“Can’t pay? Won’t pay!”—pandemic edition

Posted: 19 May 2020 in Uncategorized
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“Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” has become the rallying cry for the pandemic rent-strike movement.

As it turns out, back in 1974, Italian Marxist author Dario Fo wrote one of his most famous plays, Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga! It was soon translated into English, with the title Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! 

There’s an obvious connection between the current movement and Fo’s political farce. Antonia and Margherita, two working-class housewives, stagger in with goods they have stolen from the supermarket as part of a protest by local women against rising prices. Antonia is terrified that her husband Giovanni, a Communist factory-worker, will force her to return her booty. He notices Margherita’s bulging coat and is told she’s pregnant. He is dismayed that some workers refused to pay for the overpriced food in the cafeteria and warns Antonia not to take part in the supermarket protest. When the police search the flat, Margherita pretends to be in labor and is carried to an ambulance. Margherita’s husband Luigi is surprised to learn that he is about to become a father and goes off in search of her. When a truck overturns in the street, Giovanni and Luigi, who have just learned they are losing their jobs, steal sacks of sugar. An Inspector, checking on the two women who have now returned home, believes he has been blinded for his disbelief when their electricity is cut off, bangs his head in the dark, and passes out. The women confess to the men they have been stealing, and the men admit to their theft. When he recovers, the Inspector is so relieved he can see, he leaves happy.

In the midst of the pandemic, the problem is not supermarket prices, but housing rents—especially as workers in the United States have had to confront tens of millions of furloughs, layoffs, shortened hours, and pay cuts. They were having trouble paying rent before, and now it’s gotten much worse.

rentals

According to data from the American Community Survey, as compiled by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of cost-burdened renter households—households that pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing—stood at 20.5 million in 2017. That’s almost half (47.4 percent) of all renter households. And about one quarter of all renters—some 10.7 million households—faced severe housing cost burdens, because they had to pay 50 percent or more of their incomes in rent.

It should come as no surprise, low-income households are even more cost-burdened. Indeed, the share of cost-burdened renter households earning less than $15,000 a year was 82.8 percent in 2017, and almost three-quarters (71.9 percent) of these renters were severely burdened. Cost-burden rates were also elevated among renters higher up the income scale. For example, the rate of those with incomes in the $30,000-44,999 range was more than half (53.3 percent).

The cost-burden rates for minority households were significantly higher than for white households. The share is highest among black renters at 54.9 percent, followed closely by Hispanics at 53.5 percent. The rates for Asians and other minorities are noticeably lower at 45.7 percent, but still above the white share of 42.6 percent.

These rates are significant, for two reasons: First, as the Federal Reserve (pdf) recently reported, 39 percent of workers who had a job in February with a household income below $40 thousand had already reported a job loss in March. (That percentage has undoubtedly increased since then.) Moreover, Black and Latino workers experienced larger employment declines than white workers between February and April. A Washington Post-Ipsos national poll from late April and early May found that 20 percent of Hispanic adults and 16 percent of Black adults reported being laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, compared to 11 percent of white adults and 12 percent of adults of other races and ethnicities.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor [ht: ja] recently explained,

The crisis of stagnant wages and rising rents certainly predates covid-19. . .

Now thousands more will join the ranks of the rent-burdened and the financially distressed. Some landlords, recognizing the enormity of the crisis, have tried to work with their tenants, but others have used the vulnerability of sudden unemployment and housing insecurity to manipulate them.

Meanwhile, the absence of any serious attention to the dire straits of renting households at the state and federal levels—which provided some relief (for example, for federally subsidized low-income housing) but no across-the-board eviction and foreclosure moratorium nor any enforcement mechanism—”could result, by late summer, in hundreds of thousands of evictions and foreclosures, which would trigger a new wave of infection and illness.”

In the absence of government protection, the only alternative available to American working-class households, like the characters in Fo’s play, is to steal what they need—in the form of a rent strike.

Dashboard 1

While there have been many calls for such a strike, and rent payments are indeed down from last year, it’s still amazing that, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 87.7 percent of apartment households had made a full or partial rent payment by 13 May.

Of course, they had to—or face eviction. Just as Fo’s characters, who had stolen some food, were hounded by the Inspector.

Historically, there haven’t been as many successful rent strikes as one might expect. Editorial Segadores and Col·lectiu Bauma, in Catalunya, have collected and analyzed the shared characteristics of some of them, from the De Freyne Estate in Roscommon County, Ireland in 1901 to the Parkdale neighborhood in Toronto in 2017-18. In their view, successful rent strikes require three elements:

  1. Shared dissatisfaction. At the beginning, even if neighbors haven’t collectivized their demands, it’s necessary that many of them perceive the situation in more or less the same way: that it is outrageous or intolerable, that they run the risk of losing access to their housing, and that they don’t trust the established channels to provide justice.
  2. Outreach. As we’ll see below, the vast majority of rent strikes begin with a relatively small group of people and grow from there. Therefore, they need the means to spread their call to action, communicate their complaints, and ask for support and solidarity. In many cases, strikers can win with only a third of the renters of a property participating in a rent strike, but sufficient outreach is necessary to get to these numbers and to make the threat that the strike will spread convincing.
  3. Support. Those who go on strike need support. They need legal support for court procedures, housing support for those who lose their homes, physical support to fight evictions, and strategic support to face repression on a larger scale. In many cases, especially in large strikes, striking renters have found all the support they require within their own ranks, supporting one another and creating the necessary structures to survive. In other cases, strikers have turned to existing organizations for support. But the initiative for the strike always comes from the renters who dare to start it.

In the months ahead, we can expect a combination of concerted actions to collectively withhold rent payments—from such groups as Rent Strike 2020 and We Strike Together—and many more individual decisions to not pay landlords rents that are due.

The immediate goal of rent strikes is to bring relief to renters, by postponing payments and preventing evictions, thus changing the existing terms of the renter-landlord relationship. The larger, more political aim is to challenge the precepts of capitalism, whereby individual renters are blamed for nonpayment but still held accountable for paying their rent, regardless of their circumstances. Right now, in the midst of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, the collective of working-class renters, along with many homeowners with mortgages, is imperiled by massive furloughs and lay-offs, shortened hours, and pay cuts.

Some workers will therefore join official rent strikes, and be afforded a certain degree of protection precisely because of their numbers and concerted action. Others will opt, individually, not to pay some or all of the rent that is due.

As Natasha Leonard recently counseled, one way forward is to reframe all forms of nonpayment as a strike, which

is a powerful rejection of the sort of capitalist ethic that accords moral failing to an individual’s inability to pay a landlord.

That’s certainly a discursive and political move Dario Fo would have smiled at and applauded.

Comments
  1. antonio callari says:

    So do we smile and applaud with Dario!

  2. […] million, hunger and food insecurity are spreading, and they’re having difficulty paying their rent and […]

  3. […] million, hunger and food insecurity are spreading, and they’re having difficulty paying their rent and […]

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