Slumlords on the Run: Tenants Are Launching Rent & Hunger Strikes

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Across the US and Canada, while wages are stagnant or falling, rent prices are always increasing, as tech capital and in many instances, the weed industry, is driving up the cost of living through gentrification. But in the face of this, new rounds of tenant struggles are kicking off, as rent strikes are being organized and people are taking the fight to the doors of their landlords.

Both Centerist liberals in the Democratic Party as well as MAGA cheerleaders love to point to currently low unemployment rates as an example of either ‘Trump’ having been successful in his first year, or that he is simply reaping the rewards of Obama’s policies. While it is true that unemployment is low, what both of these positions miss is that fundamentally the economy has been restructured in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and this restructuring has made the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. Moreover, while unemployment has gone down, more and more people are joining the ranks of the working poor and underemployed, while many millennial workers are now working within the so-called gig economy. In short, the problem is not that there isn’t enough work or jobs, but that the jobs that are available are precarious and low paying – especially when compared to the compounded costs of food, travel, education, and above all, housing.

As tech and other concentrations of capital eyes big cities to move too, they are in turn pushing the engine of gentrification, as white flight and suburbanization are driving up rents in turn in suburban and even rural areas. In the face of this, landlords looking to cash in on the housing boom or convert their housing stock into condos, often seek to push out long term residents from their facilities by using a variety of means, often both illegal and legal.

But as workers are pushed farther and farther from where they work, homeless camps are shut down and the poor are driven out of downtown corridors, and cities become more repressive and expensive, the question remains: who will be left to work the jobs that the new petite-bourgeois depend on? Furthermore, how can renters and homeowners fight back against rapid gentrification, especially in cities and towns where we are separated by race, language, and profession?

While not grabbing many headlines, a new wave of autonomous, self-organized, and direct action based tenant organizing has kicked off in North America, as renters are launching rent strikes, picketing outside of the homes of slumlords, and coming together to take collective action. Here is just a sampling.

Chicago

In Chicago, the group, Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) is working to build up power through tenant self-organization from the bottom up. They describe themselves as such:

The Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) is an all-volunteer organization committed to organizing for housing justice from below and to the left. As an independent collective based in Chicago, we strategize together to defend and enforce our right to dignified housing. We believe that housing is a human right not a commodity! We fight for an end to all of evictions, and for community control of housing through the building of popular power.

In 2018, the group carried out both demonstrations against slumlords, participated in a coalition fighting a ban on rent control, and participated in protests against Trump Housing Secretary, Ben Carson. In their report back from picketing the home of two landlords, they wrote:

Since August, Leticia and her family have been trying to get these landlords to make repairs to their unit. Mold, leaks, sewage and insects in their kitchen have been a consistent burden on Leticia and her family for months, and have caused ongoing illness for her and her daughter. In October of last year, instead of making repairs, the owners decided to serve Leticia with an eviction notice.

Luis and Amelia would rather put this family out in the cold than make the reasonable repairs to the unit. Leticia and her family have said repeatedly they are not going to leave, and continue to demand repairs be made. On the morning of the 20th, we confronted the owners at their home, making them feel a small shred of the anxiety that Leticia has felt all these months. Community members supported by flyering the block and revealing to neighbors their immoral and cold-hearted practices. The message was received loud and clear, with the chants “we’ll be back” ringing in their ears.

The group also put on workshops for tenants aimed at the addressing issues in the winter months, such as:

[H]ow to legally reduce rent and hold landlords accountable. We also shared tips on warming your apartment and saving energy in a cost-effective way. Macy from Elevate Energy warned us about energy supplier scams and pointed out helpful resources. Community members went home with some window insulation.

Autonomous Tenants Union has also organized “Displacement Tours,” that serve to demonstrate against landlords and educate the larger community.

ATU has a lot going on, so stay up with them on their page on Medium, as well as on their Twitter account. Their work, especially around how renters can assert their interests up against landlords, is also something that groups and communities in cities across the world could be learning from and applying to their local context.

