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Rent Strike Nation

Interest in tenant activism has surged in the face of the coronavirus. Organizers are trying to seize the moment and build a movement.

THE NEW REPUBLIC - Last week, the head of the St. Louis Federal Reserve, James Bullard, predicted that in the second quarter of 2020, the U.S. economy could see a 30 percent unemployment rate and a 50 percent drop in gross domestic product. Both of these numbers far surpass their respective equivalencies during the Great Depression, with the slash in GDP dwarfing the downturn of the 2008 crash by factors of 10. “This is a planned, organized partial shutdown of the U.S. economy in the second quarter,” Bullard said during the press call, voice quiet and flat. “It is a huge shock, and we are trying to cope with it and keep it under control.”

As most workers in this country live paycheck to paycheck—some surveys place that number at half of the workforce, others reach closer to 80 percent—Bullard’s predictions point to an economic disaster that will likely hit people hardest in the area that consumes the majority of their paychecks: housing. Millions of new unemployment filings have surfaced in the last week, with several states’ unemployment and Medicare websites crashing due to the rise in applicants. Even with some supports from the stimulus bill, renters are still scrambling to come up with rent money on April 1. A $1,200 government check doesn’t mean much when it barely covers a month’s rent in many cities.

Across the country, rents have soared as real wages remain stagnant. Nearly half of New York City households are considered rent-burdened, which means they pay more than 30 percent of their income just to keep a roof over their heads. In Oakland, California, where rents have skyrocketed in recent years, a group of lifelong residents moved into a long-vacant house in protest of the lack of affordable housing. In the wake of the pandemic in Los Angeles, where minimum-wage workers need to pull nearly 80-hour shifts just to reach the “rent-burdened” threshold, unhoused families reclaimed 13 vacant homes, both as protest and a means of survival. As The New Republic reported last summer, even in America’s most affluent cities, low-income families fall through the cracks in a system so broken that it fails to even document the rapid spread of housing insecurity.

In response to a crisis further inflamed by the coronavirus, existing housing rights organizations have been struggling to meet new calls for organizing and resources, many of which have coalesced around a radical demand: A nationwide rent strike.

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