When Covid struck, many groups, including the National Apartment Association and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, called for a significant government expansion of rental assistance. But some tenant organizers began discussing the possibility of something else: a nationwide rent strike. “You’re going to apply for a huge bunch of money, just so you can pay it back to your landlord?” de la Riva asked, speaking about a stimulus package for renters. “There is a different power relationship that we’re asking of society right now.”
Many people, liberals and conservatives alike, saw a rent strike as unreasonable, even dangerous. Political allies warned de la Riva and his co-director, Jennifer Arnold, not to support the Cancel the Rent campaign while Covid was a concern. The same happened to Susanna Blankley, an organizer for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. “I can’t even tell you, not only did people on the left tell us it’s unrealistic,” she says, “they told us it’s reckless. Reckless! But I think the point is that anything is possible, actually. Now we have an eviction moratorium. Everything is impossible until it’s not. I want to be in a world where we’re thinking about what we need, not just what we think we can get.”
In May, tenant groups around the country coordinated a gigantic rent strike. Twenty thousand renters in New York City and Los Angeles alone pledged to withhold their rent. In July, tenants in New Orleans blocked entrances to a courthouse after the state’s eviction moratorium expired, protesting displacement. Rent strikes and eviction blockades have continued throughout the pandemic — just as they did almost 100 years ago, during the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern world.
Throughout the 20th century, America’s urban renters organized against rent gouging and unsafe conditions, winning significant victories. Rent strikes organized during the early 1900s in response to sudden rent hikes and, later, the lack of heat and hot water, grabbed the attention of the Socialist Party, which had overlooked tenants as a potential revolutionary force. Socialist-led tenant leagues began demanding permanently affordable housing supported by the state. In 1923, America’s first public housing project was completed in Milwaukee under the direction of its Socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan, but by 1930 the United States remained the only developed democracy without a federal commitment to housing.
As the housing and labor markets simultaneously cratered during the Great Depression, the campaign for public housing accelerated. In the early years of the Depression, thousands of tenants participated in rent strikes and eviction blockades. The urban tenant movement grew more militant, and the violence of displacement was met with violent resistance.
When marshals arrived with eviction orders, tenants hurled rocks and bottles from behind makeshift barricades. Some charged directly at the officers, attacking them with sticks. An account from a Bronx newspaper in 1932 recalls a scene where “policemen were scratched, bitten, kicked, and their uniforms torn” by tenants refusing to be evicted. In cities like New York, these efforts forced legislators to pass rent-regulation measures and to begin building social housing. Congress responded as well, passing the National Housing Act of 1934, in large part to stem a wave of Depression-era foreclosures, and the Housing Act of 1937, which seeded the nation’s public-housing infrastructure. Today, more than two million Americans live in public housing.
As the 20th century rolled on, tenant movements won more concessions. By the early 1980s, roughly 200 cities, including Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, had passed some form of rent control, but those advances were already being eroded. In the late ’60s, New York City experienced an alarming surge in housing abandonment, attributed to landlords’ inability to maintain their buildings under rent control. In 1971, Governor Rockefeller revised the state’s policy to limit the city’s ability to regulate its rents. New York City’s strict system of rent control was replaced with a new system of rent stabilization, which allowed landlords to increase the rent each year by a set percentage. Across the country, one state legislature after another passed laws forbidding cities to enact rent control. The affected cities — like Boston and Cambridge, Mass., stripped of rent control in 1994 by state mandate; and Berkeley and East Palo Alto, Calif., denied the following year in the same manner — were starkly more progressive than the state legislatures directing their fates. In 1961, nearly 1.8 million units in New York City — more than eight of every 10 apartments — were under rent control. By 2017, only 21,751 were. Today, approximately half the city’s apartments are rent-stabilized.