Virginia

In Virginia, a new organization entitled, New River Workers Power is organizing with tenants. A statement about the organization on their website writes:

Before we can build power, we have to understand who are our friends and who are our enemies. No representatives of the State or Business are our friends, no matter what they say or what measures they take to prove otherwise.

We have a long history of Appalachian workers taking militant action, fighting and engaging in combat against our class enemies to ensure our survival. From the Battle of Blair Mountain to the Pittston Miners Strike of 1989, when our living standards are under attack we respond with equal force against the rich, who only want to make profit off our misery. It is our duty to join and continue this proud legacy of a militant, fighting working class.

In early February, the group posted up an article about a tenant who’s slumlord had refused to fix a multitude of problems. Soon after the article went up, New River Workers Power wrote:

Since publishing our tenant testimony on February 4th we have received an outpouring of community support including recommendations of legal action for our tenant friend as well as additional testimonies confirming Radford Properties’ status as a slumlord operation.

We have been preparing for a march on the slumlord, comprised of Radford Properties’ tenants and other community members acting in solidarity. We have been preparing for legal action with our tenant friend as well. The threat of all these efforts have forced Radford Properties to concede to our tenant friend’s demands. Today they have confirmed that the property manager Jeanie has been fired, that our tenant friend will not have to pay rent for February, and that they will receive their security deposit back.

Parkdale, Toronto

On May Day of 2017, tenants of the working-class neighborhood of Parkdale in Toronto, Canada, launched a successful rent strike that that not only grew to include many hundreds of tenants, but also won support from the surrounding community. In the wake of the victory, the group Parkdale Organize has gone on to support other actions and strikes in the local area, and on February 1st, announced that another rent strike was being called against another attempt by landlords to raise the rent. To learn more about Parkdale Organize, check out our podcast interview with them here.

The kick off of the latest strike has been documented by sub.Media, however other local mainstream outlets have also been writing about the strike. As Now Toronto wrote:

As of February 1, more than 50 tenants living in a Parkdale high rise are withholding their rent cheques to protest what they’re calling an unfair above guideline rent increase.

Fifty-five tenants at 1251 King West are participating in the rent strike against their landlord Nuspor Investments, which plans to increase rents by 3.4 percent. The 2018 guideline set by the province is 1.8 percent.

Nuspor is claiming the above guideline rent increase is to cover costly upgrades they’ve completed in the 14-storey building, which include lobby renovations, landscaping, new garbage disposals, as well as new paint and carpeting in the hallways.

However, Mark Farquharson, one of the tenants organizing the strike, says making the tenants foot the bill for those renovations is unfair, especially since their own units are being neglected. He says some tenants have cockroaches in their units and the windows desperately need to be replaced.

“The building is 50 years old and the windows are original,” Farquharson says. “Our apartment is so cold in the winter that we have three floor heaters. We have to turn on the oven and leave it open.”

Mark was also quoted in The Star:

“This building is going to kick people out with the rent increases if they’re allowed to go above the (provincial rent) guidelines,” striking tenant Mark Farquharson said.

“A lot of people in this building are pensioners and they’re going to be gone in another five years because they can’t afford it.”

To stay up with the rent strike in Parkdale, go to Parkdale Organize as well as their Facebook page. As they wrote on February 6th:

We will not sit back and watch our neighbourhood be destroyed eviction after eviction, rent hike after rent hike and so, we organize. And together we have power.

Washington DC

In Washington DC, protests continued against a slumlord. As DC Direct Action News wrote:

On the 10th of February, notorious “City Parners” slumlord Geoff Griffis received another protest at his Cleveland Park home over his ongoing efforts to force out the tenants of Congress Heights. Geoff Griffis’ partner Sanford Capitol is attempting to duck a court order that the Congress Heights apartments not be sold to anyone other than a developer chosen by the tenants by transferring their interest to him.

One sign carried by several marchers went so far as to portray slumlords as cockroaches facing a boot ready to step on them, that boot being the mobilization of tenants and allies against them. This is at least the third time Congress Heights tenants have had to march on Geoff Griffis’s luxurious home.

