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Do Rent Strikes Actually Work?

More tenants in big cities are joining together to withhold rent from bad landlords. But staging a rent strike is tough—and winning is even harder.

by Rick Paulas
Jul 13 2018, 4:16pm

A rent strike in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in 1919. Public domain image from the International Film Service.

Steven Baldwin, a 38-year-old single father, lives with his parents and children in the Exposition Park area of Los Angeles. It’s been their home for 14 years, where they pay $1,700 a month for a five-bedroom apartment. But he isn’t sure how long that’ll remain true.

When his building was sold last fall, the new owners Chung Suk Kim and Hae Jung Kim gave tenants 60- or 90-day eviction notices, with plans to remodel the units for higher-income tenants—one-bedroom apartments across the street rent at $1,500; two-bedrooms for $2,500—likely students attending nearby University of Southern California.

The evictions were legal, and some people moved out. But others like Baldwin had nowhere else to go. “We got families and kids, and there’s a cancer patient here,” Baldwin says. “It’s just wrong, so we decided to fight back.”

So Baldwin and his neighbors contacted the Los Angeles Tenants Union, and with their help, the tenants immediately requested individual jury trials for each of their eviction proceedings. This was a tactic to extend time. “There are so many evictions happening in L.A., and only 33 judges to oversee,” says Paul Lanctot, an organizer with the union. “Simply asking for jury trial bogs down the courts.”

This bought the tenants a few months to organize a plan. But with the new landlords refusing to meet with the tenants, this has mostly meant protests and trying to bring media attention to the issue. Meanwhile, as they try to win the public over ahead of their court date, they pulled the ultimate move of the disgruntled tenant: They went on a rent strike.

What’s a rent strike?

Rent strikes are when tenants refuse to pay rent to the landlord until their demands are met. In many cases, the rent is collected instead by a tenants union and held in escrow until the dispute is resolved. Tenants can go on rent strike for any number of reasons, from unsafe living conditions to an untenable rent hike. In my own case, it was a basement rat’s nest that stewed for months.

The tactic was commonplace around the turn of the 20th century. One of the largest rent strikes was organized in Manhattan in 1907 by a 16-year-old named Pauline Newman. Of the 10,000 families who participated, 2,000 successfully got their rents lowered, and the strike eventually led to modern-day rent control.

But the tactic had mostly fallen out of favor until recently, when a slew of rent strikes took the rental industry by storm in Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, among other places. “Striking has been part of the union movement for more than a century, and now they’re being used to fight displacement and gentrification,” says Trinidad Ruiz, an organizer in Los Angeles currently working on a rent strike involving 200 tenants there.

“The reality is, if tenants don’t go on rent strike, they may end up on the street,” Ruiz added. Despite a tightening labor market and efforts across the country to raise wages of low-paid workers, there isn’t a single county in the U.S. where minimum wage workers can afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Rent strikes, which have typically been a last ditch effort by tenants when negotiations with landlords break down, have had mixed results. In one recent success story from February, tenants in an apartment complex in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood won a 42-month lease with rent hikes capped at five percent after a year-long rent strike.

But when you lose, you get evicted; in 2016, tenants in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park lost a court battle following a rent strike that ended with them being kicked out and redevelopment commencing. In many cases a settlement agreement is reached, with both sides making concessions.

“If you do it right—and there is almost always a right way to do it—it is a powerful way to force your landlord to take your demand seriously,” said Robert Wohl, an organizer for the Latino Economic Development Center, a non-profit currently assisting a rent strike in Washington D.C.

The high cost of staging a rent strike

When faced with rent strikes, landlords can get petty. Tenants have reported having their hot water and power turned off or being threatened with the impossibility of finding future housing with an eviction on their record. (This last threat isn’t completely made up—you aren’t paying rent, and so you can get evicted.)

Baldwin said he had some of his personal property taken. “We used to have stuff outside, like barbecue grills, chairs, kids bikes. But they had some guy come over here and take it all. Anything that wasn’t chained down, they took,” Baldwin says, of his building in Exposition Park. “I went to file a police report, but they said that since I’m not paying rent, if it’s outside the property, they’re allowed to take it if they think it’s abandoned.”

“I have headaches. Sometimes, I don’t have an appetite. Sometimes you feel good, but then you start thinking about it, and feel sad again,” says Baldwin, who now attends regular therapy sessions to handle the stress of his housing situation. “I walk out to the parking lot, and it’s like, maybe I’m not going to get to do this anymore.”

He also worries about the possibility of his own family being separated. If their eviction goes through, his parents will likely find space in a senior home, while Baldwin and his kids will have to find something cheaper, far away. “[My kids] don't know how they're gonna see their grandma and grandpa,” he says. “If we in the Valley, you're not gonna see them everyday. Maybe every holiday or something.”

Landlords face public shaming

Ultimately, since only a tiny fraction of these strikes end up in court, one person determines whether or not a rent strike will work: The landlord.

Daniel Bornstein, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in landlord/tenant disputes—he also once ran his own “boot camp” for landlords—has mediated his share of strikes over the years. He cautions renters before enacting any strikes due to their lack of legal standing.

“If the landlord is faced with severe housing code violations and the tenant is withholding rent pending the compliance with the violations, then maybe the rent strike is legitimate,” he says. “But if the tenant is upset about what a landlord has done, but what that is is perfectly permissible by law, it’s an imprudent decision to not pay rent.”

When discussing tactics with his landlord clients, Bornstein first asks how they want to respond. If they want to fight it tooth-and-nail, and they have legal standing to do so—along with the necessary massive war chest to afford legal fees and the missing rent—then they’ll go to war. “If [landlords] feel they’re being wronged, they will simply direct me to keep demanding the rent,” he says.

But there’s another aspect Bornstein encourages clients to keep in mind when deciding on how to respond to the strike. “Has this become a public event and is it exposing you to publicity that you would prefer not to be exposed to?” he says. “Strikes can be very effective [because] the sting of negative publicity can be more compelling to avoid than the rent that’s actually being withheld.”

Which is to say, after the rent, truly the last card for tenants to play is that of public shame.

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