A month ago, a "rent strike" may have seemed extreme. But in times of crisis, people across the globe are seeking solutionsby Tola Onanuga / March 25, 2020 / Leave a comment
As the escalating coronavirus pandemic continues to cause chaos and instability around the world, tenants in dozens of countries have been left in extremely vulnerable situations. Many who have become ill, lost their jobs or are caring for relatives are desperately worried about how they will pay their rent. As a result, a growing band of global activists have proposed to collectively withhold rent from landlords—which is also known as a “rent strike.”
In the UK, it’s perhaps too early to say whether mass rent strikes will occur because most tenants are still waiting for the government to confirm its legal stance on evictions during the pandemic. Ministers initially claimed new legislation would ensure no tenants were evicted throughout the crisis. On Tuesday, however, Labour accused Boris Johnson of betraying renters because the bill apparently only extended the eviction notice period that landlords have to give tenants from two months to three months.
The i Paper quoted a government spokesperson responding to the criticism, saying: “We have made a clear commitment to renters, and the claim that we are rowing back on it is absolute nonsense.”
Still, some tenants may feel compelled to join strike action in order to protect themselves. Dr Alex Baker, postdoctoral researcher in Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield, said rent strikes are not a decision taken lightly but are sometimes used by tenants facing mass eviction. “The government’s current proposal for a three-month suspension of evictions, does not do enough to help renters who lose income because of the pandemic and lockdown. The legislation looks like it only extends the notice period for evictions, meaning people may still face eviction, just later.”
“With the lockdown in place, reports of large waiting lists for universal credit and housing payments, and people laid off or facing loss of income, it’s possible many people will default on their rent in the coming months, leading to a major and chaotic rent crisis. Renters unions are often the next step for tenants if they can’t access support and feel their concerns are not being listened to through normal lobbying channels.”
Other countries around the world are grappling with similar issues but many tenants are already preparing to join rent strikes. In Canada, nearly half of tenants live from pay cheque to pay cheque, according to a recent study. This makes them particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.
Jaggi Singh, an activist, writer and researcher based in Montreal has been mobilising support for a rent strike in the city. He explained that he is among thousands of tenants that simply can’t pay their rent. “It’s clear that with the inability to work that there’s going to be thousands and thousands of people in Montreal and honestly, millions around the world, that are not going to be able to make their rent on 1 April,” he said. “Many of those people were having difficulty making their rent anyway. We’re talking about poor people; working people can’t work anymore; people who’ve been laid off; people who are temporary workers, people who are sex workers, people who in various ways simply can’t pay.”
As with the UK, Canadian banks have offered support to homeowners, while tenants have been left in limbo. This discrepancy is at the heart of the rent strike movement, according to Singh. “A mass rent strike like this is somewhat unique because we’re simply saying that if governments are willing to provide relief to major corporations, if they’re willing to provide mortgage relief, then people who are unable to pay rent should have a moratorium on their rent.”
Meanwhile, in Australia, several rent strike petitions have been created by different groups. For example, a petition by the Kulin Nations/Melbourne branch of International Workers of the World labour union, has gained around 16,000 signatures. Its organisers told Prospect: “Basically, here in Australia we’re facing unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, with an overly casualised workforce being made almost completely redundant within a week. Indigenous and migrant communities are being hit the hardest. We’ve set up the petition to demand an amnesty on all payments both rent and mortgage because most of us don’t have a choice, and aren’t willing to risk our lives just to pay rent and banks.”
It’s clear that Australia’s federal government needs to urgently address these demands, given that its own figures estimate at least one million people could become unemployed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Until they get the answers they seek, the organisers have vowed to fight on. “We also ask those who do have access to income to think of those who don’t, and sign the pledge to join the strike,” they wrote in the petition.
As the US edges closer to becoming the centre of the pandemic, rent strike proposals are also being proposed in in California and Chicago. Almost all of the activism taking place around the world involves ordinary citizens who are doing their best to survive in extraordinary circumstances. The coronavirus crisis will eventually end, but since tenants need a permanent solution to the insecure conditions, they will continue striving to make their voices heard. It’s now time for their governments to start listening.