By Jeremy Brecher,
Senior Strategic Advisor, LNS Co-Founder

Migrant family looking for work in the pea fields of California. Date: 1935. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Wikimedia Commons.

In the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployed and impoverished workers turned to dramatic forms of self-help to survive. Anti-eviction “riots” led by organizations of the unemployed made it possible to protect hundreds of thousands of families from being evicted from their homes and ultimately forced government in many cities to halt evictions. And the unemployed in hundreds of communities formed mutual aid organizations through which they exchanged food, services, and labor outside the cash economy. These efforts are described in the commentary “Fighting the Great Depression – From Below. This commentary tells how those affected by today’s Coronavirus Depression are using self-help techniques like rent strikes and mutual aid exchange to survive depression conditions.

With mass unemployment, short time, wage cuts, loss of health insurance, cutbacks in social programs, and other effects of the Coronavirus Depression, tens of millions of people are facing an inability to meet their most basic needs. While stop-gap government programs have forestalled some catastrophic results, local and state resources are running low, and federal stimulus programs will almost certainly be cut back. Blocked from turning to either employers or government for help, people have begun experimenting with forms of self-help that fall outside of conventional politics and conventional economics.

Rent strikes

St. Louis Rent Strike. Date: March 21, 2020. Source: Paul Sableman of St. Louis. Wikimedia Commons.

In March, as coronavirus layoffs spread across the country and tenants began wondering how they would pay their April rent, the idea of rent strikes began to surface in diverse locations. In cities across the country, people began hanging white sheets from their windows indicating that they intended not to pay their rent.

The idea behind the rent strikes was not just for individuals to avoid paying rent, but to initiate a movement powerful enough to force changes in housing policy. In North Carolina, for example, the group Rent Strike Raleigh asked authorities “to freeze rent and utility payments and open up vacant housing, including hotel rooms, for those who have nowhere to go, as well as workplace protections, free health care, freedom for at-risk prisoners, and an end to ICE deportations.” Rentstrike ATX in Austin, Texas asked renters to “talk to your friends, your neighbors, your landlord’s tenants. Coordinate across complexes and neighborhoods. Spread the strike, and lay the foundation for a group action against your landlord.”[1] By early April there were at least 71 rent strikes across the country.[2] In El Sereno in Los Angeles homeless families took over a dozen state-owned vacant houses to secure a safe place to live during the pandemic.[3]

Organizers called for millions of tenants to withhold rent starting May 1 and held actions throughout the country to build momentum. In New York state, tenants wrote their landlords stating they wouldn’t pay rent; draped sheets reading “Cancel Rent” from their windows; and demonstrated with posters and blowhorns outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing.[4]

Estimates for participation in the May 1 rent strikes vary wildly. Housing Justice for All in New York said that 50 buildings had between 30% and 70% of tenants participating in the strikes, and roughly half of the tenants occupying 2,000 units across those buildings didn’t pay rent. Smaller groups of renters from an additional 45 buildings also went on rent strike.[5] In Austin TX 20 people were charged with obstructing a highway and two people charged with criminal trespassing in May Day rent strike protests.[6]A very different picture comes from the National Multifamily Housing Council, which said that only 2.1% fewer apartment households made a full or partial rent payment in May than a year before. (The Council only includes professionally managed buildings; rent strike participation may have been higher in houses owned by small landlords.)[7]

The tenant movement continued after May Day. New York tenant organizer Cea Weaver said in early May, “When we say rent strike what we are saying is that we’re turning a moment where people cannot pay into a moment of political activity and turning our individual inability to pay into collective action, calling on the government to intervene.”[8] On May 12, tenant advocates delivered a petition with 230,000 signatures to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan demanding the suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments during the pandemic. The organizers included such organizations as Lansing Tenants Union, Traver Crossing Tenants Association, Detroit Renter City, University of Michigan YDSA, Village Properties Tenants Union, and Michigan Youth Climate Strike. The Michigan effort was part of a national petition drive supported by the group Rent Strike 2020, which had been initiated by the Rose Caucus, a group of candidates running for offices around the country. Nationwide the petition had garnered over two million signatures.[9]

The overall impact of the tenant movement has been substantial. By the end of March, New York City, Seattle, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, and Chicago, and Texas, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania had ordered eviction proceedings temporarily paused. A federal stimulus package limited evictions in federally-subsidized housing.[10]

