I recently became acquainted with The United Front Against Displacement at an event in Oakland. UFAD is an anti-gentrification organization and there is a Bay Area chapter along with chapters in a few other major cities.

The organizer I spoke with pointed me toward their newsletter for folks in the Bay Area. There’s only one issue out so far, but it seems like a pretty good source of information on housing and displacement in the Bay Area.

One section that stuck out to me — aside from a good piece on the history of the Black Panther Party — was about rent strikes. Much like a labor strike where workers withhold their labor from capitalists in exchange for improved working conditions, a rent strike is where a group of renters collectively organize to withhold their rent from their landlord in order to negotiate better living conditions. But I was surprised to learn that’s not the full story.

A common misconception about rent strikes is that tenants simply band together to stop paying rent. In practice, this makes it quite difficult to succeed in organizing a rent strike with your neighbors, because renters are, rightfully, worried about being delinquent on rent payments and thus risking eviction. That is clearly not the intended result of a rent strike.

What I did not know is that a rent strike actually takes on a more formal (and legal!) structure. I also did not know that rent strikes are protected by law, similar to labor strikes. Unfortunately, the newsletter is just a PDF file, so I’ll reproduce the details here.

What is a rent strike?

  • A rent strike is when tenants organize to withhold their rent due to neglect and violations of the lease by the owners of their buildings.
  • Rent strikes are protected by federal and state laws. Legally, you cannot be evicted for going on rent strike.
  • This is because you are still paying rent during the strike, just not into the landlord’s bank account. Instead, rent payments are held in a separate “escrow” account by a court recognized lawyer.
  • The money held in escrow is either released to the landlord or returned to the striking tenants based on the results of a settlement or court hearing.
  • At the Midtown apartments in San Francisco, tenants prevented a rent hike by Mercy Housing by going on rent strike. On May 1st, public housing tenants in New York announced a rent strike to protest their buildings being privatized.
  • There is power in numbers! If many tenants join together, we can put pressure on the landlord to meet the people’s demands.

It turns out, renters have more rights and more protections than I realized. Good to know, as we approach the looming housing and eviction crisis spurred by the pandemic.