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California’s rent strike: Who pays and how it works

The most radical strategy by tenant advocates is a rent strike, a formerly fringe political tactic that’s getting mainstream attention. Here is how it works.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As the pandemic stretches into its seventh month, tenants and landlords have found themselves facing the same question: Who’s going to pay the rent if unemployment continues to hover north of 11%?

After the California Supreme Court’s eviction moratorium expired Sept. 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers extended protections for residential renters and forestalled evictions until Feb. 1 for people who declared that they lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic. Without a larger national bailout, the state deal is essentially a short-term fix that will convert back rent to civil debt, meaning landlords will still be able to pursue repayment in small claims court.

What this means for renters is that while they get to stay in their homes, the debt keeps piling up. 

The most radical strategy advocated by tenant advocates is a rent strike, a formerly fringe political tactic that’s getting mainstream attention. But what does that actually mean? How does it work? And who will end up paying? 

What is a rent strike? 

In theory, a rent strike is a collective action meant to force a change in living conditions. Tenants withhold payment, or part of their rent, if they don’t have access to clean water, if their apartment has an unresolved safety issue or to dispute a rent increase. 

Rent strikes typically take place in multi-unit apartment complexes, where tenants collectively refuse to pay rent until a problem is fixed, essentially forming a union of tenants. But that could be changing during the pandemic as the threat of evictions looms over a far wider swath of tenants. 

How would a rent strike work in a pandemic? 

Tenant advocates say, first and foremost, those who can pay their rent should keep paying their rent. If they choose to withhold it even if they can pay it, they should put that money in a shared escrow account. But for people choosing between rent and food, advocates say the choice should be food and other living expenses.  

They also caution that no one should commit a rent strike of one. That’s just refusing to pay your rent. Instead, by joining with other tenants and paying into a collective pot run by activists – in some cases, as little as $10 per month – the tenants will have support from housing attorneys and tenant advocates.  

What’s also changing during the pandemic is a broader call for rent strikes among people who are not in multi-unit buildings. That could include people in single-family homes, which would be unprecedented. 

Who’s supporting this?

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a grant- and membership-funded left-leaning organizing group based in six California counties, is the primary driver behind the statewide coordinated effort.  

The ACCE says it’s organizing tenants in Los Angeles and Oakland, among other cities, and one major Bay Area corporate landlord has 12 of their 18 multifamily buildings on a rent strike. The test of the rent strikes’ effectiveness won’t be clear until the end of local and statewide eviction moratorium, or until there is a larger federal or statewide solution for COVID-impacted tenants.

But in another wrinkle of the pandemic, rent strikes went from fringe political action to something seen as politically feasible by major labor groups. Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, joined the call for a rent strike in May. 

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