According to the group We Strike Together, as of mid-May there were 190,317 individual and group rent strikes under way around the country.[11] But more extensive rent strikes were probably forestalled by the promise of government payments that would allow unemployed workers to pay their rent. The head of a property management software company commented on the relatively small scale of May 1 rent strikes, “Government stimulus checks and the extra $600 a week that the federal government is providing unemployed workers appears to be making a difference.”[12]

Unless there is a new stimulus package like the HEROES Act, which passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, extended unemployment benefits and stimulus payments will soon run out. According to the Census Bureau, 25 million adults in mortgaged or rented households reported a late or deferred housing payment in May. Economist James Galbraith predicts that “People sheltering at home without income” will “refuse to accept the terms” of their housing contracts. So “the contracts will have to be suspended, and the debts cleared away, or there will be a confrontation on a vast scale.”[13]

Local housing activists are preparing for confrontation. The Crown Heights Tenant Union Organizing Committee in Brooklyn, New York held a day of action on June 22 demanding a universal eviction moratorium and the continued closure of housing courts. Last year the group got arrested shutting down Governor Cuomo’s office. Esteban Giron, a member of the group, says that future direct action includes “plans to block marshals from evicting people from their homes and blocking the entrance at housing court.”[14]

Mutual aid

In March, wrote journalist Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker, “even before widespread workplace closures and self-isolation, people throughout the country began establishing informal networks to meet the new needs of those around them.”[15] She lists examples:

  • In Aurora, Colorado, a group of librarians started assembling kits of essentials for the elderly and for children who wouldn’t be getting their usual meals at school.
  • Disabled people in the Bay Area organized assistance for one another.
  • A large collective in Seattle set out explicitly to help “Undocumented, LGBTQI, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Elderly, and Disabled, folks who are bearing the brunt of this social crisis.”
  • In New York City, dozens of groups across all five boroughs signed up volunteers to provide childcare and pet care, deliver medicine and groceries, and raise money for food and rent. Relief funds were organized for movie-theatre employees, sex workers, and street venders. Three restaurant employees started the Service Workers Coalition, quickly raising more than twenty-five thousand dollars to distribute as weekly stipends.
  • Undergrads helped other undergrads who had been barred from dorms and cut off from meal plans.
  • Prison abolitionists raised money so that incarcerated people could purchase commissary soap.

Such mutual aid activities have proliferated since. They range from simple efforts by neighbors to help neighbors to political projects deliberately aiming to create alternatives to governmental relief and public health efforts.

In Chatham County, North Carolina the Hispanic Liaison, Chatham Habitat for Humanity, Chatham County Partnership for Children, Chatham Literacy Council, El Futuro, Kidscope and Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity established a “Chatham Solidarity Fund” to support Chatham County residents who don’t qualify for federal stimulus checks or unemployment during COVID-19. “It’s no family left behind in our county,” said Ilana Dubester, executive director of the Hispanic Liaison. “I am super proud of our community and its generosity,” Dubester said. “We are in this together. That’s the message Chatham County is sending out to our community. We are neighbors. We are friends. We work together and we’re here for each other.”[16]

The website Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, which describes itself as “a grassroots disaster relief network based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action,” lists hundreds of national resources and local efforts.[17] A Google News search May 18 for “mutual aid” turned up multiple stories just within the previous day with headlines like “Grassroots Mutual Aid Network Provides Services for King County’s Unsheltered Community,” “Hudson: Mutual-aid network fills in the gaps,” “Northeast Mississippi mutual aid networks builds community ties to address pandemic needs,” “Building a better world through mutual aid,” and “With mutual aid fund, NY sex workers take on crisis relief.”

