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How a Bay Area rent strike might work

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Tenant groups say the time for mass nonpayment is nigh, but landlords balk

A large sign that reads “rent strike.”
A person walks past the words “Rent Strike” written in large letters on the side of the Compton Hill Reservoir in Missouri.
Photo by AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

With so many people in the Bay Area out of work and unsure how to pay next month’s rent, tenant groups are suggesting a singular solution: that renters refuse to pay their landlords and instead opt for a rent strike.

“Systems have come to a halt, industries have crashed, and millions of people have lost their jobs,” notes Bay Area Rent Strike, a grassroots effort that hopes to organize tenants into a region-wide nonpayment movement.

“Without any reliable source of income, without work, sick days, and access to the most basic needs like food and safe shelter, many of us will not survive,” notes the would-be strike organization.

While no one at Bay Area Rent Strike responded to requests for comment, plenty of other people in SF have the word “strike” on their lips, and with temporary moratoriums on evictions in place in many cities, widespread rent strikes could become a reality.

A rent strike happens when an organized group of tenants with the same landlord, refuse to pay rent until demands are met. Courts often rule such actions illegal, but in cases where the property owner has neglected either the law or a property a judge may uphold a renters’ rights to refuse to pay.

In the cases of most strikes tenants still pay the equivalent of their monthly rent, but they put the money in escrow. While individual strikers may find themselves swiftly evicted, large and organized groups are harder to dislodge.

“If 30 people in one building don’t pay, that’s a crisis the landlord can’t deal with,” Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, director of the Housing Rights Committee of SF, tells Curbed SF. Evicting dozens of people “becomes really difficult and time-consuming,” and property owners may decide that the cheaper solution is to bargain with strikers.

Rent strikes are nothing new to the Bay Area. Take, for example, an apartment building in San Francisco’s Western Addition that’s been on strike for more than four years, resisting attempts to demolish part of the Midtown Park Apartments on Scott Street. In an Oakland neighborhood, tenants refuse to pay rent unless their landlord sells them the building.

But new strike talks are different. With so many Bay Area renters out of work due to the ongoing shelter-in-place orders, mass nonpayment may turn into a necessity of circumstance rather than a last-ditch effort.

Sherburn-Zimmer suggests that organized tenants could demand that landlords reduce rents while renters are out of work, or that a landlord pass on the savings from any lenders who have suspended payments, to help tenants weather the current storm.

What about property owners who rely on payments for income, and who themselves may have trouble making ends meet?

“They weren’t sorry for us when they were raising our rents,” says Sherburn-Zimmer. “I didn’t see the apartment association asking landlords to please lower our rents, people are having a hard time right now” during the housing crisis.

In late March, the California Apartment Association (CAA) did suggest that its members, who consist of landlords and property owners, take measures like freezing rents or offering payment plans, calling such gestures an “opportunity to help our communities heal” in an email to its membership, although the guidelines were non-compulsory.

Tom Bannon, CEO of the CAA, tells Curbed SF that he considers rent strikers “unlawful” and “irresponsible.” He argues that renters who can pay right now still have a moral obligation to keep up payments.

“Those people are outside the societal norm” he says of any tenants voluntarily withholding rent payments, arguing that smalltime landlords, in particular, are having a hard time right now too.

“I would draw a very bright line” between renters unable to pay rent and those choosing to withhold for the purposes of bargaining, Bannon tells Curbed SF. However, in the current crises, some renters may find themselves on strike by default

Rental site Apartment List surveyed almost 500 Californians this month and found that 10 percent didn’t pay rent for April, and only 15 percent making partial payments, researcher Rob Warnock tells Curbed SF.

“Some people are striking because they have to,” Anya Svanoe, spokesperson for the renter group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) says.

ACCE has proposed a statewide rent strike starting in May. The group hopes Gov. Gavin Newsom will freeze rents or offer further rent assistance, something local jurisdictions can’t do without the governor’s permission.

Quoting an Oakland renter, an ACCE press release asked, “How are we suppose to shelter in place if the government doesn’t cancel our rent and allow us to stay home safely?” The group argues that Gov. Newsom has shown the political will to create the problem (albeit while resolving a public health risk) but not to offer a solution.

“We don’t want a tsunami of evictions” when eviction moratoriums expire later this year, Svanoe tells Curbed SF, characterizing rent moratoriums as a tool to delay but not prevent such problems.

Gov. Newsom hasn’t issued any comment on the possibility of a rent freeze. When asked directly, a spokesperson to the governor avoided the question, telling Curbed SF they believe the eviction protections Newsom has offered will shield renters.

But not everyone is convinced.

“We feel that there is an urgency to not have this health crisis explode into an economic crisis that we can’t find our way out of,” says Amy Beinart, aide to San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen.

Ronen, alongside other SF lawmakers, have pushed Newsom to suspend rent payments for weeks, with no such luck.

ACCE set a May 1 deadline before it begins encouraging renters who can safely strike to do so. The hope is that this pressure will motivate property owners to join in lobbying for a freeze on rent and mortgage payments from state or federal government—mutual aid at that point, for renters and landlords alike.

“The alternatives are unimaginable,” Supervisor Matt Haney, another SF rent freeze booster, said earlier this month. If the powers that be don’t act soon, imagination may end up becoming reality.