Rent Strike 2020

Special news coverage and analysis on The Buchanan and Seaton Show w/ @davidaseaton and live streams on WVON or WVON 1690AM on iHeartRadio Friday at 9pm – midnight Central

Usually when you think of the word strike you think of workers, unions, or the “Fight for $15”.  If we were not in the middle of a nationwide (with small exceptions) shelter-in-place order, we would perhaps be hearing about nationwide calls for higher wages as the top 1% continue to loot the treasury with tax cuts and subsidies.

Today there is a growing movement about striking in a much different way.  We are beginning to hear about rent strikes. That’s right. Government has told people to stay at home.  That means that they cannot go to work. If you cannot go to work, you are probably not going to receive compensation.  Sure Trump was all too happy to sign his name on the one-time $1,200.00 payments that have been sent out to more than 88M Americans in the last thirty days, but that was last month’s rent.

As a matter of fact that probably wasn’t last month’s rent.  People still have to eat, pay utilities, pay their bills, keep their phones on, etc.  Living in an apartment or a house with the lights and gas off and no food in the refrigerator does very little for your mental wellbeing to say nothing of your physical health.

So people that have a finite amount of money, and no ability to personally forecast what money will be coming in the near future, have to make a decision.  The government told me to stay home, my job is closed and I am furloughed, so guess what Mr. Landlord? I am not paying rent this month and I am not moving.  If you want this month’s rent, talk to Mr. Trump. I hear he’s sending out $1,200.00 dollar checks. Rent strikes are not new. 

This is not the first time that large groups of people have decided that a rent strike is the best way to deal with their immediate financial difficulty.  In February 1925 the local women of Glasgow formed the Women’s Housing Association to resist rent raises. During World War I the demand for war workers among the working class increased.  Simultaneously, landlords started to charge more for renting their substandard (and in badly need of repair) tenements. The price of food was also increasing. 

So with the men gone to fight in the Great War, and women largely left home waiting on checks from their husbands in the field, they had a choice to make.  They could go out and find a second or third job, but those jobs were unavailable. So they banded together and 25,000 women joined in a rent strike. Their audacity inspired the male factory workers and they began to strike for higher wages.

So what happened?  Did all of the women get evicted and all of the men get fired?  Absolutely not. The government responded with the Rent Restriction Act which froze 194 rent levels unless improvements were made to the properties, and the workers’ demands were met with increased wages.  Wartime production continued without disruption. 

Rent_Strike,_New_York_Times,_1919
This is a picture taken in Harlem in 1919. That’s 101 years ago.

In South Africa there were massive rent strikes in the 1980s to end Apartheid.  White people came in and acquired the properties where Africans lived for generations.  The government sent in troops in 1987, but to no avail. Over 50,000 rental units were given to the tenants even though many of them had not paid rent in years.

New York City has had several bouts with rent strikes.  In 1907 10,000 families in lower Manhattan went on strike and it ended with 2,000 families having their rent reduced.  In 1963-64 a rent strike in Harlem erupted over the poor maintenance of the buildings.  And in the 1960s and 70s national rent strikes were nationwide in the urban private and public housing inventory. 

So rent strikes are not new.  Which brings us back to today.  The government has shown that in times of emergency that they have the willingness to do what needs to be done for an ailing economy.  Trillions of dollars have been allocated to deal with the 20%+ unemployment caused by the displacement caused by Covid-19. Let me type that again.  Trillions of dollars.  

Everyone knows that renters pay their rent to landlords.  Landlords have mortgages. They take the rent that they receive and pay it to banks.  Banks then repay the money that they extended to landlords so that they can lend additional money to new borrowers.  So this seems like a pretty simple solution to me. One of three options can be implemented:

  1.       Send money to renters so that they can pay their rent
  1.       Send money to landlords (Section 8) so landlords can pay their mortgage
  1.       Send the money to banks so that the landlords don’t have to worry about the mortgage and the renters don’t need to worry about their rent

“The renters should have had a rainy day fund”, I hear some of you saying. “The landlords should have several months of rent in a rainy day fund”, I hear others of you saying.  “The banks should have made better underwriting decisions before lending to landlords who made risky decisions in picking their tenants”, I hear the rest of you saying. 

That is not our problem.  I don’t want my tax money going to irresponsible people.  I have to take care of myself. If tenants get evicted by the tens of thousands, where do they go?   Probably your neighborhood. Do a quick Google search on homeless people sleeping on the trains in NYC.  If the landlords lose their buildings, now there are abandoned buildings out there. Abandoned buildings attract behaviors that drive down the worth and safety of a neighborhood.  Finally, you might be thinking let the banks all fail. Without a banking infrastructure our country would collapse overnight. Read about Russia and their communist form of government.

Like it or not we are all connected.  When one part of the economy fails, it slowly takes down the rest of us.  Covid-19 should teach all of us one thing. We are not islands. This is not some libertarian experiment where it’s every man for himself.  I hope that when it is all said and done that we learn the lesson. We will succeed or fail together. Let’s choose to succeed.

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