Terra Thomas, a florist in Oakland, California, doesn’t know when she’ll receive her next paycheck, a concerning predicament millions of Americans are now facing.
“It’s terrifying for sure,” she says.
Even before Bay Area officials announced a shelter-in-place order on March 16—to start the next day—Thomas was already noticing her event’s calendar thinning out. As a florist, she had weddings, graduations, and other special occasions booked for the rest of the year, but as the news of the coronavirus spread, her clients started canceling.
Because of her precarious situation, Thomas, a member of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, who had been initially striking against her corporate landlord Mosser Companies Inc. over repairs and other negligence with her neighbors before quarantining, decided to withhold paying her April rent.
“I need to allocate my money for food, health care and other necessities, not to pay rent to corporate landlords,” she says.
Thomas pays $833 a month in rent. She’s lived in her building for seven years and is under rent control. Still, even with rent control, coming up with that kind of cash without income is a prospect Thomas never saw herself having to consider.
The Bay Area continues to be one of the most expensive places to rent in the country, with the average cost of $3,446 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Many low-income renters live paycheck-to-paycheck. Like Thomas, a growing number of tenants in the Bay Area, around California, and a beginning of a movement throughout the country are rent striking—proactively choosing to not pay rent.
“Tenants are fighting for a cancellation of rent rather than a mountain of accumulating debt,” explains Deepa Varma, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Tenants Union in an email. “Rent strikes are just one of the ways that tenants are demonstrating that they have been placed in an untenable situation in an already failing housing system.”
Many are unable to pay rent because they are unable to work either because of illness, layoffs, or large scale public orders that have been instituted to protect all of us, Varma adds.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on March 27, banning evictions for nonpayment of rent from taking place until after May 31. As a surety against eviction, according to the order, the tenant needs to provide documentation to their landlord that they are unable to pay because of the pandemic. Two days earlier, Newsom ordered a temporary delay on mortgage payments, “with the objective of maximizing consistency and minimizing hurdles faced potentially faced by borrowers.” Nothing was mentioned about renters.
“It’s not fair,” says Lenea Maibaum an organizer with the nonprofit Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “If you are going to cancel mortgages, you need to cancel the rent as well. It doesn’t make sense.”
To support tenants organizing in San Francisco, Maibaum and Brad Hirn, also an organizer with HRC, have their sights set on buildings owned by Veritas Investments, one of San Francisco’s wealthiest corporate landlords. Starting to organize, especially in a pandemic where few people can meet face-to-face, remains a challenge.
“When we talk about rent strikes we quickly realized, even in San Francisco, the idea is new and scary for many people,” Hirn says. For a rent strike to be successful, according to Hirn, about 75% of the tenants in a building need to stop paying rent to the landlord. “That threshold is necessary for strength in numbers. It’s a demonstration of power.”
Station 40, an anarchist collective in San Francisco, was one of the first buildings in the Bay Area to publicly declare they were on strike. The collective’s 11 tenants didn’t see another course of action after most of them lost their jobs because of the shelter-in-place order. “We have no other recourse,” says Cassandra, a Station 40 tenant, who asked to be identified by only her first name. After they realized they would be out of work for the foreseeable future, she says, they emailed their landlord and told them they weren’t going to pay April’s rent, almost $5,000 for the two-story building.
“The relationship that they have with us, they know we are not playing around,” she says about their landlord. “If they are intelligent they must understand, that because we are not able to work, we are unable to pay.”
Few other buildings in San Francisco and the Bay Area ended up striking against paying April’s rent, but Hirn and other housing advocates are hopeful the movement will gain ground by May 1. Members of the tenants union are taking selfies with calls to cancel rent and posting them on their social media accounts. Organizers such as Hirn and Maibaum are leaving notes and letters for renters in Veritas-owned buildings, feeling out who would like to join the strike, and speaking with tenants—a lot conversations are with people behind a closed door, they say—who also might just not be able to pay.
“The necessity is to realize we are more powerful together. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s just the facts,” Cassandra says.
The goal of the rent strike is complete rent forgiveness for the duration of the pandemic crisis. No back rent paid. No evictions or other retaliation by landlords for nonpayment. It can happen at the landlord level or at the state level with an executive order.
Striking, if successful, will relieve renters from more undue economic hardship while the world is shut down. For some, it is a starting point to envision larger changes.
Thomas would like to see more tenant-owned buildings and a push for the creation of more community land trusts. Hirn and Maibaum want to curb Veritas’ profiteering—the kind that inevitably occurs when large corporate landlords buy up property from mom and pop owners. “[Striking] questions the basic fairness of the system, just [like] labor strikes,” Hirn says. “Tenants at this moment can trigger the kind of society-wide change that benefit people everywhere.”
For strikers like Cassandra, it’s not really about what may happen in a few months, but what’s happening now. “Trying to think long-term is a measure of control and ego that humans want to cling to,” she says. “We only have control of right now. We have no idea how it’s going to play out, and it’s not important that we know. We need to work from this standpoint.”
And organizers like Nick Thacker with the East Bay Tenant and Neighbor Councils, a tenant’s group, don’t care how rent forgiveness happens, but that it does happen. “Many people are spending half of their incomes or more for rent,” Thacker says. “It’s not a tenable situation.”
This is why those like Thomas look out for their neighbors.
“I feel inspired to be an in a situation where they might not be able to advocate for themselves,” she says. “I feel motivated to keep this going by thinking of the millions of people that are facing this. I’m glad that things are changing everyday. Things need to change.”
Carly Nairn is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. Her work has been published with Guernica, National Geographic, and Sierra magazine, among others.