In many cities across the US, last year’s prolonged state of emergency has temporarily given tenants the right to refuse rent. Through their inability or refusal to pay, tenants have pushed rent itself into a state of crisis, accruing as much as $70 billion in rent debt. Now, their task is to make their rent debt disappear, and to transform their vulnerability into a challenge against capitalist property relations—to alchemize rent debt into power.
Government response to the COVID-19 economic crisis has used market-based fixes that are aimed at economic stabilization. But for tenants, their inability to pay rent is not a symptom of momentary market failure. It’s a result of decades of neoliberal austerity and economic subjugation wrought by capitalist property relations. Rent perpetuates poverty by eating up income, and evictions make it hard to secure housing.
Between means-tested eviction delays, rent deferrals, and rent relief, not a single emergency measure enacted by US legislators has challenged a landlord’s right to passive income during an unprecedented crisis. The ritual of rent is so ingrained in the political imagination of those in power, that even during an emergency, 15 states and DC have offered to foot the bill rather than tear it up altogether.
To understand what’s at stake in the fight for rent cancellation, we first need to understand the significance of rent. In the US, rent is the vehicle for a wealth transfer from the poorest third of the population to a mere 7% of US residents and a relatively small number of corporate entities. The mom-and-pop landlords that make up that 7% face more precarity than their corporate counterparts, underlining the importance of COVID-19 mortgage cancellation. But many tenants live one paycheck away from homelessness, representing a far greater and more vulnerable segment of the population.
Over the past few decades, individual landlords have increasingly been replaced by real estate giants. Under pressure to deliver returns to their investors, these corporate landlords evict tenants at higher rates and raise rents more frequently than small-time landlords. Many of these entities are organized as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which allow investors to buy shares of REITs instead of becoming landlords, absolving individual investors of any responsibility to tenants. Unlike their “buy low and sell high” predecessors, REITs hold onto properties so that they can persistently raise rents with the explicit aim of cornering entire local markets and gentrifying low-income neighborhoods. The website of the “leading industry voice of REITs” even proclaims, “Taken individually, a single REIT-owned property can change the entire complexion of a neighborhood.” There’s success in this strategy: a REIT called Invitation Homes has become the single largest private landlord in Sacramento County as well as in the US at large. Collectively, corporations now control over half of all rental units in the US and heavily influence market rent.
When left to the invisible hand of corporate monopoly, rent can’t be justified by the bare cost of maintaining a property. Industry wisdom advises landlords to allocate 50% of rent to cash profits, as well as mortgage payments and renovations, which amount to investments in the future value of their own asset. The other 50% goes to operating costs as well as economic losses, referring to potential missed profits during periods of vacancy. To ice the cake, corporate landlords get massive tax breaks and are more likely to engage in fee gouging, allowing them to pocket even more of the rent. Operating costs aside, well over half of a tenant’s rent check builds their landlord’s wealth.
Tenants who live in corporate-owned housing are particularly ensnared in the cycles of their own displacement. Evictions cost money to file, but corporate landlords can budget that cost into the rent. More, each rent check feeds the real estate portfolios of these corporations, allowing them to buy up more housing in low-income neighborhoods and price out the tenants whose rent paid for these acquisitions in the first place. Rent funds anti-renter legislation: in California, a notorious REIT called Blackstone bankrolled a winning anti-rent control campaign to the tune of millions of dollars, first in 2018, and again in 2020. As a policy report issued by a collective of researchers in Toronto states, “It is important to note that low-income housing represented a crisis of both unaffordability and of public health long before the COVID-19 outbreak, and that this is a direct consequence of the price gouging and profiteering behaviour of large landlords.”
A slice of each rent check pays for a landlord’s property taxes. In cities like Los Angeles, where over half of the city’s budget is allocated to the LAPD, property taxes fund law enforcement, which incarcerates low-income tenants, enforces their displacement through eviction, and criminalizes the kinds of public life that resist gentrification. The interdependence between private property and law enforcement is vividly clear in Texas, where property taxes make up 30% of the state’s own-source revenue. In August, Texas Governor Greg Abbott threatened cities who defund their police departments by barring them from raising property taxes.
