By Matt Broomfield
As they revive a long-dormant form of protest, rent strikers in London and San Francisco must learn lessons from the great strikes of the 20th century.
When you can no longer afford to pay your rent, only one course of action remains: stop paying it. On both sides of the Atlantic, tenants are militating against the unbearable pressure of the housing market via the only locus of power available to them — going on rent strike.
Midtown Apartments, San Francisco
Jose LaCrosby was an African-American hair stylist to the stars. Nina Simone, James Brown and Miles Davis all frequented his San Francisco salon. Terminally ill at the age of 89, LaCrosby was told by his doctors that he should return to die among his friends in Midtown Apartments.
But the City of San Francisco had just hiked rents by up to 300 percent. If the Korean War veteran wanted to move back in to a ground-floor apartment it would now cost him $3700 a month. LaCrosby had lived in Midtown for two decades, but he spent the last 7 months of his life under fluorescent lights in an anodyne hospice ward, unable to afford the grossly inflated rent.
LaCrosby’s treatment is symptomatic of the way Midtown is being used as an asset to be stripped for cash, says long-time resident and Save Midtown organizer Jay Majitov. “This community is being displaced by the greed and avarice of property pimps preying on the weak and the disenfranchised,” he explains. Many of Majitov’s neighbors moved into Midtown after being socially cleansed from other areas of San Francisco in the 1960s, on what they understood was a rent-to-buy agreement.
But though Midtown paid off its collective mortgage in 2007, the city reneged on its agreement to hand the building over to the tenants. Instead, Midtowners were hit with a threefold increase in rent, far outstripping the maximum increase set by San Francisco rent controls. Appalled by this betrayal of trust, the tenants of 65 Midtown apartments have been withholding their rent increase since August 2015.
University College London
On the face of it, LaCrosby’s working-class neighbors in Midtown have little in common with the primarily middle-class, primarily white students of University College London. But the price of UCL accommodation has risen by 56 percent in the last six years, and the university extracts £16 million annually in pure profit from their residences. The halls remain shabby, cramped and infested with cockroaches.
As a result, around 150 students are currently striking for a 40 percent rent decrease. “UCL call residents in halls customers, not students,” says David Dahlborn of UCL, Cut The Rent (UCL-CTR). “It’s sheer exploitation.”
There have been rumblings about wider rent strikes across the British left for months, while US activists in Portland and elsewhere are now looking to copy Midtown’s example. Yet until a couple of years ago, no one was talking about rent strikes at all.
The problem(s) with rent strikes
Once a cornerstone of tenants’ rights activism, since the 1980s the rent strike has largely been absent from the arsenal of the left. The most famous rent strike in history occurred in 1915, when the fear of a Bolshevik insurrection forced the UK government to appease strikers in Glasgow by introducing rent controls. As the Communist threat faded after the second Red Scare, so too did the need to form housing policy with one eye on the Kremlin, and the government’s attitude toward rent strikers hardened accordingly.
Given that many rent strikes occurred in mutual relation with industrial strikes, their decline in popularity can partially be ascribed to the decimation of workers’ right to strike by Thatcher and her successors. The UK now loses a tenth as many days to industrial action as it did in the 1980s, and “strike” has become a politically toxic term. (UCL-CTR advise their activists to avoid the word altogether when door-knocking.) The fragmentation of the left and the castration of the trade unions have left Britain without left-wing superstructures capable of amplifying wildcat rent strikes into a broader social movement.
There are also delocalized issues inherent in the mode of protest. The vulnerable people who stand to gain the most from a reduction in rent are also those most imperiled by eviction: working-class people, people of color, single mothers and the disabled, often living in social housing. According to Jay Majitov, many Midtowners will be forced out of state or onto the street if their strike is broken. There is no legal protection for rent strikers in the UK or the USA.
