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What is a rent strike?

Crises are times to think big. Both elites in power and masses of everyday people have used crises as opportunities to push past what is normally considered politically possible, to promote big ideas that otherwise would not get a hearing. The idea of a “rent strike” is one such “big idea”, whose time has come, and ours is an evolving conversation.

What is a “rent strike”? Essentially, it is the withholding of rent by renters in order to place demands on landlords (or society at large). Rent strikes are usually against particular landlords who act badly, but they aren’t necessarily limited to that. As argued below, due to the COVID-19 crisis now is the time to get organized as tenants to demand a suspension of rent and mortgages NOW, and to lay the groundwork for future organized opposition to the inhumane housing system that preceded the crisis.

In the context of COVID-19, and the economic losses it presents, it is obvious that many people will not be able to pay their rent or mortgage due to loss of income. A suspension of housing payments seems perfectly sensible in the context, and indeed some in government are pursuing legal changes to prevent expected evictions and to support both renters and landlords in dealing with reduced income. People at ground level – tenants, the houseless, and their allies – are organizing to demand rent suspensions and promises not to evict directly from landlords, and petitioning governments to relieve people of rent burden and prevent negative fallout from non-payment.

Why keep my rent?

COVID-19 may be a long-term public health crisis. The number of people who have lost their jobs continues to grow. The pandemic is already making life harder for the majority of us, and we can’t afford to assume it is going away anytime soon. Thousands of us who are able deciding to keep our rent gives us the resources to provide for the health and well-being of our families and communities.

Further, banks and landlords should not be able to continue profiting on renters and mortgages when there is no way to earn money. That’s just common sense. If we can’t make money, neither can our landlords, neither can the banks. It's not the job of tenants to pay a landlord's morgage if it means starving, it's the job of banks to stop squeezing the life out of people.

I have funds to pay my rent, why should I take part?

Keeping our rent will be riskier for some people than others, especially if they are forced to do it alone. This makes it especially important for tenants in more secure positions to not only participate, but to commit to defending one another down the road, if needed. For the most marginalized among us, #RentStrikeSouthAfrica is not a choice — it’s a necessity. Either we need that money to feed our families, or we don't have sufficient income to begin with. If you are in a position to choose, please choose to stand with others who aren’t. #RentStrikeSouthAfrica is about acting together, so that those who are most marginalized are not left to deal with this crisis alone. The best way to support those who can't pay rent is for all of us to go on rent strike together, rendering it impossible for the authorities to target everyone who does not pay.

I live in a small building, my landlord has only one or just a few tenants. Can I #rentstrike?

It is less safe for you to do so, and only you can decide if this is right for you - what we want is to build a platform that shows people their options and gives them an opportunity to make their best decision. Tenants in small buildings or single units like backyards or rooms in houses with their landlords might feel isolated and less confident in keeping their rent. That’s why we’re creating ways for tenants to communicate online. Join in and stay in touch, educate yourself about the law with the information on our facebook page and website, and use it to make sure your landlord doesn't abuse you! You may not have a choice but to keep your rent if you want to eat, and Rent Strike South Africa works to be a platform for you to share your worries and get whatever support is possible.

The government has made lots of announcements. Can’t we just wait for rent relief?

The government has made a lot of announcements but they have not cancelled rent. If this happens, great. If it does not, this changes nothing. So many still can’t pay, and many more will not be able to pay very soon. By keeping our rent, we take back authority over our lives and our families’ futures. We can't rely on government or banks to save us, our system and this country was never built to be prepared for this.

Why aren’t we pushing for stronger government action?

We do have a working group built around lobbying and petitioning which we include as part of a multi-pronged approach. However, we don't expect government to do right by us and especially the most vulnerable of us - and many are faced with the choice: buy food or pay rent. We can make this decision now. This decision will put more pressure on the government than any petition or letter to the editor and we guarantee ourselves access to our own money in a way that government cannot for many of us, especially the most vulnerable.

What about my landlord?

Landlords’ resources and legal protections will allow them to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic better than most, while tenants are more and more concerned with our daily survival. By keeping our rent we will have more money for groceries, medicine, disinfectant supplies, and other basic necessities. Landlords will be fine without our rent. Those of us just barely living month-to-month with no assets are in a whole other category of risk in most cases. Poor landlords do exist, but in those cases tenants will generally already simply have no money for rent.

Shouldn’t a conversation with a landlord be the first thing we do?

Negotiating on a personal level is not always the first point of call, especially because unfortunately many landlords are unscrupulous.
Collective recognition of a problem and working towards a solution as people who are vulnerable is, in all respects, a worthwhile task, and that is what the rent strike is founded on.

What about if my landlord says they are a pensioner who just lives off the income from my rent? (or something like that)

This might be a good example of a case where a discussion needs to be had with tenant and landlord about what is best for both. What is essential is that no-one should be evicted and no-one should be hungry.
If the renter is unable to work under lockdown and was living month-to-month _before_ lockdown, they are likely still in a much worse position than retirees with multiple properties who lease out their properties

What about if my landlord relies on my rent to pay their bond?

The Rent Strike platformm calls on those with bonds to organise with us for a full bond repayment holiday, interest free. People should not go further into debt because of this crisis. That said, let it be clear that a tenant being able to eat is more important than your bond.

What should I do if I receive a letter or eviction notice from my landlord?

Now that we are in level four, eviction processes can begin, but actual evictions look to mostly be happening from level three. Check out our legal section in the website menu. So far as evictions go,

these are the steps landlords would have to follow.

Should I try to negotiate with my landlord?

Yes, and it's up to you to decide when to start that process. It is helpful to engage in a neutral attempt to level with your landlord and try to figure out how your landlord and fellow tenants can work together. Opening up lines of conversation, appeal to their sense of community, and encourage compassion to protect each other and what matters most in these unprecedented times. Ask them if they’ve leveraged all the resources available to them, such as: mortgage / loan forbearance or forgiveness; an insurance claim due to a natural disaster; flexible mortgage payments; tax write-offs or protections against investment loss. If they don’t have a mortgage, or can afford to let rent go unpaid, find out! Research your landlord and their real estate holdings, see if your landlord is a corporation or a management company or a state enterprise. The more prepared you are going into any conversation with your landlord, the better. We also have a draft letter to your landlord that you can use if you want ideas.

Who can I contact for more support or questions about my specific case?

Come chat with us on our facebook page or over email - we'll try to send you in the right direction. Check out our resource page also on this site!

What is the long term vision for #rentstrike?

This is an evolving conversation. In the immediate, we know that rent payment is impossible without wages, and for many in our communities such expenses were already out of reach, exacerbated by the skyrocketing cost of living, gentrification and corporate speculation.

As we confront the precarity of our economy at large, we ground into the ever-apparent truth that community control of land and housing and collective and cooperative ownership of resources are essential for resilience, stability, and survival. We support Community Land Trusts and co-operatives and encourage you to support the ones in your community.