‘Either I Pay the Rent or I Eat:’ These California Tenants Are On Strike Because Their Rent Is Too Damn High

It's legal in California to withhold rent due to property mismanagement.

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

Half the tenants living in an apartment building in Oakland’s historic Fruitvale neighborhood haven’t paid rent in months — all in an effort to get the attention of the landlord they hope will consider selling them the property.

The tenants, who've been on a rent strike since October, say that if they can get the property under their control, they’ll be able to keep rent steady, in a city that’s gradually become synonymous with the country’s affordable housing crisis. Many of them are low-wage workers and told the local Mercury News that their rent has increased from $750 to $1,550 over the last decade or so. The tenants also allege that the building is rife with problems, including cockroaches and broken doors, and it’s legal in California to withhold rent due to property mismanagement, according to the Mercury News.


“To this point I’ve been able to pay, but next year I’ll be looking for somewhere under the bridge to move out,” Francisco Perez, one striking tenant, told KNTV. “Either I pay the rent or I eat.”

The tenants had placed a $3.2 million offer on the property before the strike, according to the Mercury News, thanks to help from grants and investors. But the landlord rejected the offer, leading them to withhold their rent as a last resort. Of the 14 households in the building, seven are participating in the strike.

Since 2010, the average monthly rent in Oakland has increased by more than 100%, from about $1,400 to more than $2,900, according to a December 2019 analysis from RENTCafé. Meanwhile, a crisis of homelessness has also unfolded, with 4,071 people living without permanent shelter across the city.

If the tenants are successful in pressuring their landlord to come to the table, they said they’ll work with the Oakland Community Land Trust to purchase the building and keep the property affordable long-term. That organization also worked with the Oakland activists known as Moms 4 Housing, the group of homeless mothers that squatted for months in a vacant, investor-owned property they hoped to purchase at a fair price.

Last month, the owner of that property agreed to hear out their request, after the women had been forcefully evicted. Now the mothers are advocating for “right-to-purchase” laws, which could allow non-profits and low-income tenants to purchase buildings before they’re scooped up by an investor.

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), an organization that also worked with Moms 4 Housing, told the East Bay Times that the Fruitvale landlord has agreed to meet with the tenants soon, but the owners of the building could not immediately be reached for comment.

Cover image:Bay Area Rapid Transit passengers wait to board a train at the Fruitvale BART station Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)