Recrimination can be brutal: after the arrest of rent strikers in Kings’ Cross in 1960, crowds of protesters were baton-charged and violently dispersed by mounted police. Mary Barbour and her army of Glaswegian housewives were forced to fight off heavy-handed bailiffs with wet clothes, rotten food and flour-bombs. Barbour would stomp round the tenements whirling a football rattle to summon her troops as the “factor” moved in.
Midtown property managers Mercy Housing have kept up an aggressive campaign of intimidation, towing residents’ cars for minor infractions and muscling into pensioners’ homes. “They came in as an occupying force, a colonizer. There’s no regard for cultural sensitivity or the long-term tenants,” says Majitov. Tenants have been told they face eviction if their grandchildren visit more than twice a week, or if they hold barbecues on their own property. “I’m sorry, man, but barbecues are what we do,” Majitov adds.
Making rent strikes work
An industrial striker does no work and so loses her pay, but rent strikers actually save money while they agitate, as astronomic rents stop crippling working people and start depreciating from the profits of housing companies. The more unbearable the financial burden on the renters, the keener the loss suddenly felt by the landlord, in an efficacious reversal of power dynamics.
Last year, UCL-CTR organized students from UCL and SOAS in a successful strike, securing £400,000 compensation after the university conceded it had left students in unlivable conditions among cockroaches, rats and incessant building works. London’s first genuine rent strike for 40 years only involved 50 students, but each individual striker made a tangible, measurable impact on the university’s finances. Glasgow 1915 and UCL-SOAS 2015 are century-spanning testaments to the fact that a well-executed rent strike can be devastatingly effective.
Historically, successful mass rent strikes have benefited from a united left providing the infrastructure to exponentially increase the strike’s effect across multiple homes and into the industrial sphere, rather than leaving isolated strikers at the mercy of the bailiffs. A New York strike in 1907 relied on the backing of a strong, active Socialist Party, and the Glasgow strikes would not have succeeded without union support.
As noted above, the male-dominated superstructures traditionally capable of supporting mass direct action have diminished in size and power. If they want to achieve this vital escalation, 21st century rent strikers must look to alternative, grassroots networks of activists.
Alternate support networks
Most successful rent strikes have been led by women. The distinction between rent strikes and industrial strikes should not be collapsed into a crude dichotomy between the male public sphere and the female domestic sphere. In 1907, 16-year-old Pauline Newman led strikes which secured rent reductions for 2000 New York families. She worked till 9pm in a textile factory before campaigning all night in the slums of Manhattan. Working-class women have always worked formally in the marketplace, as well as informally (and unpaid) in the home.
But Newman, the “East Side Joan of Arc”, was supported by housewives who spent the day going from tenement to tenement urging other families to join the strike. Working-class shop-floor networks intermeshed with female-dominated domestic networks. The Glasgow rent strike was sparked by landlords seeking to cow women into submission while their husbands were away fighting in the war. Again, Mary Barbour and her army rapidly spread information through the slums whenever the factor descended, militating via a social infrastructure which their landlords grossly underestimated.
Half of all British housing benefit recipients are single women. The average female flat-sharer in London earns £4236 less than her male counterpart, and twice as many women as men spend over half their salary on rent. Women have a disproportionate stake in the housing crisis, and male politicians continue to underestimate their ability to organize and resist. Though not a rent strike per se, the success of the Focus E15 mothers in resisting eviction attempts by Newham Council illustrates the continued power of localized, female, working-class support networks.
Interlocking working-class communities and communities of color have proven similarly capable of disseminating information and resistance. Rent strikers in 1930s Peckham relied on a rolling guard of unemployed laborers to defend their homes while successfully agitating for an improvement in living conditions. Majitov repeatedly emphasizes the importance of working-class solidarity in Midtown: “We don’t build apps, we don’t code. We drive buses and we deliver mail. And if this working-class community of color hadn’t stood together we would have been out a long time ago. ”
African-American Jean King (another woman) secured rent controls in St Louis after a year-long strike in 1969, while Majitov proudly notes that Save Midtown has the support of civil rights luminary Andrew Young, who successfully organized a rent strike alongside Martin Luther King in 1960s Chicago. Just like in Glasgow in 1907, Save Midtown have appointed tenant organizers with responsibility for contacting strikers across the development, and they are now reaching out to other African-American communities being abused by Mercy to launch a nationwide class action against the housing company.
