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Rent: Why We Say Don’t Pay

As 2020 draws to a close, an open letter to Portland with particular regards to the renters, and the peculiar beauty of the notion of a rent strike during an eviction moratorium.

Dear Portland,

And dear anyone else, particularly in other localities that have passed similar laws to the eviction moratorium that was just renewed by the Multnomah County Board of Supervisors this week — which is now extended until July 2nd.

I want to talk to you about the rent strike, specifically.  What rent strike, you may wonder?  Well, it’s a good question, really.  Because for us here in Portland/Multnomah County, it’s been a very hypothetical rent strike, since around these parts the ban on evictions, evictions filings, and late fees went into effect soon after the first pandemic lockdown took hold.  At the last minute, just before it’s about to expire, as renters across the region are beginning to really panic and become total insomniacs, the moratorium on evictions is renewed — much to the chagrin of the landlord lobby, as represented by their various lobbying groups, such as Multi Family Northwest.

History tells us that we can transform a morbidly unequal society through the means of a broad and well-organized rent strike, first of all.  And my strong sense is that we need to use the momentum provided by both the fissures in society exposed by the pandemic, and by the efforts of governing bodies led by forward-thinking, socially-conscious individuals, such as the Multnomah County Board of Supervisors, not be lulled to sleep by it.

The more that I have been involved with the tenants rights struggle in various forms, the more I have come to realize that as much as the billionaire class and the corporate landlord lobby are a huge enemy to try to take on, our biggest obstacle is within our own American minds.  Or perhaps more our hearts.

By my observation, a whole lot of us have drunk a whole lot of different flavors of Kool-Aid at this point.  This isn’t accidental.  

Inherent in the idea of a democratic society, a society run by democracy, that is, by a representative, or at least theoretically representative government, is that that government can pass laws that a majority of the population might more or less agree on.  These new laws and Constitutional amendments and such can be about lots of different things.  They have in the past involved doing stuff like giving away huge amounts of stolen land, as well as selling huge amounts of land.  Laws have also regulated how this stolen land can be sold or rented.  These laws have been passed nationally and locally, throughout the history of this country.  

Despite these plain facts, there are a whole lot of people around here who believe that the ownership of property is sacred, somehow sacrosanct, inviolate, and cannot be regulated by law, because doing so would be Stalinist or something.  Whether Stalinist, Jeffersonian, or whatever else, the idea that we can’t pass laws to regulate costs of anything, be it property, bread, electricity, or whatever else, is ridiculous.  Of course we can.  And we have, and we do, throughout the history of this country, as well as all over the world — in both democratic and in authoritarian societies.  Wherever there are governments that govern.

If this mental block is overcome, and we can agree that regulation is not inherently fascistic or communistic or some other Unamerican phenomenon that needs to be violently opposed, the next thing is we don’t like regulation because although we are probably being screwed by the capitalist system ourselves at this very moment, we still hope someday to become homeowners and even landlords.  And once that glorious time finally arrives somehow or other, we won’t want to be subject to pesky red tape.

If empathy for society outweighs our desire to become successful capitalists, the next mental road block we encounter is the biggest:

Most of us know someone who is struggling to pay their mortgage.  Many of us know someone who is struggling to pay their mortgage specifically because their tenant has not been paying their full rent, or perhaps any rent.

Being human, and an empathetic sort of human at that, I also empathize with anyone who is struggling, wherever they may fall in this complex web of landlord-tenant relations.  Because owning a duplex and renting half of it, or owning an extra house, are some of the few capitalist endeavors available to many people, this sort of thing is commonplace, and it is easy to sympathize with anyone involved.

For so many of us, however, in the Class C apartment complexes that you will see all around you in every city in the country if you are looking for them, we’re not in this type of situation.  

For us, our landlords are generally large corporations, often some of the largest corporations on Earth, such as Blackrock, which two of the president-elect’s cabinet nominees just got through working for, or here in Portland, the Randall Group, a more regional version of Blackrock.  For us, these investment companies and their management arms have been doubling and tripling and quadrupling the rent over the past twenty years — and especially over the past ten years — to the point where, long before the pandemic, life was financially untenable for so many millions of people, from the west coast to the east.

