Who will a "rent strike" help? Or hurt?

One of the things I didn’t see coming as part of the fallout from the pandemic lockdowns was a series of labor strikes, but here we are. They haven’t attracted all that much labor support from workers, but attempts at strikes took place at Amazon and among some gig economy workers. But now another “strike” is in the works. Except it’s not really a strike. Tenants in apartment buildings in a number of American cities have been coordinating on social media and planning a “rent strike,” where they will attempt to refuse to pay their rent and demand that the money they owe be waived. (Associated Press)

With millions of people suddenly out of work and rent due at the first of the month, some tenants are vowing to go on a rent strike until the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis are among many cities that have temporarily banned evictions, but advocates for the strike are demanding that rent payments be waived, not delayed, for those in need during the crisis. The rent strike idea has taken root in parts of North America and as far away as London.

White sheets are being hung in apartment windows to show solidarity with the movement that is gaining steam on Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites.

Right up front, I’ll just say that I’m not unsympathetic to the plight that many of these people are facing. When the government shut down the businesses where many of them worked, they lost their jobs, at least temporarily. And without a job and no prospects for money coming in quickly, you could easily miss a payment on your rent. Fortunately for them, most of the cities involved in this proposal already have bans on evictions in place, so the landlords won’t be able to kick them out.

With that out of the way, there are several flaws in this planned strike, both in the rationale behind it and the downstream effects it could produce. Firstly, each and every one of these renters should have a check for well over a thousand dollars arriving in the mail in the next couple of weeks. That’s got to help a bit in managing your bills and it was the sole intention of that portion of the relief package. Also, if they are all recently furloughed workers who had jobs, they will immediately be eligible for not only the normal rate of unemployment but an additional $600 per week on top of that, courtesy of the federal government.

That’s going to work out to about $4,000 per month for the duration of the lockdown period. If you can’t get by on unemployment payments that exceed the median family income in this country, there’s something else going wrong. And since your landlord is barred from evicting you for several months, you should be able to catch up on your bills.

But let’s just imagine for a moment that the strike works. The landlords will lose all of their revenue for an unknown period of time. The organizers are calling for a government mandate to freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for 2 months. What happens to the individuals and businesses that operate these rental units? Are the strikers implying that they simply suck it up? Or that the federal government reimburses them for all of these losses? I don’t have a napkin big enough to calculate what two months rent on every rental property in all of those cities would add up to, but it would be massive. And we just finished shelling out $2.2 trillion.

Any people who don’t somehow qualify for the relief checks and the unemployment program should certainly be afforded some special consideration so they don’t get left behind and lose their homes. But for the vast majority of them, assuming they had some sort of a job before the shutdown, it seems to me that what they need is some breathing room without being evicted until their alternate government income stream comes in and allows them to catch up. And nearly all of them already have that with the freeze on evictions in place.