The university bubble
A rent strike is a very different proposition for students, who are typically more privileged than the general population — a state of affairs maintained by the inaccessible rent conditions UCL-CTR are striking against. Many students have family homes to return to, and this can be leveraged against universities.
David Dahlborn explains: “When nothing had happened by the end of summer 2015, the international students who were on strike said ‘well, fuck it, I’m going home’. The university realized they couldn’t really send bailiffs to Mexico.” UCL capitulated soon after. Again, rent strikes reverse a power dynamic familiar to anyone who has tried to secure the return of a deposit from a suddenly evanescent landlord.
Students can also leverage the disjuncture between the public face of the academic university and its profit-making operations. “They say they’re concerned with education,” says UCL striker Aleksandra Tomaszewska. “But they’ve cut funding and bursaries while raising rent and tuition fees.”
Where housing companies are not hugely concerned with positive public relations, university authorities are at pains to emphasize that they provide a caring, nurturing environment. It would be a PR disaster for UCL to forcibly evict white, well-spoken, middle-class students. As with much student activism, student rent strikers can trade on their privilege to enjoy a much greater degree of security than their counterparts in council housing.
Universities constitute a ready-made network for the expansion of a strike. A successful rent strike at Sussex University in 1972-3 rapidly spread to 23 other universities. UCL-CTR is sharing advice and materials with student activists from SOAS, Imperial and Goldsmiths, as they seek to expand the current rent strike across the capital.
“Anyone could do it,” says Dahlborn, who repeatedly emphasizes the lateral organization of UCL-CTR. “Everybody on the strike is a potential organizer.” Students have more free time than workers; they have access to condensed bodies of left-leaning tenants paying vastly excessive rent; and they are keyed in to networks of information exchange between these bodies.
Rent strikes for the 21st century
Paradigms established by 20th century rent strikers could be instructive for those on the radical left wrangling about their relationship with Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Newman and Barbour instigated their strikes alone, but willingly worked alongside hierarchical, party-rooted structures to replicate these actions on a wider scale.
But as Dahlborn argues, a successful general rent strike must ultimately emerge from coordinated grassroots action, as multiple localized organizations “replicate and generalize” tactics that have worked well elsewhere. An emphasis on the dispersal of power underpins much recent left-wing strategizing, and rent strikes can operate particularly effectively through decentralized, lateral organization.
“Together we are powerful, and united we can defeat the market,” Dahlborn says. The unity he describes is not monolithic but dispersed, varied and multiple. Strikes should be generated through grassroots networks, not mandated by top-down frameworks.
Networks of university activists provide one such structure. London’s Radical Housing Network, which unites housing co-ops, community action groups and union representatives, is another. (This organization could also facilitate liaison between university students and working-class activists).
Roger Hallam’s concept of “Conditional Commitment” involves assuring potential strikers that a strike will only go ahead once a certain number of other tenants have committed to the action. Successfully implemented by UCL-CTRE, this system of collective responsibility would function well in enabling dispersed networks of rent strikers to operate in unison.
Industrial strikes expose the gulf between the evaluated worth of employees’ labor and the evaluated worth of the products they manufacture. The fact that a rent strike is even tenable as a concept illustrates the fact that tenants, like workers, are treated as profit-making organs.
Historically, the establishment has therefore reacted ferociously to rent strikes, which expose the cruelty of market logic. A general rent strike called by a hypothetical national tenants’ union would likely meet with overwhelming opposition. But it would be much more difficult for the establishment to defeat a network of localized, coordinated strikes breaking out on university campuses and council estates across the country.