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Rent Strikes! “We Refuse to Shoulder this Burden for Capitalists”

Some tenants are organizing their buildings and beyond for rent strikes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

by Abby Neufeld

As April 1st looms, tenants across Canada are wondering how they will scrounge rent amidst the financial and health pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many members of the working class are experiencing lay-offs, job losses, and economic fall-out throughout the month of March.

For lower- and working-class Canadians, housing has been unaffordable for decades. In major urban areas, one-bedroom apartments can be rented out for as much as $2,000 a month. Now, millions of Canadians are at a loss when it comes to how they will make rent tomorrow.

An advocacy group located in Victoria, British Columbia, is speaking out against the unjust expectation of paying rent amidst such a crisis.

Cam Welch, a member of the Victoria Tenant Action Group (VTAG), spoke to The Media Co-op about the group's mission. He explains that the Victoria rental market has been in a crisis for the past decade —  Victoria’s vacancy rate hovers around miniscule 1% at any given time, rental rates are sky-high, and tenants often don’t understand their rights. The situation is unstable at the best of times.

“We were already facing a rental crisis and an opioid crisis before we were hit with the pandemic,” says Welch. “A lot of people end up forced out of the city.”

And now, Welch says the city’s already-vulnerable tenants are facing a bigger problem.

“The money promised to us by the provincial and federal governments hasn’t come through, [and won’t by April 1st]. This means that many tenants aren’t able to pay rent for April 1st, and in turn, are dangerously incentivized to go out and work. Many people don’t have jobs they can do remotely, but there is still that monthly bill expectation,” explains Welch.

Founded in 2017, the Victoria Tenant Action is a group of tenants and allies who are concerned about renters' rights in the Capital Regional District. Group members “seek to foster change, share knowledge and build solidarity in respect to housing rights,” according to VTAG’S homepage. VTAG offers information sessions, providing people with education on their tenant rights, and works to provide advocacy in all levels of government to press for better housing laws.

“We also work on things like election mobilization campaigns - getting tenants out there to vote. We recently surveyed 500 renters in the city and were able to quantify and qualify the experiences of renters in the region,” explains Welch.

Evictions have been outlawed in British Columbia for the next four months, unless already pending or under extreme circumstances that the provincial government has not defined. “We are hoping for those [definitions] soon, so that they can’t be frivolously used [against tenants],” says Welch.

While the B.C. NDP government has issued a freeze on rent increases for the next four months, VTAG is calling for a different kind of rent freeze. They want tenants to join in the movement and not pay their rent come April 1st.

“We moved to the language of ‘rent suspension’ or ‘cancel April rent.’ We are also calling for a suspension of mortgage and utility payments,” Welch says. “Rent should not exist for April. People shouldn’t have to pay their bills when it is unsafe or irresponsible for people to go to work.”

Victoria isn’t the only city with housing movements surging. The Vancouver Tenants Union and the Federation of Metro Tenants' Association are calling for rent and eviction freezes as well.

Our neighbours to the south are speaking up too.

Station 40 is a collective located in San Francisco who have been occupying their building for over 17 years -- now, the group claims that this pandemic is their tipping point.

“This moment is a consequence of crisis on top of crisis on top of crises,” the residents of the collective said in a group statement. “There is a housing crisis, a homeless crisis, a public health crisis, a police brutality crisis, a drug crisis and none of the working class has recovered from the 2008 crisis. We are an entire generation drowning in debt and most of us who do not work in tech are trapped in near poverty.”

With COVID-19 ripping through our health and economic sectors, many of the systems we operate under daily are being exposed as inefficient and immoral. “If humans are to survive COVID-19, climate change, and whatever comes next, the system that commodifies literally every basic human need must be done away with,” says Station 40.

Over the years, the group has been an active participant in the Bay Area community. They have provided space for Mutual Aid workshops, healing pop-ups, memorials for fallen anarchists, book releases, prisoner support groups, and thousands of guests.

“For 15 years, Food Not Bombs cooked a weekly meal in our kitchen and shared it with our neighbours in the plaza across the street,” explains a resident of the collective.

As they did before the COVID-19 outbreak, Station 40 operates on a collective basis, holding a deep respect for personal space and individuals. The group holds weekly meetings, wherein they discuss needs, wants, and their desires for change.

Now, times are changing. “Millions of us have been forced out of work; we should not be forced to pay rent when we have no means of earning rent. The mayor has implemented a temporary measure to allow tenants to refrain from paying rent, with the caveat that the rent be paid back within six months. We believe this to be an outlandish demand,” says the collective, “We refuse to shoulder this burden for capitalists.” 

If your building is looking to participate in the rent strike, both Welch and Station 40 state that organization is imperative.

“If you want to participate, organize your building first. Send notes, talk over email, text. What you do, do it safely as you can and try to prevent transference from germs,” says Welch. “The fundamental unit of a rent strike is a building, not an individual. Building by building, you can pressure individual property managers, or landlords, and act as a unit instead of scattered individuals around a city,” says Welch.

Station 40 directions read similar: “It can be scary, but it's actually pretty easy. Act in solidarity. Embrace your autonomy. Talk to your neighbours. Find others organizing. Cultivate your community, and fight back!”

It isn’t impossible. There has been success across Canada for tenants striking in the past. In 2018, Toronto tenants in a King St. W. building stopped paying their rent for two months in response to property management raising their rent by double the legal amount. At the end of two months, the property management company dropped the bid.

Anyone looking to organize a rent strike should first turn to their local tenant advocacy group.

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