When Covid struck, many groups, including the National Housing Association and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, called for a significant government expansion of rental aid. However, some tenant organizers have begun to discuss the possibility of something else: nationwide rent strikes. “Are you going to ask for a huge amount of money to return it to your landlord?” de la Riva asked, talking about a stimulus package for tenants. “We now demand a different power relationship from society.”
Many people, both liberals and conservatives, saw the rent strike as disproportionate or even dangerous. Political allies warned de la Riva and his co-director Jennifer Arnold not to support the Cancel Lease campaign, while Covid was worried. The same thing happened to Susanna Blankley, organizer of the Right to NYC Council Coalition. “I can’t even tell you, not only the people on the left told us it was unrealistic,” he says, “they told us it was reckless.” Unscrupulous! But I think the point is, in fact, anything is possible. We now have a moratorium on evictions. Everything is impossible until it is so. I want to be in a world where we think about what we need, not just what we think we can get. “
In May, groups of tenants across the country coordinated a gigantic rent strike. Only 20,000 tenants in New York and Los Angeles have pledged to withhold their rents. In July, tenants in New Orleans blocked the entrances to the courthouse after the moratorium on eviction expired to protest the eviction. Rent strikes and eviction blocking continued throughout the pandemic – as they did almost 100 years ago, during the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern world.
Throughout the 20th century, American city tenants organized against grooving and dangerous conditions and won significant victories. Rent strikes organized in the early 20th century in response to a sudden increase in rents and later a shortage of heat and hot water attracted the attention of the Socialist Party, which overlooked tenants as a potential revolutionary force. Socialist rental leagues began to demand permanently affordable, state-supported housing. In 1923, the first American housing project was completed in Milwaukee under the leadership of its socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan, but until 1930, the United States remained the only developed democracy without a federal commitment to housing.
As housing and labor markets coexisted during the Great Depression, the public housing campaign accelerated. In the early years of the economic crisis, thousands of tenants took part in rent strikes and blocked evictions. The urban tenant movement has become more militant and violence against displacement has met with violent resistance.
When the marshals arrived with eviction orders, the tenants threw stones and bottles from behind the makeshift barricades. Some attacked the police directly and attacked them with sticks. A 1932 report from the Bronx newspaper recalls a scene where “police officers were scratched, bitten, kicked and their uniforms torn” by tenants who refused to be evicted. In cities like New York, these efforts have forced lawmakers to take measures to regulate rents and start building social housing. Congress also responded with the adoption of the National Housing Act of 1934, which largely halted the wave of confiscations during the Depression, and the Housing Act of 1937, which deployed the country’s public housing infrastructure. Today, more than two million Americans live in public homes.
As the 20th century continued, tenancy movements gained more concessions. In the early 1980s, about 200 cities, including Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, underwent some form of rent control, but these advances were already disrupted. At the end of the 1960s, there was an alarming increase in the abandonment of apartments in New York, which was attributed to the inability of landlords to keep their buildings under control of rent. In 1971, Governor Rockefeller revised the state’s policy to limit the city’s ability to regulate its rents. New York’s strict rent control system was replaced by a new rent stabilization system that allowed landlords to increase rent by a set percentage each year. Across the country, one state legislature after another passed laws forbidding cities from enacting rent controls. The cities concerned – such as Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, were relieved of rent control in 1994 under a state mandate; and Berkeley and East Palo Alto in California denied the following year in the same way – they were significantly more progressive than the state legislators who controlled their destinies. In 1961, nearly 1.8 million units in New York – more than eight out of every 10 apartments – were under rent control. By 2017, there were only 21,751. Today, approximately half of the apartments in the city are stabilized by rents.