing to organize around the notion that they’re paying too much for too little and they could still lose their homes,” Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor, told the Washington Post. “That creates a kind of fearlessness because you have less to lose.”

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Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.

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Tags: washington dcstrikes

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