Tenants in some of the nation’s tightest housing markets are taking some big risks in their fight against high rents. They are banding together and withholding their rent checks in an attempt to pressure landlords to negotiate their rates. It’s an uncomfortable situation for both sides as landlords weigh their options and tenants face possible eviction.
Tenants haven’t resorted to rent strikes since the days of tenement buildings decades ago. Back then, they were protesting poor maintenance and crowded conditions, but now, high rents are the issue. They are hoping that by joining together with other tenants and withholding rent checks, that landlords will negotiate a lower price point.
Because most rent increases are legal, tenants can’t cite that as the main reason for non-payment of rent. But they may be within their rights to withhold their rent for long-term maintenance problems. (1)
Los Angeles Rent Strike
That’s what happened at Burlington Avenue Apartments in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. With the help of the LA Tenants Union, tenants held what’s now considered the largest rent strike ever in Los Angeles.
It’s not expensive to join the union, by the way. Employed members pay $5 a month. Unemployed persons pay $1 a month.
According to the union, Burlington tenants were faced with a 30% increase in rents last year, that for many, accounted for 70% of their incomes. The complex is a newer building built in 1980 so it doesn’t fall under the city’s rent control rules.
The strike began in February. Residents upset with the high price of rent withheld their rent and demanded that property owners address deferred maintenance issues. They cited problems such as roaches, rats, bedbugs, mold, plumbing and security problems.
According to a publication called L.A. Taco, the strike ended in September with “mickey mouse” repairs. At least some of the issues were addressed, and a lawyer for the tenants didn’t think they’d have a strong enough case to avoid evictions. Tenants agreed to end the strike, and pay their rent. Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network says the fight is not over, however.
Tenants say the repairs were just quick fixes, and will probably fall apart in about one or two years. Popp has advised them to document any problems with photos and videos that could be used in a class-action lawsuit. She told the Taco, “The tenants have decided not to withhold the rent, but we are still talking about suing.”
As for management, spokesperson Robert Thaler told the Taco, “We are pleased that many of the tenants have decided to pay their September rent. Back rent owed for March through August will be addressed case-by-case with each tenants, but the management company expects tenants will make good-faith efforts to pay what they owe over time.”
Popp apparently feels that tenants won’t have to pay that back rent as long as the owner doesn’t twist their arms with a lawsuit. She says that tenants can use that money to pay whatever rent increases they face in the future. So there appears to be some disagreement as to whether the landlords will get about six months in back rent. (2)
Washington, D.C. Rent Strike
Earlier this year, tenants at the Brightwood Park apartment complex in Washington, D.C. also held a rent strike. They also cited poor living conditions, and said they were tired of what they were getting in return for their rent.
According to the Washington Post, recent rent strikes have also happened in Cleveland, Houston, and San Francisco. Stanford Law Professor Michelle Wilde Anderson told the Washington Post, “Tenants are becoming more willing to organize around the notion that they’re paying too much for too little and they could still lose their homes.” She said, “That creates a kind of fearlessness because you have less to lose.” (3)
High Rents Could Lead to More Tenant Strikes
As rents march higher, the backlash could get worse, so landlords and property managers need to keep tabs on this kind of unrest. It also helps to keep buildings in good shape and promote good relations with tenants. Having satisfied tenants will pay off in the long run because they will not only maintain their rent payments, they will also take better care of your property and likely stay for a longer period of time, which reduces turnover.
Owning single-family homes is also another good way to avoid problems like this. In order for a rent strike to be successful, tenants need to band together, and that’s much less likely to happen with tenants in single-family homes.
(2) LA Taco Article