It was Christmas Eve in Brooklyn, the 14th day my building had been without heat, when I got my neighbors to go on rent strike.
The place where I live is utterly typical for my borough—a three-story, six-unit rowhouse that had been refurbished a few years back to take away any charm. The hot water had been fritzing in and out over the previous few months, suggesting some kind of boiler problem. But our landlord—a management company that owns a few thousand units across Brooklyn—had not repaired or replaced it. On December 11, the boiler went out. The next day, our property manager delivered two portable electric heating units per apartment. He said he was very sorry and that they were working very hard on resolving this problem.
I was more pissed off than I was optimistic they'd actually fix the boiler quickly, but I was hopeful that the heat would come back on without me having to do anything. It stayed like that for six days, then whatever good will and faith I had dried up.
On the seventh day, I began to lay the groundwork for a rent strike.
What's a Rent Strike?
New York City, like many other places, has laws designed to guarantee tenants have heating and hot water. From October 1 to May 1, landlords must make sure that apartments are at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit when daytime outside temperatures are below 55 degrees, and 62 degrees at night regardless of outside temperature. They also must make sure hot water is 120 degrees year-round.
But as every New Yorker knows, not all landlords abide by the law. Tenants complained to the city about violations 217,622 times during the 2018-2019 “heat season,” suggesting that a lack of heat is an everyday occurrence for many renters. “It’s extremely common,” said Andrea Shapiro, the program manager for the Met Council on Housing. “It’s one of the top complaints on our hotline.” And while tenants have legal rights, the wheels of the system are slow, and living in a place without heat is dangerous. “The main dangers are to seniors and children,” Shapiro said. “Another big danger is people trying to heat their apartment through their gas stove, or using space heaters that power lines can’t handle and it starts a fire.”
There’s truly only one leverage point that tenants can use to prod their landlords into action: Not paying rent.
A rent strike is a purposeful act by tenants to withhold payment to a landlord until certain living conditions are met, which could be everything from not having heat to a landlord attempting an illegal rent hike. And like any attempt to hold those in power accountable, it helps if you do it with a coalition of support, meaning your fellow tenants. “When it’s just one unit not paying rent, it’s not as powerful,” Shapiro said. I’d gone on rent strike previously in Oakland, California, after our landlord dragged their feet on clearing out a rat’s nest in the basement, so I knew the ropes.
Step One: Talk to Your Neighbors
I began writing an email every day to my landlord asking when the heat would be fixed. They responded with an apology and vague promises about someone coming soon. I didn't really believe them. What was important was that I established an ongoing paper trail of alerting the landlord about the heat problem, just in case it was needed if this dispute ended up in court. The next step was contacting my fellow tenants, who I would need to organize with if we were going to make our demands heard.
Having lived in the building for six months, I’d met a few of my neighbors while passing them up and down the narrow hallway stairs. Two sets of young couples had moved in recently, giving us an opportunity to chat while they were lugging in couches. Also in the building were a comedy club waitress and an old couple who’d been living there for more than 15 years and through three different owners. They had the only two rent-stabilized units left in the place.
We all pooled our information over email. One neighbor said they’d complained about the heat a month back. Another said they’d complained about the hot water a bunch. This was evidence we could use to argue landlord neglect if the process had even went to court. In the meantime, we waited in the cold, and turned to the city authorities for help.
Step Two: If Your Landlord Won't Respond, Get the City Involved
I contacted the Apartment Maintenance Complaint section of New York’s 311 system. A few days later, a worker from 311 came, but it was an unseasonably hot day—the outdoor temperature was obviously above 55 degrees, so the lack of heat wasn't actually illegal. But when 311 came back another day, it was cold enough for them to issue an official fine to the building owner. “No heat” is a Class C violation that needs to be fixed immediately, meaning the owners were getting docked between $250 and $1,000 a day, depending on previous infractions.
On Christmas Eve, with no movement on the issue, I went door-to-door to the units we hadn't contacted yet, and left a note under the unanswered doors:
Within two days, we had five (of six) units talking to one another. Our unofficial tenants union was born.
Step Three: Talk to People About Withholding Rent
As the cold days continued to go by without heat, we hunkered down near our tiny space heaters, which offered only a bare minimum of warmth. We wore wool hats at dinner, and tucked our dog under the covers at night. If we forgot to unplug the heater when we went to microwave something in the freezing kitchen, it’d trip the circuit breaker and I’d have run into the basement to reset it.
Meanwhile, we made an email schedule with our neighbors, with every unit taking a turn to contact the landlord using roughly the same language, trying to signal that we were now a force to be taken seriously. Who knows if that got through. As the first of the month approached, I brought up the idea of withholding rent for January to the group. Everyone was on board immediately. It’s easy to organize when people are angry and people are angry when they’re cold.
The proper way to go on rent strike, advocates and lawyers usually say, is to pay your month’s rent into an escrow account, the idea being that you’re not withholding because you’re unable to pay rent (which can lead to an eviction) but rather protesting a lack of services. Putting rent into escrow also holds the money in a separate place where it may later be used to pay back rent whenever the issue is resolved. (This could be months later, meaning you’ll have to pay rent into the escrow account every month; if your dispute goes all the way to housing court, a judge will ultimately decide how much of the withheld rent you will actually have to pay.) Also, if you’re dealing with a massive building and a long rent strike, a shared escrow account will help keep all of your fellow tenants honest with proof that they’re not breaking the strike.
I wrote a first draft on the letter to our landlord telling them about our rent strike. A few notes from other neighbors were edited in, and on New Year's morning, I hit send and cc’d the tenants.
No one paid rent. A few days later, the heat was fixed.
Step Four: Negotiate a Resolution to the Original Conflict
It was now time to negotiate the rent we’d actually pay. We began by agreeing to pay January minus 21 days (in total, the heat was out 26 days, but three weeks felt right to a number of neighbors). We emailed management, and they responded by saying it was their “policy” to only speak to one unit at a time, an obvious divide-and-conquer tactic. We had no real choice, so the tenants promised to keep each other abreast of the negotiations. In retrospect, this was the beginning of our union’s end.
After our offer of “one month minus 21 days,” management responded by offering 13 days off. Their reasoning was that 50 percent off the entire 26 days without heat was fair because, during that time, we still had the amenities of “a roof over your head, working utilities, and running water and electricity.” All of which they are required to provide to us by law.
Around this time, I’d noticed communication among tenants wasn't what it had been. Emails and texts went unanswered. A day later, I saw a neighbor outside and we got to talking. They finally admitted that they’d already settled for the 13 days. “We were just over it,” he said. “We just wanted the heat fixed and they did it.” I began weighing the pros and cons of filling our hallway with a Scabby the Rat.
It became clear to my partner and me that we were on our own.
I called a few Tenants Rights advice numbers about how to close the gap between 21 days off and 13 days off, and they essentially told us we’d have to go to court if we wanted a better deal. It was likely in our best interest to settle. “I’m impressed you got 13 days,” Shapiro said. We asked our landlord for 18 days off, detailing how we were on the hook for the month’s electricity bill, which would skyrocket due to the use of the space heaters. They came back with the same credit of 13 days off, but an additional 50 percent off of the month’s electricity bill..
We took it. Our rent strike was over.
I emailed the rest of the tenants, to let them know they might have been leaving money on the table and to show them the benefit of solidarity. Sure, I was a little upset folks had bailed before negotiations were complete, but was pleased everything had come together so quickly and easily. And now we’re all on friendly terms, which will come in handy if we need to borrow a stick of butter—or if management lets a water leak pool so it collapses a chunk of the hallway ceiling and then doesn’t clean it for a few days. This happened last week.
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