A modern apartment development
A modern apartment development at dusk. Photo via Pixabay

Tenants’ rights are won when tenants get organized. In 1846, the state of New York wrote a historic new constitution that included provisions to protect tenants, shorten leases and abolish feudal privileges. This happened in response to the massive “anti-renter” movement where up to 25,000 tenants demanded land reform from their elected officials.

There is a rich history in America of tenants fighting back against powerful landlords.

Today landlords remain the greatest beneficiaries from the status quo while tenants are continuously disadvantaged. According to Zillow, San Diego landlords have collected over $10 billion since 2005. It is a lucrative business to be in and the landlord class will do anything to keep it that way.

According to Ballotpedia, those who opposed 2018 Proposition 10, the Local Rent Control Initiative, outspent supporters by nearly 300 percent. This excessive outspending reveals how terrified the landlords are of any political challenge to their privileged place in society — and it also showed us how deep their pockets are.

Unless we take action now, COVID-19 will hurt the most vulnerable members of our community. According to the U.S. Census, over half of tenants in San Diego are burdened by housing costs, meaning they spend over 30% of their income on housing.

There is a harsh reality behind this burden. Tenants compensate for the high housing costs by missing car and utility payments, working multiple jobs or skipping doctor visits. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the housing crisis in San Diego is escalating from an existing crisis to a complete dumpster fire.

The San Diego Tenants Union (SDTU) and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) are organizing a rent strike this month to prevent this situation from getting any worse. They will refuse to pay rent on May 1 because the economic burden of this pandemic should not be borne on the shoulders of working class and immigrant tenants.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s eviction moratorium was a necessary precaution. However, the social distancing policy has created a harmful dilemma for San Diegans. The policy prohibits the working class from working while the landlord class continues to collect rent from those not collecting a regular paycheck.

While the duration of the shelter-in-place order remains unknown, one certainty exists — the conclusion will result in thousands of tenants owing a large sum of back rent with added late fees and little income left to foot the bill.

Alec Hannaford

Keep the Rent: San Diego, which is part of the nationwide Rent Strike 2020 and Socialist Alternative, is organizing a petition campaign to demand Gov. Newsom use executive order to suspend rent, mortgage and utility payments through the duration of the shelter-in-place order.

This suspension will keep millions of working people across the state from staring into the face of destitution caused by having to pay back missed payments during the crisis. However, just making these demands is not enough; we have to organize so that if our demands are not met we can be prepared to go on a rent strike.

SDTU is going on strike because we need an immediate cancellation of rent for the duration of the lockdown, or else thousands of San Diegans who live paycheck-to-paycheck will become homeless once the eviction moratorium is lifted. Homelessness is expensive and will put tremendous financial strain on local governments, while keeping families housed and working benefits for everyone.

Opposition to the rent strike is being spearheaded by the Southern California Rental Housing Association. The SCRHA released a highly qualified statement saying that a rent strike is “devastating to small, independent operators in the rental housing industry.”

The SCRHA does not represent the working-class landlords it claims to defend. Rather, all the seats on its board of directors are held by business owners, corporate landlords and property managers, all united by the sole mission of extracting as much money from tenants as possible.

Now is the time for action. Over 16 million Americans applied for unemployment in the past week, and unemployment may reach Great Depression levels.

The SDTU is providing leadership and legal support to the tenants on the frontlines of this crisis. Landlords have been politically organized through bodies like the SCRHA. And they have been using this organization to lobby politicians and win economic gains. It’s time for tenants to do the same.

Alec Hannaford is a founding member of the San Diego Socialist Alternative chapter. He has been involved in grassroots movements for housing, environmental and economic justice.