Rent: Why We Say Don’t Pay

As 2020 draws to a close, an open letter to Portland with particular regards to the renters, and the peculiar beauty of the notion of a rent strike during an eviction moratorium.

Dear Portland,

And dear anyone else, particularly in other localities that have passed similar laws to the eviction moratorium that was just renewed by the Multnomah County Board of Supervisors this week — which is now extended until July 2nd.

I want to talk to you about the rent strike, specifically.  What rent strike, you may wonder?  Well, it’s a good question, really.  Because for us here in Portland/Multnomah County, it’s been a very hypothetical rent strike, since around these parts the ban on evictions, evictions filings, and late fees went into effect soon after the first pandemic lockdown took hold.  At the last minute, just before it’s about to expire, as renters across the region are beginning to really panic and become total insomniacs, the moratorium on evictions is renewed — much to the chagrin of the landlord lobby, as represented by their various lobbying groups, such as Multi Family Northwest.

History tells us that we can transform a morbidly unequal society through the means of a broad and well-organized rent strike, first of all.  And my strong sense is that we need to use the momentum provided by both the fissures in society exposed by the pandemic, and by the efforts of governing bodies led by forward-thinking, socially-conscious individuals, such as the Multnomah County Board of Supervisors, not be lulled to sleep by it.

The more that I have been involved with the tenants rights struggle in various forms, the more I have come to realize that as much as the billionaire class and the corporate landlord lobby are a huge enemy to try to take on, our biggest obstacle is within our own American minds.  Or perhaps more our hearts.

By my observation, a whole lot of us have drunk a whole lot of different flavors of Kool-Aid at this point.  This isn’t accidental.

Inherent in the idea of a democratic society, a society run by democracy, that is, by a representative, or at least theoretically representative government, is that that government can pass laws that a majority of the population might more or less agree on.  These new laws and Constitutional amendments and such can be about lots of different things.  They have in the past involved doing stuff like giving away huge amounts of stolen land, as well as selling huge amounts of land.  Laws have also regulated how this stolen land can be sold or rented.  These laws have been passed nationally and locally, throughout the history of this country.

Despite these plain facts, there are a whole lot of people around here who believe that the ownership of property is sacred, somehow sacrosanct, inviolate, and cannot be regulated by law, because doing so would be Stalinist or something.  Whether Stalinist, Jeffersonian, or whatever else, the idea that we can’t pass laws to regulate costs of anything, be it property, bread, electricity, or whatever else, is ridiculous.  Of course we can.  And we have, and we do, throughout the history of this country, as well as all over the world — in both democratic and in authoritarian societies.  Wherever there are governments that govern.

If this mental block is overcome, and we can agree that regulation is not inherently fascistic or communistic or some other Unamerican phenomenon that needs to be violently opposed, the next thing is we don’t like regulation because although we are probably being screwed by the capitalist system ourselves at this very moment, we still hope someday to become homeowners and even landlords.  And once that glorious time finally arrives somehow or other, we won’t want to be subject to pesky red tape.

If empathy for society outweighs our desire to become successful capitalists, the next mental road block we encounter is the biggest:

Most of us know someone who is struggling to pay their mortgage.  Many of us know someone who is struggling to pay their mortgage specifically because their tenant has not been paying their full rent, or perhaps any rent.

Being human, and an empathetic sort of human at that, I also empathize with anyone who is struggling, wherever they may fall in this complex web of landlord-tenant relations.  Because owning a duplex and renting half of it, or owning an extra house, are some of the few capitalist endeavors available to many people, this sort of thing is commonplace, and it is easy to sympathize with anyone involved.

For so many of us, however, in the Class C apartment complexes that you will see all around you in every city in the country if you are looking for them, we’re not in this type of situation.

For us, our landlords are generally large corporations, often some of the largest corporations on Earth, such as Blackrock, which two of the president-elect’s cabinet nominees just got through working for, or here in Portland, the Randall Group, a more regional version of Blackrock.  For us, these investment companies and their management arms have been doubling and tripling and quadrupling the rent over the past twenty years — and especially over the past ten years — to the point where, long before the pandemic, life was financially untenable for so many millions of people, from the west coast to the east.

And to complicate things further, the way these massive companies colluded to lock in high rents in major markets around the country also allowed the small-time landlords to cash in, through the seemingly innocent mechanism of charging something around — maybe even somewhat lower than — the “market rate.”  For a very long time, it was a good time to be a landlord, whether a big one or a small one.  Many people lived entirely off of the earnings of their tenants and called that their job, a form of “self-employment,” rather than a business, and certainly not capitalism, which is unattractive and old-fashioned sounding for the modern member of the petite bourgeoisie, who also doesn’t use that word anymore either.

In any case, even if we can agree that there may be differences between small-time landlords and big landlord corporations, and even if we can agree further that withholding rent from big corporations in order to try to get them to see reason and lower what they’re charging or otherwise negotiate with us tenants is OK, we encounter the next obstacle, which goes something like this:

“But I can afford to pay the rent, unlike some of my friends and neighbors, so maybe I should pay the rent, to make it easier on the landlord corporation to keep paying for their expenses until this is all sorted out.”