As in the early years of the Great Depression, informal bartering has also grown. In Los Angeles, an avid gardener found neighbors coming by to trade oranges or muffins for her produce. Groups like the Buy Nothing Project and Freecycle (which says ten thousand new members have been joining per week) have been promoting such exchange networks. A CBS story, “Bartering Goods, Services Becomes the Norm In Long Island Neighborhood During Coronavirus Pandemic,” described how people in Port Washington, NY had begun exchanging tutoring for beer and blueberry cakes for grocery store runs. Interviewed participants stressed that the benefits were not only getting the goods they needed but getting to know and interact with their neighbors.[18]

Mutual aid in itself does not inherently contradict the status quo; indeed, it may provide people an alternative to more militant forms of action. But it can also be a launching pad for collective expression. For example, after the murder of George Floyd, the Astoria Mutual Aid Network in Queens, NY which normally provided help with transportation, groceries, and deliveries, began also offering water, hand sanitizer, and legal information to protesters in the streets for the Black Lives Matter Uprising. Mutual Aid NYC, which coordinates mutual aid groups citywide, recently criticized New York City’s recent budget for excessive funding for the police. The Bronx Mutual Aid Network has started to make rent cancellation a priority.[19]

Self-help mutual aid may have the potential to merge with what is being called “Disruptive Humanitarianism,” a form of civil disobedience where the non-violent disruptive actions provide a benefit/s to others or to a community. For example, In the September 2020 climate strike, healthcare workers and Black Lives Matter blocked a street in Washington, DC by setting up a blood pressure clinic. A new group called “Arm-in-Arm” is planning to apply disruptive humanitarianism to coronavirus, climate, and economic justice crises. Keya Chatterjee of Arm-in-Arm says, “Whether that means, you know, planting orchards in the way of pipelines or closing off streets so kids can go outside for the first time in a month, you don’t actually need to gather a lot of people to disrupt systems.”[20] Perhaps it is time to disrupt business-as-usual by giving out masks, gloves, and other Personal Protective Equipment – through acts that “incidentally” shut down facilities and workplaces that are being managed in a dangerous way.

In a country that provides few economic rights and little in the way of a social safety net, the Coronavirus Depression can lead overnight to homelessness and hunger. Self-help strategies like rent strikes and mutual aid may develop in response simply as a means of survival. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also be the starting point for collective action for something more.

Listen to the audio version >>

[1] Caroline O’Donovan, “A Coronavirus Rent Strike Could Leave Renters Vulnerable,” BuzzFeed, March 27, 2020.

[2] Georgia Kromrei, “Inside the national rent-strike movement: Red thermometers, manuals & more,” The RealDeal, April 10,2020.

[3] Liam Dillon, “Blaming coronavirus, homeless families seize 12 vacant homes,” Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2020.

[4] Kelsey Neubauer, “May New York Rent Strike Made Noise But Fell Far Short of Participation Goal,” Biznow New York, May 4, 2020.

[5] Kelsey Neubauer, “May New York Rent Strike Made Noise But Fell Far Short of Participation Goal,” Biznow New York, May 4, 2020.

[6] Katie Hall, “Austin police arrest 22 people in apparent rent strike protest,” Austin American-Statesman, May 1, 2020.

[7] Aldo Svaldi,“Apartment tenants mostly making the May rent in Colorado and elsewhere,” Longmont Times-Call, May 16, 2020.

[8] Kathryn Brenzel and Georgia Kromrei, “Landlords battle rent strikes across the U.S.,” The RealDeal, May 15, 2020.

[9] Dave Herndon, “Rent Strike 2020 demands Gov. Whitmer suspend rent, mortgage and utility payments during COVID-19 outbreak,” Macomb Daily, May 14, 2020.

[10] Caroline O’Donovan, Ibid

[11] We Strike Together

[12] Aldo Svaldi,“Apartment tenants mostly making the May rent in Colorado and elsewhere,” Longmont Times-Call, May 16, 2020.

[13] Eric Levitz, “We’ll Need Mass Debt Forgiveness to Recover From the Coronavirus,” New York Magazine, May 28, 2020.

[14] Brittany Hutson, “As Moratoriums Start to Lift, Preparing for an Eviction Wave,” Shelterforce, June 25, 2020.

[15] Jia Tolentino, “What Mutual Aid Can Do During a Pandemic,” | The New Yorker, May 18, 2020.

[16] Casey Mann, “Joint ‘Solidarity Fund’ moves to next phase,” The Chatham News + Record, May 29, 2020.,5614

[17] Mutual Aid Disaster Relief

[18] Jennifer McLogan, “Bartering Goods, Services Becomes The Norm In Long Island Neighborhood During Coronavirus Pandemic,” CBS New York, May 8, 2020.

[19] Kay Dervishi, “Mutual aid networks deliver groceries with a side of social change,”, July 15, 2020.