And to complicate things further, the way these massive companies colluded to lock in high rents in major markets around the country also allowed the small-time landlords to cash in, through the seemingly innocent mechanism of charging something around — maybe even somewhat lower than — the “market rate.”  For a very long time, it was a good time to be a landlord, whether a big one or a small one.  Many people lived entirely off of the earnings of their tenants and called that their job, a form of “self-employment,” rather than a business, and certainly not capitalism, which is unattractive and old-fashioned sounding for the modern member of the petite bourgeoisie, who also doesn’t use that word anymore either.

In any case, even if we can agree that there may be differences between small-time landlords and big landlord corporations, and even if we can agree further that withholding rent from big corporations in order to try to get them to see reason and lower what they’re charging or otherwise negotiate with us tenants is OK, we encounter the next obstacle, which goes something like this:

“But I can afford to pay the rent, unlike some of my friends and neighbors, so maybe I should pay the rent, to make it easier on the landlord corporation to keep paying for their expenses until this is all sorted out.”

To which I would offer this reply:

If your landlord is a corporation, stop humanizing it.  It doesn’t care about anything.  This is about mathematics, and morality, but it’s not about human beings.  If they told you they need your rent in order to pay their low-wage grounds maintenance and repair staff, they’re lying.  They can borrow that money.  They probably already have.  

Do you think the people that run the corporations that are not paying their commercial rents in the malls across the country that are closing during the pandemic are feeling bad about stiffing the banks what they owe them?  No.  This is just how business is done.  Do you think their corporate lawyers are moved by letters from the venture capitalists appealing to them to keep their low-wage mall employees employed, for the sake of society?  Do you think they write such letters to the lawyers?  No, they do that with us tenants because they think we are stupid.

And they think we’ll be scared of the part in their notes after they appeal to us to think of the poor maintenance workers, when they mention eventual eviction.  Of course, the threat of eviction is what allows them to raise the rent as much as they want, whenever they want, and is what causes us to comply, every time, no matter how egregious, or move.

But not now.  And the sooner the landlord corporations face actual financial hardship, the sooner they might negotiate with us.  This is how strikes work, when they work.

Another mental road block:

“But the county supervisors are being so supportive with these eviction bans, so those of us who can afford to pay rent should do it, to show that we’re not taking advantage of the fact that evictions are temporarily banned due to the pandemic.”

First of all, there are many reasons to ban evictions, and there is no reason why landlords should have the option of forced eviction at gunpoint, this is not a God-given right, or even a Constitutional one.  One reason to temporarily ban evictions is for the reasons the CDC did it, because they cause people to spread the pandemic, get sick, and die.  

One more reason to ban evictions, and foreclosures, at a time when one out of three households in the United States are either behind on rent or behind on their mortgages, is to maintain domestic tranquility.  Any sensible politician is afraid of the potential consequences to trying to evict a third of their population at the same time, regardless of how much money they may take from the landlord lobby.  They realize that the ban on evictions, while bad for the capitalists in the short term, is saving them from themselves in the longer term.

Of course still another reason to ban evictions is because you genuinely care about struggling renters and struggling mortgage holders, or because you believe that the housing market as it is is totally insane, and something needed to be done.

If you are acting for such progressive reasons, what you, as a progressive politician, actually need, is backup — not people napping their way through the moratorium, but organizing through it.  It is specifically because so many people are not paying rent — whether because they can’t, because they are prioritizing other expenses, or because they are on rent strike — that the moratoriums keep getting extended.  It is quite likely only by continuing the nonpayment collectively, en masse, that the politicians and landlord corporations will be forced to do things like negotiate, lower rents, cancel rents during the pandemic, accept potential future government bailouts that may involve compromising on profits, or pass effective rent control legislation, like we have had in the past.

