Source: Bisnow/Ian Johnston

Rent strike looms as COVID-19 plunges thousands into crisis

COVID-19 has led to millions of workers losing their income due to closures, layoffs, and unpaid time off. In addition to all the stresses and uncertainty that come with a pandemic, many of these workers have another question hanging over their heads: how to pay rent? Organically, this has led to a rent strike movement taking hold across the country. Online organizing groups have garnered thousands of tenants as members. The movement has been a fantastic show of the power that working people hold, and has led to a shift in consciousness against the inherent injustice of capitalist exploitation.

But how can the rent strike win?  In order to be victorious, the strike cannot simply be carried out in an isolated manner but it must be broadened out to involve as many renters as possible. Isolation and atomization of the struggle is a real danger and would lead to the rent strike being defeated. In order to broaden out the struggle, it is imperative that we develop a larger list of demands which see the rent strike as a means to an end and not simply an end in and of itself. A mass movement of non-payment linked to explicit demands is far more effective than isolated individuals each trying to go up against their own landlord. Renters hold a huge power in society, a power that has the potential to radically challenge the landlords, the government and the entire capitalist system. 

A crisis in the making

As with many issues that have exploded into full-blown crises in recent weeks, the roots of the rent strike are not to be found solely in the outbreak of COVID-19, but in the conditions that many Canadian renters were living in prior to the outbreak. Many renters across the country have been subject to years of rising rents, rental insecurity, and housing development that favoured over-priced condominiums instead of affordable housing. Toronto has become the second-fastest growing housing market in the world according to the UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index, while Vancouver currently ranks sixth. This has forced many residents, especially young people, to put up with exorbitant rents and unsavoury housing situations. Coupled with the shocking statistic that more than half of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque, the reality is that many who are withholding rent are doing so out of necessity, not by choice (a complete analysis of the Canadian political landscape, both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here). Though COVID-19 was the spark, the current rent crisis was festering long before. 

On April 9, Statistics Canada reported that Canada lost 1,011,000 jobs in March, almost eight times as many as the previous record month for job losses. Many more will be lost in the months ahead as the economic impact of the virus has its knock-on effects.. These are the workers who find themselves stuck between exorbitant rents on one side and scant and ineffectual government relief on the other. 

The first relief package of the Trudeau government went right to the capitalist class in the form of a $10 billion loan given to the banks and business owners of our country, while immediate relief for workers was a measly $5 million in the form of reforms to Employment Insurance. Even now as the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit is rolled out, a third of unemployed Canadians are left out of the program, and many workers find themselves weeks into the crisis with no pay and no sense of when, and how much, money will be coming from the government. Meanwhile,the proposed maximum relief benefit of $2,000 a month is dwarfed by the true cost of living for many Canadians – for instance, in Toronto the average rent has climbed to $2,300 every month. With little to no help from the government, and bosses and landlords insisting on their profits, it is no wonder that tenants have started to take matters into their own hands. 

What is a rent strike, and how do we win?

A rent strike is the conscious, organized and coordinated withholding of rent. It is a tool of tenants to fight back against the landlords. Implicit in this movement is the assertion that housing is a human right; and that the needs of working renters are more important than the profits of the property-owning class. Beyond the crisis of rent during quarantine, the developing rent strike has the potential to spark a wider movement against the capitalists putting corporate profit ahead of the needs of the people. 

Just like an economic strike in a workplace, a rent strike will never be successful as an individual action. Single tenants withholding their rent do not hold the power to combat the landlords and protect themselves against counter-action from the state and the capitalist interests that the government represents. Fines, penalties, and evictions have real consequences, and the choice to withhold rent should not be motivated solely by an abstract moral argument. Just like a workplace strike, the point is to win.

To effectively organize the rent strike, committees of renters must be formed to unite individual tenants and provide a democratic leadership to the movement. With the technology available today it would be more then possible to hold democratic assemblies where tactics, concerns, and demands could be decided by tenants across the city and country. This could form the basis of a tenants’ union that would coordinate the presentation of demands to the landlords and government. We need collective organization to democratically call a rent strike if our demands are not met, and only end the strike when we have collectively decided that we have achieved our aims. This would give the strike a coordinated edge, and convince many that the rent strike is serious and professional with a good prospect of coming out of the struggle victorious.

Collectivizing the movement would also protect against the landlord’s attempts to buy out the leadership of the strike. When a landlord, or any other member of the capitalist class, sees a movement gaining momentum in front of them they will attempt to derail and squash that movement by whatever means necessary. When they recognize that a direct attack; such as evictions, fines or arrests will cause backlash, they will use the opposite tactic to “buy out” the leadership of the movement and lull them into submission. By providing targeted reforms to particularly militant members of the movement, the property-owning class will attempt to undermine and derail the movement from the top. We are already seeing the beginnings of this today with landlords’ selective treatment of the most outspoken tenants in their buildings. Readers should be sceptical about what is being gained when posts about selective rent freezes and preferential treatment continue to show up in the online coordinating spaces. A concesion won for a thin layer of the working class can be taken away by the capitalists just as soon as the movement is extinguished. Generalized victories can only be won through a coordinated, militant movement of striking tenants.

A proposed set of demands for the rent strike aimed at both landlords and government could include: 

  • An immediate moratorium on rent and utilities for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, whether a tenant is laid off or not.
  • Illegalization of all evictions or threat of evictions.
  • For all necessary maintenance to be carried out, as decided by collectively organized tenants.
  • No utility cut-offs.
  • For a reduction in rents.
  • Full wages for all workers during the period of quarantine. No one should be forced to jeopardize their health and safety for fear of economic instability. 
  • Shut down all non-essential work. For working people to decide what industries are genuinely essential. Double hazard pay to be provided to workers in essential industries. 
  • End the scandal of homelessness which is even more unsafe during the pandemic. Expropriate speculative properties and empty hotels to provide safe housing for the under-housed.
  • After the pandemic, for a massive program to build affordable social housing with rents geared to income.
  • An end goal of the nationalization of the property developers under workers’ and tenants’ control, to end the parasitic, exploitative control of the landowners.

A rent strike is a battle that must be planned carefully, strategically and democratically by those involved. It must look to spread its demands and its initiative to all sections of the working class; to put power into the hands of the working majority of society. However, we reiterate that the strike itself should not be seen as an end, but rather the means to an end. The goal of the strike should not be just to protect tenants during the period of COVID-19 and then hand power back to the property-owning class and go back to normal. The COVID-19 crisis changed the “normal” in society and the reality is that for many, the “normal” before the crisis meant conditions of instability and growing contradiction. The rent strike movement has the potential to grow beyond the immediate necessity from which it arose, and on some of the most important struggles that workers are facing. We need to mobilize working class power to strike and to win!