Stay at Home

How can you shelter in place if you do not have shelter?

Photograph by Eli Petzold.

A few weeks before the pandemic took over, I started attending regular meetings of my local chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU). The union was founded in 2015 by members of School of Echoes Los Angeles, a group of artists, teachers, and organizers who’d convened to better understand the processes of gentrification, the “displacement and replacement of the poor for profit,” as they’d later define it. LATU began with one meeting in Hollywood. In less than five years, the union has grown to twelve neighborhood-specific chapters, or locals, where hundreds of dues-paying members meet every other week.

The union defines tenants as anyone who does not have control over their housing, summoning into the union’s fold not only people who pay rent, but also the unhoused, the incarcerated, and people who are not able to leave their housing because of unsafe conditions. The invocation of solidarity between renters and unhoused residents is particularly salient in a county where more than half a million renters have been evicted over the past eight years. In 2019 alone, 37,000 people were newly unhoused. Organizing mutual solidarity between renters and unhoused residents underscores the very real connection between the lack of tenant protections in Los Angeles and the city’s alarming increase in homelessness. Many renters are one missed paycheck away from losing their home. And relentless sweeps of unhoused residents often happen in neighborhoods with substantial real estate speculation and rising property values. The displacement of unhoused residents is a harbinger for the future displacement of renters.

Under these circumstances, the directive to stay home—the remedy offered by public health officials and health care workers, amplified by politicians, infected celebrities, and our concerned friends—ignores an all too common problem: How can you shelter in place if you do not have shelter? If the material conditions necessary to protect oneself, and to protect others, from exposure are, for too many, either threatened or entirely inaccessible during the pandemic? For the unhoused and housing-precarious, the inextricable link between public health and housing justice has never felt more real.

Workers on minimum wage—grocery store employees, janitors, and farm laborers, all positions disproportionally filled by people of color—will have to choose between going into work and risking infection or missing a paycheck and risking eviction. If those workers are undocumented, as 28 percent of people employed by the foodservice industry in Los Angeles are, they will have no access to unemployment benefits and will be barred from receiving a stimulus check. For them and the other eighteen thousand people in Los Angeles who were laid off in March—as well as those who need to care for children, for the elderly, or for the sick, or who are sick themselves—paying rent may not be an option. It is a supreme irony, though a foreseeable one, that the order to shelter in place could result in a wave of evictions.

For the nearly sixty thousand unhoused residents in Los Angeles, shelter-in-place policies are not only irrelevant, they’re also dangerous. Even though the city has temporarily banned sweeps and no longer forces people to take down their tents during the day, many facilities and businesses that unofficially provide essential services to unhoused neighbors—libraries, fast food restaurants, coffee shops, gyms—have closed. Without these spaces, their access to running water, bathrooms, internet service, electrical outlets, is severely limited. Unhoused residents are already at high risk for developing severe symptoms of Covid-19. A recent study conducted by the Boston University School of Social Work estimates that close to 2,600 unhoused residents in Los Angeles will require hospitalization during the pandemic, with 900 needing intensive care, further buckling a health care system that is, by all accounts, already inadequate.

The bi-weekly union meetings I attend used to be held in a neighborhood art gallery, with fold-out chairs set out in a circle. Members trade roles between facilitation, childcare, and language interpretation. The vibe is convivial. People who are there know why they are there: to represent their own needs and to attend to the needs of their neighbors. The clarity of this purpose gives the meetings a sense of gravity and charge. Following a declaration of community agreements, the floor opens to immediate tenant concerns—an eviction order, a neglected leaky roof, a planned sweep of encampments. On the week the “Safer at Home” order went into effect in Los Angeles, the local held its scheduled meeting over Zoom. Close to forty participants called in, several joining for the first time. Tenants called through the video conference line to hear the meeting in English, while others called through the phone line to hear the meeting in Spanish, while members of the language justice committee simultaneously interpreted between the two. The virtual meeting had all of the now too-familiar annoyances of Zoom—un-muted microphones, side discussions playing out on the chat box, bad internet connections. But the palpable urgency smoothed those technical rough spots. Rent was due in a week and many tenants, myself included, were confused and afraid. The facilitators asked the Zoom crowd how many people were unsure they could pay rent in April. Hands went up in half of the small videos on my screen. Should tenants write a letter to their landlords informing them they won’t be able to pay? Should they start organizing the neighbors in their buildings? What actual protections did tenants have from eviction?