We say don’t pay, whether you can pay or not, because that’s how solidarity works.  So join us.  If you are with us — if you believe that the further victimization of the poorest among us by not coming up with a real solution to the housing crisis is unacceptable, withhold your rent money, and put it in savings every month instead.  

This is what the companies are doing that are not paying their commercial rents during this ongoing crisis.  Why should we behave differently?  Are we renters and mortgage-holding families less important than JC Penney or the Cheesecake Factory?  

The strategy — all emotional considerations aside — is very matter-of-fact:  withhold the rent and wait until you can negotiate with the banks or other landlord corporations in court, or wait until the federal or state government funds some kind of bailout.  As the corporate board of the Cheesecake Factory is well aware, if you pay the rent during this period, you won’t get that money back later.  Withhold it, and you very well might.  We residential renters can employ exactly the same strategy.  During a period when there is a ban on evictions, we can do this on the same sorts of terms as the corporations can.  

There are other ways landlords can use the law to get money from tenants who are withholding it, whether these tenants are commercial or residential.  But sending in armed police to throw your shit out onto the sidewalk is not one of the available options.  And for most of us who have been withholding our rent during the moratorium, we will have six months from the time the moratorium ends to pay up, before facing any such eventuality.

To those of you who will not join us, for whatever reasons, as good and justifiable as they may be, remember this fact: 

By paying the rent, the impact you’re having, like it or not, is to undermine the efforts of those who won’t pay, and to undermine the dreams of those who can’t.  By paying the rent even when there are minimal consequences for withholding it, you are hastening the return of normality.  And normality was a crisis, prior to the pandemic.  

Also, by paying the rent, you’re guaranteeing that you won’t be part of any settlement that may arise in the course of 2021, to avert an eviction tsunami and its tremendously destabilizing impact.

Through solidarity, however, we can change the rules, we can lead, and we can make the leaders follow.  History is full of not only failed efforts, but many successful ones — rent strikes and other kinds of strikes — that have changed societies for the better.  Very much including here in the belly of the capitalist beast itself.  Believing this fact is the biggest hurdle of all.

David Rovics, renter

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible.

To The Barricades: The Red House and the Future of Eviction Defense

You can also read this in Counterpunch.

Portland, Oregon has been in the headlines again over the last few days, and this trend will continue.  The reasons for the headlines will vary depending on who you ask.  If you ask the far right they will say something about Antifa terrorists having violent confrontations with the police because they hate law and order.  The mainstream media’s headlines will also tend to lead with the so-called violent clashes, but then they may inform us that the reasons for the confrontation have to do with folks trying to prevent the eviction of a Black and indigenous family that has lived in the Red House at 4406 North Mississippi for multiple generations.

Either way, the stories you’ll hear will focus on violence.  If you look into it a little, you’ll realize that what the stories are really focusing on are destruction of property — particularly the windows of police cars smashed by well-aimed rocks — and the number of times over the past few months of the eviction defense encampment on the front yard of the Red House that the police have been called because of “disturbances.”  81 times, according to police records, the police emphasize in the report they issued after they entered the house and arrested occupants in a pre-dawn raid on December 8th.

I can only imagine what some of those disturbances might have been caused by.  The house is just at the end of the commercial section of Mississippi Avenue, where what remains of one of Portland’s two historically Black neighborhoods stands, with its uncomfortable mix of wine-sipping gentrifiers living alongside a perennially struggling and shrinking Black working class, along with increasing numbers of people living in tents that line the highway which cuts through the neighborhood — the highway that was originally routed through that neighborhood in order to destroy it, as was done to so many other Black neighborhoods across the US when the highways were being built.

Last time I visited the Red House a few weeks ago, I was only hanging around for a matter of minutes before a man I recognized as a fascist drove slowly past, staring at us from behind his bushy beard, a bizarre new fashion among the fash here in the northwest lately, and in other parts of the world as well.  Indeed, if you follow people on Twitter who are involved with the struggle at the Red House, you will see frequent mentionings of the latest spotting of a known fascist, whether Proud Boy or Patriot Prayer, along with the latest prediction of when the riot cops will next come to create chaos.

