Lessons from History: Rent Strikes Around the World

Hamilton Tenant: Volume 1, Issue 1

Rent Strikes are kicking off everywhere – from Stoney Creek in Hamilton, to Flemingdon Park in Toronto, to Westlake in Los Angeles tenants are withholding rent to communicate in the only language that landlords seem to understand: money. Rent strikes have a long history as a tactic used by working-class tenants fighting for affordable, safe homes. Here’s a brief survey of some of the more significant ones.

Glasgow, Scotland (1915)

Thousands of tenants – especially women whose husbands were away fighting in World War I – refused to pay a rent increase. Tenant meetings were often held at different women’s homes around the kitchen table. At rallies and protests, men, women, and children held signs that said:

• Rent strike against increases. We are not removing!

• Defending our homes against landlord tyranny. We want justice.

• While my father is fighting in Germany the landlord is attacking our home.

• Less rent means more milk.

• No surrender. God help the sheriff officer who enters here.

Landlords led for evictions and called sheriff officers to carry them out, but that didn’t scare the tenants. Whenever a sheriff was spotted entering the neighbourhood, one woman would ring a bell to alert everyone else. Other women would throw our bombs, rotting food, and wet clothes at the sheriff from their apartments, forcing him to run away. At the peak of the rent strike, 30,000 tenants had joined. When 18 tenants were taken to small claims court, 10,000 supporters showed up and threatened with a general strike (meaning tenants would withhold rent and workers would withhold their labour, not showing up for work). e charges were dropped and the authorities agreed to x rents at the pre-war level. As a result of this working-class organizing for affordable housing, rent control laws were introduced and thou- sands of new public housing units were built.

1915 Glasgow rent strike protest

New York, United States (1958-64)Many Black and Hispanic tenants were excluded from public housing (due to a racist selection process) and ended up in some of the worst apartments in Harlem and the Lower East Side, the poorest neighbourhoods in New York. When landlords, property managers, and city officials ignored their requests for heat, electricity, plumbing, extermination of “rats as big as cats”, and other basic repairs, many tenants fought back through a series of rent strikes in the 1950s and ‘60s. Tenants demanded repairs, affordable rents, and the construction of more public housing. When the tenants were taken to court over non-payment of rent, they smuggled dead rats into the courtroom to prove their point! In response, local politicians criticized the bad behaviour of slumlords and launched a “Million Dollar War on Rats” program. This was an effort to divert attention away from the fact that it was the government’s racist selection process for public housing and failure to build enough public housing that drove Black and Hispanic tenants into these slum apartments in the first place.

1964 New York rent strike protest

Parkdale, Toronto, Canada (2017-18)

In the past year, Parkdale tenants won two rent strikes against two corporate landlords. Like Stoney Creek Towers tenants, Parkdale tenants decided to strike to demand repairs and fight Above Guideline Increases in rent. In 2017, 300 tenants decided to withhold their rent to fight the AGI proposed by their corporate landlord, MetCap. After three months, MetCap agreed to negotiate. Tenants won a big reduction to the AGI, protections for low-income tenants, and a schedule of repairs. is year, facing a similar situation, another group of Parkdale tenants took on their landlord, Nuspor. This landlord gave up after only two months of struggle and cancelled the AGI altogether! Neighbours who met each other when fighting for their homes have since worked together to fight for better conditions at their workplaces and their children’s schools. Parkdale residents who work at the Ontario Food Terminal went on strike and won a wage increase, paid sick days, and job security. Parkdale residents have started a community after-school tutoring program, and teachers have begun organizing for improvements at the local public school.