While elected officials in California have stated the obvious—no one should lose their home due to Covid-19—there is little actual protection for tenants behind California governor Gavin Newsom’s self-congratulatory call for a statewide eviction “moratorium.” His policy does not forgive rent; it only temporarily delays payment. It would require tenants who cannot pay rent because of Covid-19 to declare so in writing, and to be able to provide corroborating documentation, something that freelance, gig, and undocumented workers cannot do. And it does not forbid landlords from serving eviction orders if tenants do not pay rent. It only forbids the enforcement of the eviction order until June 1. Meanwhile, landlords can still proceed with no-fault evictions if they are remodeling or removing a property from the market. Newsom’s “moratorium” is a weak legal defense against eviction for some people under some circumstances, and even then, only if they are able, amidst a pandemic, to jump through a number of legal hoops that, even if they successfully manage to do, would still leave them in debt to their landlords.

Some emergency relief measures have been put in place; in Los Angeles, the City Council voted to waive late fees for missed rent payments and extended the repayment period for unpaid rent to one year. Upon signing the order, Mayor Eric Garcetti added that all rent increases for any rent-stabilized units would be suspended until after the pandemic. Yet these measures are piecemeal offers, mere band-aids that fail to prevent a possible wave of enforceable evictions come June 1. The strongest protections have come from the Judicial Council of California, which issued an emergency rule prohibiting the courts from proceeding with any eviction case, regardless of cause, until ninety days after Newsom lifts the state of emergency. In a nine-hour-long City Council meeting held on March 27, Los Angeles city councilmember Mike Bonin proposed a broader “blanket” moratorium on all evictions. The measure failed to pass with the needed majority by one vote. Of the city’s fifteen councilmembers, eight are landlords. And even though tenants are a majority constituency in Los Angeles, making up 64 percent of its residents, all fifteen councilmembers are homeowners. None are tenants.

As our union local discussed these measures and half-measures and wondered how much to trust the government, one particular question hung in the air—should tenants strike? My roommates and I count ourselves among the fortunate, for now, but like so many others we have been debating whether to pay rent. We have lost some, or all, of our income due to the closures, cancellations, and postponements. Even if we could afford to pay rent this month, next month, we might not.  How many months of expenses will the federal government’s promised $1200 relief payment cover and how long until we receive the check? How many months will we need to stay in our home?

The idea of a rent strike had been trending nationally on social media for at least two weeks, but the invocation often felt misleading. Scrolling through #RentStrike2020, I would mostly find links to lists of resources and petitions to sign, but the material instigations and possible consequences of a rent strike, in all of its local specificity, remained ambiguous. Sure, the Cheesecake Factory, Subway, and Mattress Giant refused to pay their rent on April 1—but as commercial leasers, their right to do so following an unanticipated external event, like a pandemic, is, unlike for residential tenants, actually protected. They are not striking.

The growing traction and effectiveness of labor strikes in recent years—L.A.’s teacher strike comes to mind—gives the notion of a rent strike some traction. A labor strike collectivizes the withholding of labor as a tactic to increase worker’s bargaining power with their employer; tenants too have collectivized the withholding of their rent as a way to negotiate with their landlord. And, like members of the labor movement, striking tenants have won important protections that we continue to benefit from. New York City’s first rent control legislation was secured thanks, in part, to a massive rent strike organized by the Greater New York Tenant’s League in 1919—notably, during the Spanish flu pandemic.

But striking as a worker and striking as a tenant are different in one consequential way: as a worker, your right to strike is legally protected. As a tenant it is not. While at the workplace there is a clear difference between striking and deciding not to go to work, not paying rent looks the same to a judge whether you are striking or not. Rent strikes are most often invoked against one specific landlord with building-specific demands: lower rent, maintenance improvements, an end to harassment. And strikers will typically still pay their rent into an escrow account until their demands are met. The current situation is different in both type and scale. Whether there is a rent strike or not, tenants throughout the city will not be able to pay. How, then, can tenants collectivize and politicize this widespread non-payment to protect themselves and their neighbors from eviction?

Over the past five years, LATU has supported seven rent strikes in Los Angeles, including the successful and well-known “Mariachi strike” in Boyle Heights and the “Burlington strike” in Westlake. In these cases, the decision to strike began with tenants who were already self-organized into building-specific associations. The union would then help organize and populate direct actions and connect tenants with legal support. In the Burlington strike—the largest in the city’s history—the union brought together two buildings that shared the same predatory landlord in a shared strike.

