Rent strike gains traction, including in Michigan

click to enlarge Rent strike gains traction, including in Michigan

You know things are bad when the fucking Cheesecake Factory is leading #TheResistance.

In March, as the coronavirus crisis took hold in the U.S., the restaurant chain told its landlords that it would not be able to pay its rent in April due to the economic shutdown caused by the response to the pandemic.

"We've reached a breaking point and it's touching people and organizations and businesses that normally have no bearing at all in our political discourse," says Solomon Rajput, a self-described democratic socialist who's running for Congress in Michigan's 12th district, which includes Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Dearborn, and Downriver.

Rajput is a member of the democratic socialist Rose Caucus. As the pandemic unfolded, the caucus put out a petition calling for an end to all rent, mortgage, and utility payments in every state for the duration of the crisis. Since then, Rent Strike 2020 has garnered more than 200,000 signatures in Michigan, and more than 2.5 million signatures nationwide.

"It's just exploded," Rajput says. "To put it in perspective, you only need 100,000 signatures across the country in order to get a response from the White House on an issue."

Rajput and other advocates say that the federal coronavirus relief efforts aren't enough to keep people economically whole during the crisis, pointing out that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and 58% can't weather a $500 unexpected expense. A staggering 1.3 million Michigan workers, or a quarter of the state's workforce, have lost their jobs due to the shutdown, and some still haven't received their unemployment checks yet. "For many people, that's just not going to cut it," he says.

"Many people are now trying to figure out how they're going to afford groceries, health care, bills, insurance, medicine, in addition to paying their rent," Rajput says. "And thankfully, right now, there is an eviction moratorium ... but at the same time, in three or four months when hopefully the coronavirus pandemic has subsided and we get back to our regular society, are people going to have to pay four months of back rent when they had no income the entire time?"

If there's any silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, it has exposed the glaring inadequacies of the U.S. safety net — and united us all. Plus, there are all sorts of hilarious stories of landlords forgetting to BCC email addresses in demands for rent payment, unknowingly handing their tenants a mailing list, a massive strike-organizing tool.

The idea of canceling rent received traction from U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who co-sponsored the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act last month alongside the other progressive Congresswomen in "the Squad," Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal, and Ayanna Pressley. The legislation would fully forgive rent and mortgage payments, ban evictions, and ensure that vacant properties won't get flipped by investors. The legislation would also provide landlord relief, reimbursing property owners for unpaid rent if they follow fair housing criteria.

With rent due today, May 1, it remains to be seen how far the strike will go, but it could prove to be the largest rent strike in nearly a century. In Michigan, about 30% of the state's residents are renters, and about 60% in Detroit.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's eviction moratorium is set to expire on May 15. Joe McGuire, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, told WXYZ he is bracing for a potential "tsunami" of evictions after the moratorium expires.

Rent Strike 2020 follows other massive strikes in recent years, including a United Auto Workers demonstration last year and a teachers strike that started in 2018.

"I think that the reason why you're seeing more and more strikes right now is because people are becoming more and more disenchanted with the status quo," Rajput says. "We're at a breaking point in this country. For so long, the political royalty in this country, the corporate establishment that set the rules, has insisted that there's nothing more that we can hope for in this country, that this is the best it'll ever be. And I think for a long time, they've been able to convince the public that this is just the way it is, and we just have to get used to it, because there's nothing that can really change. But I think more and more people now are saying this is not acceptable. There needs to be something different."

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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