While the broken squad car windows, the conflicted neighborhood, the poverty, the homelessness, and the frequently-visiting fascist trolls are all very real, there is so much more going on at the Red House at this moment than these alarming reports would seem to imply.  Primarily, what’s going on there is pure beauty, in the form of the most profound expression of human solidarity you’re likely to see anywhere.

Reading the descriptions from the police and in certain corners of the media, one would expect an unwelcome reception, if you were to visit the neighborhood they’re describing.  In fact, as of last night, the police were officially warning people to avoid the neighborhood altogether, implying that it was, in fact, an anarchist jurisdiction, and therefore a terrifying thing.  Mayor-select Tear Gas Ted Wheeler says Portland shall not have an “autonomous zone” like Seattle did for a while.

Mayor Ted really can’t stand it when the rightwingers in Washington, DC and the corporate landlords who own downtown call him a wimp for not cracking enough heads, even though his cops have been cracking more heads over the past few months than possibly any other police force in the United States.  So his instinct, naturally, is to crack some more heads, in the service of his friends, the corporate overlords, the business lobby, the Owners of the City.  (The real “stakeholders,” as the governor likes to call them — not the ones who hold the stakes that they drive into the ground to keep their tents from blowing away.)

I’m reminded, as I hear of these official pronouncements and fear-mongering, of my visit to the biggest city in the West Bank, Nablus, years ago.  An Israeli soldier took me aside, separating me from my Palestinian friends, to privately make sure I was traveling of my own free will, and had not been kidnapped.  Once determining that I was not a captive, the soldier’s next tack was to try to reason with me.  There are very dangerous people in there, he informed me.  They have bombs, he said.  I politely thanked him for the information, not wanting to create problems for anyone, in our collective efforts to cross this checkpoint.  But I wanted to ask him if he had ever tried leaving the machine gun at home and traveling in civilian clothes.  His reception in Palestinian towns would be very different.

As I entered what has arguably now become a sort of gated community in reverse, I was welcomed everywhere I went, whether with words of greeting or just the sorts of eye contact that says more than enough.  Not to extend the previous analogy with Palestine too much here, but the feeling is a bit similar, in the sense that when you’re an American in Nablus, people there tend to assume you probably are the kind of American who does not support Israeli atrocities against Palestinians.  Going anywhere near the Red House as of yesterday, you are suddenly transformed from a “visitor” to a “participant” as soon as you pass through the makeshift gates, into the liberated space that is now the neighborhood surrounding 4406 North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Oregon.  Because you know once you pass these checkpoints and enter the anarchist jurisdiction, you are now as much of a potential target for a police attack as anyone else who is willfully disregarding orders to avoid the neighborhood.

From the time people began to maintain a constant presence in front of the house as part of an effort to prevent the forced eviction of the Kinney family within it, until a few days ago, it was the house and its yard that was being protected.  Then, at 5 am on December 8th — the favorite time of day for these sorts of police attacks — the riot cops moved in, arresting a number of people, including a member of the Kinney family.  Much was made in the police report about multiple firearms being seized in the course of these arrests, of course with no context provided — that armed fascists are regularly coming by to threaten people, and that the police make sure never to be present when that happens.  For example.  Or that the ownership of firearms is very commonplace in this country, especially lately, across the political spectrum, and is about as surprising as finding a baseball bat or a guitar.

The raid on the Red House on the morning of December 8th will, I believe, go down as an historic miscalculation on the part of Ted Wheeler’s corporate-friendly Democratic Party administration — with its recently-approved, massive police budget — that runs this city in the service of the landlord-stakeholders.  What they have done with this raid is they have massively escalated the conflict, and I sincerely hope, and suspect, that they will soon regret this move.  What they have done now, I believe, is they have taken two movements that were already intimately related, and fused them.  If it was not already completely obvious, now it’s impossible not to see it, the police have made sure of this — if you are in favor of Black lives, you are also against evicting families onto the streets.  And the converse is true as well.