Two locals have already independently declared a rent strike, although, as of now, this has not been a union-wide decision. A week before April 1st, LATU launched the FOOD NOT RENT campaign, calling on tenants—either out of necessity or solidarity—to pay for essential needs instead of rent. “What we’re seeing right now is a generalizing of conditions that we’ve been dealing with in the tenants union for five years,” Tracy Rosenthal, co-founder of the union, explained. “People are often already in the position of having to make decisions between food or rent, or medication or rent, or basic household supplies or rent.” Rosenthal added that the campaign is intended “to create a container that bridges inability to pay and unwillingness to pay based on our current conditions.”

Members of my local have expressed both enthusiasm and trepidation about formally calling a strike. One tenant said that she would choose rent over food, because your food does not give you shelter. Another tenant responded that you cannot eat your rent. Tenants warned each other not to sign any nonpayment agreements with their landlords before having someone at the union check for hidden clauses meant to screw them over later. Some expressed shame over not being able to pay rent for the first time in their lives. Many expressed fear. “More people than ever are really terrified that they won’t know how to keep a roof over their head,” Rosenthal told me. In a meeting two days before April 1, after a show of hands, it seemed that despite the fact that several tenants, including myself, had contacted their landlords about their inability to pay rent, many fewer were planning on striking in April. For many tenants, the last thing they want to do is further their risk of eviction, especially in the midst of Covid-19.

Still, others at the meeting maintained that there has never been a better time to strike. The protections from eviction tenants have been offered, while barely acceptable in this moment, could be leveraged beyond the pandemic for demands that even a month ago seemed unattainable. And the union offers strengths in numbers. Rosenthal reported that the union projects hundreds of tenants will have struck in April, and that this number will only increase in May. By then, it seems certain that more people will find themselves unable to pay rent. But the union will have had more time to organize.

Members on both sides of the debate asked what exactly the union would demand, and of whom. At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, LATU published a list of demands directed at local, county, and state governments: an end to all evictions, rent forgiveness, and the immediate use of empty hotel and motel rooms as permanent housing for unhoused residents (on April 3rd Governor Newsom announced that nine hundred unhoused residents were being sheltered in empty hotels and motels). These demands would, presumably, also accompany the strike. Yet, as the scale of the strike escalates to include tenants throughout the entire union, so would the scale of its negotiations, from dealing with individual landlords to dealing with the city government. It is unclear how the union as an entity would enter into such negotiations, but the hope of some members is that the strike—in conjunction with direct action and media campaigns—would put enough pressure on elected officials to enact the union’s demands.

To someone who already can’t pay rent, the question of whether or not to call a strike might come off as splitting hairs. If tenants are already engaged in nonpayment, whatever their reason, what would formalizing this call actually achieve? One member put it this way: a call to strike would galvanize those who are still able to pay to stand in solidarity with those who can’t. It would call on tenants to put some skin in the game. On the night before rent was due, LATU posted a meme of the now-viral graph depicting “flattening the curve” that was used to promote the necessity of aggressive shelter-in-place policies. In LATU’s version, the axis that measures the number of new Covid-19 cases now measures the number of people striking. The flattened curve, broad and stretched out across the period of pandemic, represents unorganized individuals withholding rent. It stays below the dashed line that, no longer representing the health care system’s capacity to treat patients, now marks the state’s capacity to punish non-payment of rent. Only that peak of an organized collective rent strike manages to break through.

I feel compelled and persuaded by the intuitive clarity of this image. Yet, like other members of my local, I am still on the fence about striking. The reasons to strike are convincing, but the consequences, like most everything else during the pandemic, are overwhelmingly uncertain. Still, a sense of commitment to my neighbors, and the promise, however hazy, of a union-wide rent strike keep me coming back to my local’s weekly meetings.

While the pandemic has clarified and catalyzed the appreciation of tenants as a class, tenants in Los Angeles, and throughout the country, were already in crisis long before the virus. The material conditions of life under Covid-19—the precarity and uncertainty of this moment—could bleed into a continuation of the mass disempowerment tenants are already seeing: more evictions, more displacement, more inequity. But it could also offer tenants an opportunity to leverage the hypocrisy of this moment into the basis for organizing and winning future gains. The outcome, Rosenthal argued, rests on convincing enough tenants that what they stand to gain by striking together is greater than what they might otherwise lose. “I think the horizon of possibility will depend on what people are willing to risk.”

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