As tenant organizers, we are often asked about rent strikes. Do we support them? Have we worked with tenants in the past who have successfully gone on rent strike? Our answers range. Rent strikes are an extremely powerful tool for demanding change in your building, but as with any great power…there is great responsibility.
Rent strikes are not for the faint-of-heart, as tenants will almost certainly be brought to court by the landlord, and the money that residents save (by not paying rent) also cannot be touched, even to make repairs. During a rent strike, building conditions often temporarily worsen, and tenants have to deal with the frustrations of being dragged to housing court. For these reasons, we try to never encourage residents to hold a rent strike without legal support, and only when safely depositing their rent into an escrow account.
Like any strike, a rent strike uses collective action to take over the means of production and bargain for improved working or living conditions from property owners/industrialists. But what happens when the ruling class — i.e., the target of the strike — isn’t the property owner but rather a financier? A bank? Can homeowners go on strike against their lenders?
Abuses in the mortgage industry are well known. Yesterday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Wells Fargo for persistently mishandling borrowers attempts to save their homes. Mortgage strikes have taken place nationally throughout history, are surfacing as a recent tactic to force banks into negotiations with homeowners. While mortgage strikes, like rent strikes, can be risky, homeowners at risk of eviction have a lot less to loose, and a lot more to gain.
ESOP, Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s People, have been organizing underwater homeowners in Cleveland around housing rights and foreclosure. In 2012, Cleavland.com (SunNews) covered ESOP’s work around mortgage strikes:
The risks didn’t deter George Robinson of Cleveland, who said he is $45,000 underwater, meaning he owes more than his house is worth. He is among the first three homeowners to sign up for ESOP’s mortgage strike.
“I am 83, so I can afford to take this risk,” said Robinson, a retired autoworker. “Somebody has to take a stand against what these banks are doing.”
Participants in ESOP’s rent strikes are underwater homeowners with whom the banks have refused to negotiate with. Rather than continuing to pay the bank back their mortgage each month, homeowners deposit their payment into an escrow account and wait for the banks to come to the negotiating table. ESOP calls this “mortgage principle correction” — a play on the phrase “mortgage principle reduction,” which refers to a process whereby banks write down debt in order to avoid foreclosure and keep homeowners in their homes.
We support ESOP’s work, and hope that the mortgage striking movement, when successful, continues to grow. Others, on the other hand, are not so keen on the idea of mortgage strikes. We did some research on Stephen Lerner who calls for a large scale mortgage strikes, and it’s really shook up the Right. Article after article talks about Lerner’s anti-capitalist plan to bring down America. Why are mortgage strikes so scary to Big Business and Right Wing America? Because mortgage strikes (and rent-strikes for that matter) challenge the notion of who has power in our country, and strikes can be really successful tools for shifting that power. If you’re curious about what Right Wing America has been saying, check out some articles here, here, and here. Enjoy!