In an effort to maintain the real estate sector’s bottom line at pre-pandemic levels, some municipalities have offered tenants one-time rent vouchers through a lottery system. While it may seem that anything that helps a tenant weather the storm is a net positive, it’s crucial to understand rent vouchers as a government subsidy to maintain landlords’ profits. In turn, these vouchers subsidize the very processes that made cities unlivable for the poorest of tenants before the pandemic.
Tenants don’t need rent. What tenants need is federal funding to patch up the corroded social welfare programs in the US. Teachers and students need funds for educational technology in order to ensure equal access to remote learning. Many can’t afford food or medication, and need government aid to survive. Healthcare centers and schools are in dire need of funding to be able to make these basic necessities free at point of service. Small landlords who have reduced their tenants’ rent and risk foreclosure need mortgage relief and small subsidies to cover operating costs. Subsidizing the passive income of profiteering landlords with public money leaves fewer funds for services that mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and enshrines the concentration of wealth among 7% of the population. To cancel rent, instead, is to reject these ossified power structures, and to affirm housing as an essential and universal right.
At its best, the call for rent cancellation is a call to arms. Scrawled on sidewalks, wheatpasted on bus shelters, and echoing through the streets of cities across the US, “cancel rent” is a challenge to the power relations that have circumscribed the lives of tenants for centuries. Tenants’ refusal of the protocol of rent itself has already had profound impacts on public consensus on landlord-tenant relations, breathing new life into the old Marxist slogan, “rent is theft.”
In the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, tenants unions began to spring up across the US. With several years of organized struggle against rent hikes, habitability issues, and evictions, tenants unions have suffused the call for rent cancellation with a politics of self-determination and autonomy. Each month that tenants accrue rent debt, they keep that money from being invested into real estate. If only momentarily, tenants are putting the brakes on the gentrification of their neighborhoods and their own eventual displacement. As articulated by the tenant-led movement, the call for rent cancellation is a self-affirmation. “Cancel rent” becomes “we will cancel rent, by any means necessary.” With that cry, tenants position themselves not as the powerless victims of a capitalist economy, but as agents of political change.
While the burgeoning tenants movement may yet redefine tenant-landlord relationships in the future, mass rent strikes have failed to materialize during the pandemic. Between there being little precedent for what tenants can accomplish through organized resistance, vouchers giving some tenants the impression that their problem was solved, and lack of clarity of how exactly rent could disappear and what it would take to make it so, many tenants have self-evicted and sacrificed food and medication to pay their rent instead of fighting to keep their home. Many await eviction this spring.
Tenants who have stayed in their homes and organized with their community are beginning the process of cancelling their rent debt themselves. After months of building trust and solidarity with their neighbors, and with public pressure generated by others in their tenants union, organized tenants are bringing their landlords to the bargaining table. Corporate landlords will need to consider whether they’ll want to enter into a drawn-out legal battle with countless tenants, or erase the small percentage of their overall earnings represented by their tenants’ rent debt. Small-time landlords facing the same level of pressure may choose to be transparent about the true size of their economic burden, and put pressure on banks and legislators to pause the interest payments on their mortgage.
In October, the Autonomous Tenants Union Network held its founding convention, where members of tenants unions from across Canada and the US gathered to discuss the methods and goals of the tenants movement. By the end of the weekend, it was clear that rent abolition is the horizon shared by organized tenants across the continent. If, as Julian Francis Park writes, “To abolish rent is to decommodify housing from below,” then the cancellation of COVID-19 rent debt will come about through class struggle, not by legislation. Organized tenant resistance may generate economic pressure and force government action, but more importantly, it has already begun to shift widely-held ideas about property relations and the right to housing, offering glimpses of a world without rent.