To which I would offer this reply:

If your landlord is a corporation, stop humanizing it.  It doesn’t care about anything.  This is about mathematics, and morality, but it’s not about human beings.  If they told you they need your rent in order to pay their low-wage grounds maintenance and repair staff, they’re lying.  They can borrow that money.  They probably already have.

Do you think the people that run the corporations that are not paying their commercial rents in the malls across the country that are closing during the pandemic are feeling bad about stiffing the banks what they owe them?  No.  This is just how business is done.  Do you think their corporate lawyers are moved by letters from the venture capitalists appealing to them to keep their low-wage mall employees employed, for the sake of society?  Do you think they write such letters to the lawyers?  No, they do that with us tenants because they think we are stupid.

And they think we’ll be scared of the part in their notes after they appeal to us to think of the poor maintenance workers, when they mention eventual eviction.  Of course, the threat of eviction is what allows them to raise the rent as much as they want, whenever they want, and is what causes us to comply, every time, no matter how egregious, or move.

But not now.  And the sooner the landlord corporations face actual financial hardship, the sooner they might negotiate with us.  This is how strikes work, when they work.

Another mental road block:

“But the county supervisors are being so supportive with these eviction bans, so those of us who can afford to pay rent should do it, to show that we’re not taking advantage of the fact that evictions are temporarily banned due to the pandemic.”

First of all, there are many reasons to ban evictions, and there is no reason why landlords should have the option of forced eviction at gunpoint. This is not a God-given right, or even a Constitutional one.  One reason to temporarily ban evictions is for the reasons the CDC did it, because they cause people to spread the pandemic, get sick, and die.

One more reason to ban evictions, and foreclosures, at a time when one out of three households in the United States are either behind on rent or behind on their mortgages, is to maintain domestic tranquility.  Any sensible politician is afraid of the potential consequences to trying to evict a third of their population at the same time, regardless of how much money they may take from the landlord lobby.  They realize that the ban on evictions, while bad for the capitalists in the short term, is saving them from themselves in the longer term.

Of course, still another reason to ban evictions is because you genuinely care about struggling renters and struggling mortgage holders, or because you believe that the housing market as it is is totally insane, and something needed to be done.

If you are acting for such progressive reasons, what you, as a progressive politician, actually need, is backup — not people napping their way through the moratorium, but organizing through it.  It is specifically because so many people are not paying rent — whether because they can’t, because they are prioritizing other expenses, or because they are on rent strike — that the moratoriums keep getting extended.  It is quite likely only by continuing the nonpayment collectively, en masse, that the politicians and landlord corporations will be forced to do things like negotiate, lower rents, cancel rents during the pandemic, accept potential future government bailouts that may involve compromising on profits, or pass effective rent control legislation, like we have had in the past.

We say don’t pay, whether you can pay or not, because that’s how solidarity works.  So join us.  If you are with us — if you believe that the further victimization of the poorest among us by not coming up with a real solution to the housing crisis is unacceptable, withhold your rent money, and put it in savings every month instead.

This is what the companies are doing that are not paying their commercial rents during this ongoing crisis.  Why should we behave differently?  Are we renters and mortgage-holding families less important than JC Penney or the Cheesecake Factory?

The strategy — all emotional considerations aside — is very matter-of-fact:  withhold the rent and wait until you can negotiate with the banks or other landlord corporations in court, or wait until the federal or state government funds some kind of bailout.  As the corporate board of the Cheesecake Factory is well aware, if you pay the rent during this period, you won’t get that money back later.  Withhold it, and you very well might.  We residential renters can employ exactly the same strategy.  During a period when there is a ban on evictions, we can do this on the same sorts of terms as the corporations can.

There are other ways landlords can use the law to get money from tenants who are withholding it, whether these tenants are commercial or residential.  But sending in armed police to throw your shit out onto the sidewalk is not one of the available options.  And for most of us who have been withholding our rent during the moratorium, we will have six months from the time the moratorium ends to pay up, before facing any such eventuality.

To those of you who will not join us, for whatever reasons, as good and justifiable as they may be, remember this fact:

By paying the rent, the impact you’re having, like it or not, is to undermine the efforts of those who won’t pay, and to undermine the dreams of those who can’t.  By paying the rent even when there are minimal consequences for withholding it, you are hastening the return of normality.  And normality was a crisis, prior to the pandemic.

Also, by paying the rent, you’re guaranteeing that you won’t be part of any settlement that may arise in the course of 2021, to avert an eviction tsunami and its tremendously destabilizing impact.

Through solidarity, however, we can change the rules, we can lead, and we can make the leaders follow.  History is full of not only failed efforts, but many successful ones — rent strikes and other kinds of strikes — that have changed societies for the better.  Very much including here in the belly of the capitalist beast itself.  Believing this fact is the biggest hurdle of all.

David Rovics, renter

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.