Socialist Worker

Inspiring US housing campaigns could launch rent strikes

by Glyn Robbins
Issue No. 2703

Housing campaigners in New York at a protest in February

Housing campaigners in New York at a protest in February (Pic: New Settlement Apartments Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA))


Covid-19 has laid bare the US’s massive housing crisis—but it’s also highlighted inspiring grassroots campaigns.

Around the country, tenants are refusing to accept losing their homes, while landlords continue to receive corporate welfare. 

In Los Angeles, protests are regularly held outside the mayor’s house, demanding he protect tenants from rent rises and evictions.

Following the “Moms for Housing” movement in Oakland, homeless families in other parts of California are occupying empty homes. In Missouri, campaigners staged a rolling protest along two hundred miles of highway, from Kansas City to St Louis.

In New York state, a powerful alliance of over 70 local groups is putting huge pressure on politicians to cancel rent until the crisis is over. 

One of them, Community Action for Safe Apartments (Casa) in the Bronx, held an on-line Town Hall meeting on Tuesday of this week.

About 150 people took part, including 11 local elected politicians. Each was asked to commit to support demands for rent cancellation. Casa works with some of New York City’s poorest people, most of them Hispanic or African-American.

Thousands have lost their jobs since March. Others have put their lives at risk by continuing to work in essential services, fearing they’ll lose their homes otherwise.  The rate of Coronavirus deaths in the Bronx is double that for the rest of the city. 

But Casa is very clear that the current crisis didn’t start with Covid-19. As one of its tenant leaders, Anita Long, put it, “The impact has disproportionately affected our community.

“This is not accidental. The Bronx has suffered from decades of disinvestment and racist government policy.”

But she added, “Together, we vastly out-number the landlords”.    

This spirit is motivating increasing calls for a rent strike if New York State politicians, particularly Governor Andrew Cuomo, don’t take action to keep people in their homes.

Casa estimates 40 percent of Bronx tenants can’t afford the next rent payment. So the possibility of a rent strike is about necessity, not slogans.

Pressure

Campaigners argue that, if thousands of tenants can’t pay the rent, it’s better to do that together and increase pressure for rent cancellation. Otherwise, they fear there’ll be an explosion of homelessness in June, when the current moratorium on evictions ends.

There are some important differences between the housing situation in the US and Britain and how campaigners respond to it, particularly now.

The US private rented sector is bigger and controlled by corporate landlords who dominate in some places. Public housing is very difficult to obtain. But campaigners are confident because they’ve had recent successes.

This has brought political support from politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who place housing at the centre of their platforms.

Within a broader resurgence of the left and grassroots trade union militancy in the US, there’s a growing chorus for more investment in public housing.

There are lessons to learn for campaigners in Britain, above all, the need for broad-based, united, tenant-led campaign coalitions. 

Housing rights will be at the forefront of whether “returning to normal” means more of the same, or something better.

Coronavirus has proved, once again, that the homes and lives of working class people are held cheap by capitalism.

But as New York City Assembly member Michael Blake put it to a Casa Town Hall meeting, “I’m not dying so this country’s economy can get better.  My ancestors already did that.”#

The Homes for All coalition is holding an online public meeting at 7pm, Saturday 9 May. Includes speakers from tenant campaigners in the US and Spain, as well as John McDonnell MP. Go to Axe the Housing Act on Facebook or @Homes4AllUK on Twitter for details.

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