Strikes, protests as rents skyrocket across U.S.

Kenneth Patterson of Homes for All in Nashville during Renter’s Week of Action. Photo: Homes for All

Across the country, working-class tenants are organizing rent strikes, holding protest rallies, taking arrests, occupying state office buildings and forming alliances of tenant groups to confront a national, greed-fueled housing crisis that has simply exploded in recent years.

After some 10 million homes were lost to foreclosures in the Great Recession of 2008, there are now more renters than any time in the last fifty years. And rents are skyrocketing. The crisis has taken the worst toll on those who suffer unemployment, low wages and all forms of economic punishment dished out by the capitalist economy. African-Americans, LGBTQ2S folk, seniors and immigrants are more likely to face evictions and homelessness.

Laws that came about in response to militant tenant struggles and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s offered some protection against sudden spikes in rent and evictions. But they have been chipped away in the decades that followed, allowing landlords to trample the rights of working-class renters.

Landlord cartels have become more powerful and more ruthless as the wealth gap has widened. While tenants in the past faced a landlord that may have owned a few buildings in the neighborhood, today, apartment buildings and even mobile home parks are being bought up and consolidated by big alliances of investors — hedge funds.

Which partly explains why developers are now only building luxury housing.  Another reason, says Zillow Research’s senior economist Sarah Mikhitarian, is the tariffs. “We’ve already seen tariffs impact the cost of building new homes across the board.”

On June 4, tenants from throughout New York state traveled to the state capitol in Albany to demand a list of tenant protection laws. They blocked three entrances and took arrests. Longtime housing activist/fighter Anne Pruden, a member of Crown Heights Tenants Union, spoke to Struggle-La-Lucha: “The cops arrested 75 people but that won’t stop us. The movement’s getting stronger – there is unity between people of color, progressive white people, labor and the left in NYC and statewide. After this, more attention to public housing is on the agenda.”

In Los Angeles, the L.A. Tenants Union has organized rent strikes, protested in front of the posh homes of landlords and traveled to Sacramento, the state capital, to demand the repeal of the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which prohibits any strengthening of rent control in California.

Rent strikes have had some success. The 2018 mariachi tenant’s strike helped LATU gain popularity in L.A. The building in the Latinx neighborhood of Boyle Heights is mostly populated by mariachi musicians and their families. The tenants held back their rent, hung banners all over the building and even had a mariachi band playing outside. In addition to not receiving rent payments, the landlord couldn’t attract new tenants during the monthslong struggle and finally began talking with LATU, which gained some concessions from the strike.

Homelessness in L.A. is the second highest in the country, surpassed only by New York City. A shocking report came out on June 4 that revealed an increase of 16 percent over the previous year. It was shocking because in 2017 a local initiative to aid people in need included almost $2 billion to build thousands of housing units.

Some of those funds are being used and some people are being helped. But the number of people being forced out of their homes by capitalist investors exceeds the number that are being housed by a longshot.

According to the website shelterforce.org, Boston has also seen a revival of rent strikes and protests. Rent increases of up to 66 percent have become commonplace, and tenants are getting organized.

In Nashville, rent costs have increased by 70 percent in recent years, and many tenants have been displaced. Tenants’ groups are organizing and have had some success but also face challenges. More than one tenants’ organization has dissolved after landlords threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on tenants. One tenants’ group though, Homes for All, still holds an annual demonstration against landlord greed.

Corporate-owned media have suddenly begun reporting on the correlation between gentrification and the tent cities of homeless people appearing on the streets of big cities across the country. Two recent studies confirm higher rates of homelessness in rent-burdened (when rents are 30 percent or more of income) cities.

One study by the University of New Hampshire, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania examined clusters of rent-burdened cities to find the relationship between rents and homelessness. One such cluster — New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, St. Louis and Anchorage — contained only 15 percent of the U.S. population, but 47 percent of the homeless population.

Rent strikes and other forms of activism over the last couple of years have also been reported in Denver; Chicago; Seattle; Rochester, N.Y.; and Austin, Texas, all cities where large parts of the population fit the definition of being rent-burdened or severely rent-burdened.

Rent is one way for the capitalists take back some of the wages paid to workers. It is the organizations of tenants, just as it is the workers in labor unions that fight for wages and job security, that will be the motor force in fighting this torrent of landlord greed.