On May 1st, Olympia City Council Member Renata Rollins announced in an open letter to the community and her landlord that she would be participating in the rent strike, standing in solidarity with those who can’t pay their rent/mortgage and who are facing housing insecurity because of it.
In the past weeks, her action has already faced harsh criticism from local real estate and commerce organizations, as well as community members who view her action as a selfish politicization of the pandemic or as a harmful exacerbation of the “us v them” divide.
In our view, putting oneself at risk to stand up for those who are the most vulnerable is the opposite of selfish. Renata is certainly risking a lot–not just possible eviction and legal action, but the disapproval of those who respect her advocacy for the poor but do not share her critique of the systems which impoverish people. Many are of the mind that those who can pay their rent should do so, while directing strongly worded letters to those in power to repent of their ways and take care of our most vulnerable. Unfortunately, the well-meaning fantasy that our words and feelings of conscience, by themselves, can bring about economic justice is just that – a fantasy. The people who benefit most from failing systems don’t need our love, respect, or approval, as long as our money continues to flow their way. When we continue to pay into the system, we give up all our leverage.
The rent and mortgage strike movement is a hand held out from renters to property owners of conscience, inviting them to join us in seeking a bailout for the general public, instead of continuing to support inadequate responses, like payment plans, that will only serve to scrape away the last of our savings and increase the burden of debt on those already overburdened. Property owners choosing to do the latter, in our view, is a (short-lived) attempt to save themselves from the harms a failing system that will put jeopardize the well-being of all of us eventually. It’s only a matter of time before the instability and suffering caused by it moves up the ladder.
So far, solidarity from landlords has mostly only been forthcoming on an individual level – a few are forgiving rents, some are deferring them, some are threatening their tenants to pay up regardless of their ability to do so. While individual kindness from landlords to tenants is helpful, it’s just a band-aid. The system needs change. Renters, by withholding their rent, are expressing a friendly but firm insistence to landlords that they join us in directing pressure upwards where it is needed.
More people who can comfortably pay their rent or mortgage should refuse to – and stand in solidarity with those who cannot. This is literally the situation of most people who join a movement to end injustice – they could have stayed quiet and done nothing and probably have been fine (for the moment) but they recognize, correctly, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” History has shown us that civil disobedience is an integral part of the human struggle for social justice and civil rights. If the only people who ever participated in civil disobedience were those who are most impacted, that history would look very different. There is strength, protection and resilience in numbers and in solidarity. If we had more leaders willing to put themselves at risk in order to stand with those who are least protected by our failing economic and social systems, our world would be a better and safer place for all.
Our corner of the world was already experiencing a housing and homelessness crisis before COVID-19. There is no telling just how extreme the economic/social fallout of the COVID-19 crisis will be. But most of us understand that, unless we take drastic measures to protect our well-being, the fallout will be severe and long-lasting. Rapid rises in homelessness and poverty and diminishing quality of life for most of us, are real possibilities if we don’t pursue proactive protections and responses now.
As Council Member Renata points out in her letter, “The system’s flaws have never been more glaring, and we can no longer accept them. There is simply no room in the world we’re building together. We owe it to future generations to rewrite the rules, working together through direct action and organized advocacy, so we come out of this COVID-19 trauma as people and communities changed for the better.”
We need rent and mortgage forgiveness, not payment plans.
We need the basic necessities of life to be guaranteed and respected as rights, no longer considered as privileges for purchase or opportunities for profit.
Just Housing Olympia stands with Council Member Rollins, those who are unable to pay their rent/mortgage, and those who are refusing to pay their rent/mortgage in order to support those who cannot.