Geoff Griffis and Sanford Capitol are infamous for the use of intentional bad conditions to drive out tenants to buildings can be demolished and luxury housing built in their place. At Congress heights, they want to demolish four apartment buildings so a mixture of luxury condos and office space can be built at the Congress Heights Metro. Gentrification is NOT welcome in Anacostia, and Geoff Griffis is not welcome in DC.

Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, people with the group Philadelphia Tenants Union have been fighting to stop the eviction of Joan and her pregnant daughter, after the landlord claimed that Joan had not paid a $60 water bill. In response, the group began a picket campaign.

Cleveland:

In Cleveland, Ohio, residents living in the Vue apartment complex have launched a rent strike. According to the Cleveland Jewish News:

A total of 37 residents from The Vue in Beachwood deposited close to $89,000 in rent Feb. 5 to the Shaker Heights Municipal Court to initiate a formal rent strike after expressing dissatisfaction regarding what they describe as a decline of quality and services.

Renters at The Vue, a luxury apartment complex at Chagrin Boulevard and South Green Road, have experienced hot water interruptions to units since December 2016 and endured frequently broken garage doors and broken elevators, resident Neil Weinberger said. 

It wasn’t until late December 2017, when about 20 units and the fitness center experienced flooding from the sprinkler system and false alerts from the fire alarms, that residents formed The Vue Tenants Association, which is led by Weinberger and has about 72 members, many of whom have renewed their leases. 

Minneapolis

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, a group of tenants launched a rent strike as the city geared up for the militarized spectacle of the Superbowl. As Inquilnxs Unidxs for Justice wrote:

The Super Bowl is coming to Minneapolis bringing with it more then 300 million dollars to the state of Minnesota. In the mean time, renters living in buildings owned by The Apartment Shop had to live in substandard living conditions for years and none of that money is being invested into our communities. As the ownership of buildings change these living conditions persist. Tenants across our city are having to live without heat, with persistent pest infestations, with mold and water damage etc. That is why renters are saying enough is enough!

Tenants in Minneapolis are going on rent strike January 31st to demand safe and livable housing conditions. When we come together, fight for our rights and tell our stories we know we can win safe, affordable and dignified housing for everyone in Minneapolis.

New York City

In response to a mass eviction in the Bowery neighborhood that left 85 low-income tenants out in the cold, a hunger strike has started up. According to NYU Local:

Six evacuated tenants from 85 Bowery went on a hunger strike Thursday in front of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to demand the city to make emergency repairs.

75 tenants were vacated from their homes in mid-January because of safety violations, specifically a collapsing staircase. Betesh purchased the two five-story buildings of 83 and 85 Bowery in 2013 and, according to allegations in a Village Voice article, has been attempting to evict the building’s tenants since 2016.

“The hunger strike will end when the HPD takes the just position and allows these people to get in the building,” Lower East Side resident and activist David Nieves, 50, said. “But they won’t be allowed because there are repairs that need to be done. The only way to get them to do it is to force the law on the landlord so he gets these repairs done in time.”

The tenants threatened to go on strike if they were not back in their homes by Wednesday. They had given Betesh a two-week deadline to make repairs. The deadline passed last Thursday, Feb. 1.

Bowrey Boogie wrote on the dire situation:

[N]early 100 residents must live in exile. None have been permitted to return home to retrieve personal belongings. Most are still wearing the same clothes as the day the city came to evict them. 63 of the tenants are living on the Betesh dime at the Wyndham Garden Hotel next door, allegedly until construction is complete; the remaining are staying with friends or still holed up in the Brooklyn shelter.

Meanwhile in response, people took to the streets on Sunday night in solidarity with the hunger strike and to amplify their demands.

San Francisco

For several years, tenants at Midtown Apartments have been on rent strike and fighting the city to stop the demolition of their homes. To stay up on the struggle at Midtown, check out this Facebook here and Twitter here.

Are you involved with grassroots tenants organizing and want to tell people about your struggle? Contribute to IGD here.


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