Since the police raid, what was limited to one house is now a neighborhood-wide conflict.  The neighborhood is already very gentrified, and the displeasure among some of the yuppies around Mississippi Avenue that black-clad youth had set up checkpoints on multiple intersections was occasionally being made clear, but only through the aggressive use of car horns, never by people actually getting out of their cars to engage with anyone on a human level, whether out of fear or embarrassment on the part of the horn-happy wine bar set.

After the raid, the police employed a fencing company to erect a tall fence to surround the Red House with.  They apparently were operating under the premise that a tall fence would take care of the problem.  In actuality, the fence they erected turned out to be very useful, but not for the reasons the authorities apparently believed it would be.  What transpired in the hours after they erected the fence, as is easy to observe directly, is the fence was dismantled and reengaged, deployed as part of some suddenly very solid barricade constructions at every intersection surrounding the Red House.  The barricades were set up in such a way that people who lived in other houses in the neighborhood could still access their houses, and mostly also their parking spaces, but they now had to take a much more circuitous route to get onto a main road.  Each barricade has a little entryway that a human — but not a vehicle — can pass through, once the nice, thoroughly masked young person in black who greets you ascertains that you’re probably not a cop or a fascist.

During my time hanging around the neighborhood there last night, many people were engaged in many forms of industrious activity.  If you haven’t spent much time among autonomously-organized youth — whether current youth or the same crowd that existed when I was young, in the 1980’s in New York City — you might not realize that when you enter such patches of liberated territory, whether it’s a mostly outdoor phenomenon like this, or a building takeover, you are entering a hive of activity, reminiscent of a beehive, with everyone engaged in doing their thing, whether they are responsible for cooking, collecting trash, building barricades, constructing tire spikes, collecting wood for the campfires, collecting rocks, or whatever other useful endeavors.  Last night was full of that beehive vibe, with most people fulfilling one role or another, whether self-appointed, or appointed through an affinity group or larger network involved with specific aspects of organizing the things that need to happen when large numbers of people are being somewhere for a while.  Folks need to eat, sleep, and shit, while also seeking to defend the Red House.

While many people were engaged in meetings or carrying out various tasks, the scouts looking for the next inevitable visit from the riot cops, and others involved with guarding the perimeter always have time to talk.  Now, nothing that I’m about to say should come as a surprise to anyone who has spent much time on the ground at protests in Portland over the past eight months or so, but the crowd last night consisted of a very interracial, multigendered and otherwise very intersectional group of mostly young people.  Mostly wearing black — which, incidentally, is not just a political statement, if it even is one, but is a matter of practicality for a variety of reasons.

Are there, as I’m sure some readers will be quick to point out, armed sentries?  Yes, there are armed sentries.  Very nice, armed sentries.  The kind we need more of, unfortunately.

And what are people talking about in there among the campfires?  I pass by one meeting, noting that most of the participants are people of color.  I recognize the man who is speaking to the group of a dozen or so people.  He spoke at the last rally I sang at, in fact.  As I walk past the discussion, he’s talking about how to be inclusive of people who want to be involved, while still finding effective ways to exclude truly disruptive elements.  I then came upon another couple of folks, who greeted me for the sole reason that I had stopped walking momentarily while in their general area, and we then spontaneously began having a conversation about the history of eviction defense actions across the US in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression.

Back in the 1930’s, all of us radical history buffs hanging around the Red House collectively noted, when the cops came to evict people, they often succeeded, but only temporarily.  After evicting a household, the people would gather together — often in their thousands — to move the family back in, and un-evict them.  That, we all noted, was exactly what was going on at 4406 North Mississippi Avenue.

I believe this struggle, around this particular house, will be won.  I believe it will also set the stage for the much broader struggle to come, in the months after Oregon’s eviction moratorium expires.  But the future is very much unwritten, and there are many more players involved with this deadly game, aside from the barricade-building youth, unfortunately.

So don’t just scroll on to the next article.  Put your phone down, and come meet me at the Red House.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.