May Day: Sawant calls for ‘Rent Strike’ in Seattle

May Day: Sawant calls for ‘Rent Strike’ in Seattle

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant says the COVID-19 crisis calls for a rent freeze and relief for vulnerable populations dealing with economic hardship as thousands of workers have been laid off.

Her office representing Capitol Hill, the Central District, and nearby neighborhoods is now planning a May 1st rent strike to put pressure on landlords and politicians to get a statewide suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments.

“[T]he political establishment will not act, given their ties to corporate landlords and big business,” she said on Facebook. “It will take a real fight, it will take a Rent Strike! And we will need to be organized, building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, while of course maintaining social distancing.”

While nearly 9,000 have signed a petition urging Gov. Jay Inslee to immediately enact such a suspension as well as a freeze on rent increases for the rest of the year, Sawant says more needs to be done.

“It’s not that anybody is telling them not to pay rent, they simply don’t have money to pay rent,” Sawant says of the call for a strike.

The Socialist Alternative council member says she is launching this new effort because “individual renters and families, working families, simply saying ‘Well I can’t pay rent, so I’m not gonna pay rent’ doesn’t protect you from eviction. That doesn’t protect you from the corporate landlords and the big banks.”

“We need to understand that renter organizing is no different fundamentally from workplace organizing.” First, she says, renters must collectively organize.

The council has already passed a resolution calling on state and federal leaders to impose an immediate moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. It also has gotten the ball rolling on Sawant’s legislation, co-sponsored with council member Tammy Morales, to tax Amazon and other large corporations to give immediate relief to thousands of Seattleites.

The state Employment Security Department says hundreds of thousands have filed claims for unemployment benefits and there are reports of more than 300,000 who are either waiting for or have been denied benefits. Washington’s economy lost 11,100 jobs in March and the state’s preliminary seasonally adjusted monthly unemployment rate for March increased from 3.8% to 5.1%, officials said Wednesday. Washington’s “labor force decline is by far the largest month to month decline since 1990,” the update reads.

Sawant asked in a recent email to supporters: “Have you been laid off during this pandemic? Lost wages due to stay-at-home orders? Were you unable to pay April rent or mortgage? What about May — is that looking impossible?” She adds that “tens of thousands of working-class people in Seattle, and hundreds of thousands across Washington state, are going to be unable to pay rent or mortgage.”

Sawant’s office is hosting a virtual town hall Thursday evening to mobilize for its rent strike, set to start May 1 as residents across the city and county have to make their monthly payments. This is the latest in a series of events Sawant has hosted in the past few weeks with labor leaders from across the country to mobilize for rent relief and the taxation of companies like Amazon.

May 1st, of course, is the start of the next month when many tenants see their next payment come due. The day — of course — also holds a mixed history of labor and immigration activism and the neighborhood’ flare-ups of protester vs. police conflict and violence.

Sawant says her effort isn’t about May Day.

“Our fight is hardly going to stop there. It’s like the opening of the struggle, really, and it needs to go well beyond that and just to be very sober about it, winning a suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments is not going to be a small thing,” she said. “At this moment, any talk of limited rental assistance or rent relief is far from enough in the context of the massive collapse of this economy.”

Meanwhile, some of Sawant’s fellow council members have derided her for what they see as a politics of division during a crisis.

Nearly 200 people have RSVPed to attend Sawant’s 6 PM town hall on Thursday, which will be streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and popular gaming platform Twitch. Ads for the event have appeared across social media and on sites including CHS.

Sawant says part of the purpose of the town hall is bringing together the resources needed to support a strike. “There’s no question we need legal resources,” she said, adding that organizers are working with the Housing Justice Project and the National Lawyers Guild.

About a third of renters across the country didn’t pay rent at the beginning of April, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, as layoffs have put personal finances in flux for tens of millions of Americans. Sawant expects that number to rise come May 1 as even more people will be unable to make rent payments.

How much the expected $1,200 checks from the federal government after Congress passed an emergency stimulus package last month will be used for paying rent is unclear. For many, rent can far exceed that figure and The Washington Post reported Tuesday that early evidence shows Americans are using that money to pay for basic necessities like food and gas.

Seattle is not alone in seeing a movement for such a rent strike. Cities like Los Angeles are seeing similar pushes, but the likelihood of them leading to major concessions like a rent freeze from landlords and policymakers is hard to say.

“We are heading into a recession that they are saying is going to be worse than the Great Depression,” Sawant says. “Even if we did nothing, if we did zero organizing, we are still going to see tens of millions of working class people not being able to pay their rent.”

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said. “What I can guarantee is that if we didn’t fight, then we are all going to lose.”

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