Can’t pay, won’t pay
Julian has worked in exhibition centres in Australia for several years. The Latin American whose employment has always been on a casual basis, with no contract, lost all of his work as coronavirus hit and doesn’t expect any more for eight months. With no income, he can’t pay his rent for the shared Melbourne house he lives in, so has joined nearly 18,000 other people in Australia on rent strike.
Across the world significant amounts of people have stopped paying rent, and in some places mortgage payments, in the wake of Covid-19. Many simply don’t have the money and now face homelessness. Rent strikes are taking place in the US, Spain, Canada, France, Britain, South Africa and elsewhere as activists call for a stop to rent payments and evictions and for everyone to have shelter and space to get through the pandemic.
Informal workers have been badly hit and usually get no protection from the state. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers globally, have been ‘significantly impacted’ by Covid-19 restrictions and that their rate of relative poverty is set to increase by almost 34 per cent.
‘Most people have been forced into positions of even more precariousness – international students, migrant workers, refugees – these are the people that obviously capitalism would not take account of at all. It’s people like me who are left on our own,’ explains Julian. ‘They bring us here as cheap labour. That’s how they create wealth.’
Gentrification, escalating house prices, austerity, poor tenant’s rights and precarious employment means that many renters were already teetering on the edge of being able to make their monthly rent payments, even before coronavirus.
‘Over the course of the recent years, surging house price across the country have been accompanied by surging rents,’ explains Charlie, an organizer with Rent Strike Aotearoa. ‘That’s a chronic problem, along with the ensuing issues around mental well-being; we are seeing anxiety stress and depression as people struggle to pay rents and have to incur debts in order to meet rent payments.’
Organizers with Rent Strike South Africa also stress that there was a huge housing crisis there before Covid-19. ‘Our perspective is that the virus is not the problem so much as our political system that failed and continues to fail us,’ the group said in a statement. ‘State-capitalism, and the effects of ongoing colonial and apartheid geographies play out everywhere in issues surrounding housing and land.’
Informal workers in South Africa had already begun to lose their income in early March and so rent strike organizers started planning the campaign a couple of weeks before the nationwide lockdown began on 26 March: ‘We acted as quickly as possible to inform people that if it comes down to feeding yourself or paying your landlord’s bond, you could choose to feed yourself... our response has been based on understanding Covid to be a long-term problem that will not be alleviated simply by the lifting of the lockdown.’
In the UK, where more than one-third of private renters already live in relative poverty, London is the epicentre of the absurd housing market, and the country’s Covid-19 outbreak. Many renters in the capital were already spending over half of their income on rent – more for those on lower incomes, or working in the gig economy.
‘What we really want to press home is that this crisis wasn’t really caused by coronavirus,’ says J, an organizer with the London Rent Strike. ‘The virus pushed it that little but extra over the line to make everyone in crisis at the same time. It’s not really Covid that’s the issue here; it’s capitalism being used to dictate whether someone has a roof over their head or not.’
When he spoke with New Internationalist in early May, the 25 year-old was on furlough (a government scheme which means he gets 80 per cent of his salary paid) from his job working with charities. This was tiding him over, but he didn’t know for how long. ‘I don’t know where our finances will be in three months. Yes, I could pay the rent in May and probably in June, but after that I could be penniless because redundancy is coming after that for sure.’
According to a poll carried out in the UK in mid-May, one in five renters had been forced to choose between food and bills or paying rent, and one in four said they had already had to leave their home because of coronavirus.
‘I’m trying to do the right thing’
This most recent rent strike wave has included thousands of university students. Alfie Brepotra is an organizer with the campaign at Warwick University. When New Internationalist spoke to him he was cramming in media interviews between exam revision fir his management degree. ‘It’s quite a tough time at the moment’, he said.
At the end of March he lost his job and the paid work he had lined up for the Easter break. He followed the government advice and spoke to his landlord, who owns multiple properties, about his situation: ‘She said, “you are either going to pay me or I am going to take you to court”.’
He has few options for financial support and is stuck paying rent for a house he is not even living in. ‘I’m trying to do the right thing by social distancing, so I can’t go back to my place.’
Full-time university students in Britain are not usually eligible for social security payments and so those who need to supplement their incomes do so through part-time work – often in sectors such as hospitality, hit hard by Covid-19.
Students can get loans to cover their living costs but in more expensive cities these are not enough to cover rent. For those without financial support from family, their ability to carry on with their studies could now be in question. ‘Landlords have suggested that students get personal credit cards’ said Brepotra.
International co-operation seems to have been in short supply lately but housing activists have been getting organized across borders. For many, this energy has given them optimism for the international tenants’ rights movement.
For Neville Peterson, a member of the Communicare Tenants Union, joining the Rent Strike South Africa campaign was also about being part of an international movement. Communicare is a housing provider which owns over 1,300 in Cape Town. Tenants have been in a long battle over exorbitant rents and utility charges. It is thought that just over 1,000 Communicare tenants are now withholding their rent.
‘People are scared, people are vulnerable. People don’t have money for lawyers and to appear in court [to defend against eviction],’ says Peterson. ‘We are upset with government because they are not coming to the fore with assistance and even the rental holidays that they are mentioning – yes you can stop it for a period of time, but if you have to pay it back in three months time or two months time it will have to be double the rent. Rental holiday periods, we are not happy with that. We won’t accept that. We want an unconditional freeze to rentals that you don't have to pay rent.’
As governments seek to ease off Covid-19 restrictions, open courts and pull back financial support, mass evictions and repossessions could be just around the corner. UK housing charity Shelter has warned of a ‘tsunami of evictions’ there once the lockdown ends.
This is why rent strike organizers are looking beyond Covid-19 lockdowns. ‘We don’t want any sense of back to normal because normal was shit for 99 per cent of people,’ says J. ‘We want complete change in how the rental sector works. We could be looking at entirely new ways to deal with housing. Most of us would want to see housing entirely taken out of the market and be treated as a human right like it should be. That’s the dream anyway. And it’s the first time that something like that has ever felt possible with the level of upheaval that we’re seeing.’
‘I’d like us to win a rent and mortgage amnesty,’ says Farida, another organizer with Rent Strike Australia. ‘Whether or not we win that I think what we’re building is something very important. We’re building a community of people. We’re building a grassroots fighting community of people for the rights of tenants and mortgage holders. This hasn’t happened on this scale in this country in ages. We’re going to need this community in the years to come.’
‘We are reaching a tipping point,’ says Julian. He is hopeful that out of this crisis can grow something more positive. ‘When it gets rough people actually see the need for solidarity. Solidarity is something that we should extend and it should be a value that we all have.
‘I’m hoping for hope. Not hope on the gods, not hope in the government – hope in humankind, hope in the solidarity that we can extend to each other. That’s what I’m hoping for and that’s what I would like to see that we come through these tough times and that we move to another period where we can actually be more aware of what’s going on, what is being done to most of humanity.’
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