By David Rovics
This Week With David Rovics
May 3rd, 2020
In the course of the evolving patchwork of rent strikes happening right now across the US, there is suddenly a lot of talk in the press about how much the landlords are hurting. The landlords, of course, own the press, control the federal government, run all fifty states, and have a stranglehold on most of the city councils, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
My landlord, an investment company called the Randall Group that owns hundreds of residential and commercial properties up and down the west coast, reacted to the rise of a pandemic and the lockdown of the country by raising our rent, as they do every year, bringing it now to exactly 150% what it was when we moved in, in 2007. Back when I made much more money, as a touring musician in the era when people still bought CDs, when we moved in here, the rent was $500 a month. Pre-pandemic, with rents everywhere skyrocketing, venues closing due to that, CD sales nonexistent, income about halved, our rent had risen to $1,175 per month. Weeks after the pandemic hit, the automatons at the management company that is a subsidiary of the company that owns the building sent us a rent increase, to $1,250 a month, for the exact same shithole two-bedroom apartment, that didn’t seem at all like a shithole when we moved in, and the rent was affordable. Now the old asbestos hiding behind every wall seems much more toxic than it used to, and the perpetually broken clothes dryer in the laundry room seems a bit more broken than it used to. And the poor workers sickening us and themselves with gas-powered leaf-blowers around the property every week seem even more pitiful, knowing that none of the skyrocking profits made by Randall Group from all their real estate investments is going to those workers, or to us residents.
But then, after who knows how many of Randall Group’s renters stopped paying the rent, along with us – after the state of Oregon surprised all of us tenants rights advocates by passing a very temporary suspension on evictions, and then the city council unanimously voted to strengthen that suspension, for Portland residents under their jurisdiction – then the landlord’s minions at CTL Management, Inc., suddenly expressed sympathy for their renters in a form letter, for the first time ever that I know of. Now that paying the rent is temporarily optional, they suddenly have to justify their existences.
How did they do that, you wonder? Did they talk about their investors, and how much they’ll be hurting without their quarterly returns? Did they talk about the mortgages they owe? No, because they don’t owe mortgages, they’re not that kind of landlord. They buy buildings and charge as much as they can to rent them to people who need housing, that’s how it works. They take advantage of the fact that rents are higher in other cities, and they raise them here, not because they need to, but because they can. Because the purpose of their corporate existence is the profits of their investors – period. How those profits are made is incidental. But they invest in real estate because it’s the most profitable investment you can make. And the main reason it’s so profitable is because the landlords made the laws, and control the police forces.
CTL wrote us a letter to try to appeal to our empathy for the workers that come around now and then with duct tape to fix our broken appliances, the workers who mow the lawn with a gas-powered mower, and use gas-powered leafblowers, because the company that employs them is too cheap to use electric appliances that don’t sicken the workers and the residents. The workers who are obviously being paid low wages, as evidenced by the fact that almost none of them speak English as a first language. Corporations don’t hire poor, uneducated immigrants out of the goodness of their hearts, because they love Mexicans – they do it because people who are not from here, who don’t speak English as a first language, who don’t have a college degree, and who, in many cases, are not here legally, are easier to exploit, to pay badly – and now the company says they care about them, as they hope we care about them, too. Apparently, all these decades of raising the rent and handing millions of dollars of profits to their investors every quarter did not allow them to put away a little money to pay their undocumented workers, and now maybe they’ll have to lay them off, and blame us rent strikers for this.
But there are, of course, other landlords. Let’s be clear – if you live in an apartment building, your landlord is probably a faceless corporation that exists solely for the purpose of profiting off of your need for housing, in order to pay the investors their profits every quarter. But if you rent in a house, your situation may be different. Maybe you have what they call a “mom and pop” landlord. These are the landlords that are getting the most sympathy from the corporate and “public” media.
In the interest of full disclosure, and to make a broader point, let me say here now that I am one of them. In addition to being a renter on rent strike against a disgusting corporate entity on the west coast, I have inherited my mother’s house in rural Connecticut. My sister also owns a house in Boston, which she lives in. Given that she has experience with these things and is better at math than me, she figured out how much we needed to charge to rent the house in Connecticut, in order to cover the costs of maintenance and taxes. So we charge our tenant $700 a month to rent this beautiful, three-story, three-bedroom house in the countryside. Currently, we charge $0 a month.
If the crisis continues for a very long time, such that our tenant can’t start paying rent again, what will happen? There are many possibilities. Perhaps I’ll have to find another way of paying the property tax next year, or perhaps property taxes will be suspended by the town for the year, since this is ostensibly a democracy, and in democracies these things can be done. Perhaps we won’t be able to put away money this year, for the next time the house needs a new roof, and we’ll have to put that off for an extra year. Houses of this type generally need a new roof every 15 years or so, so you have to plan for this, because it’s expensive. (Incidentally, fixing the roof on our apartment in Portland was used as a justification by a particularly stooge-ish property manager we had for a while for that year’s rent increase.)
But what about these poor “mom and pop” landlords who are not renting out a property they happen to own, basically at cost? What about those “mom and pop” landlords who make much or all of their living from renting a house or two that they bought or inherited, to other people?
Let me tell you a little story. Before the pandemic, I spent most of my adult life traveling the world and playing music, for a living. Especially in North America and northern Europe, as it happens. I was visiting my friend Kirsten in Denmark. Her parents had lived well into their nineties, but both of them had recently passed away. Kirsten and I were taking a walk around the public lake near the center of the beautiful town she lives in.
Kirsten is in her sixties, and has spent most of her adult life working as a sort of counselor and as one who teaches other people how to do this kind of thing – a profession they call “pedagogue” in Denmark, but it’s one of many professions that don’t exist as such in the US. And there are a lot of pedagogues in Denmark. Half of the people work for the state, and what they do is they take care of the other half of society, basically, or at least those elements of the other half of society that need help. By US standards, it’s a bit like living in Disneyworld, but without any advertisements, and nothing is made of plastic, and most everyone looks very healthy and fit.
But on this day, Kirsten was having a bit of stress. She doesn’t like dealing with numbers or money, she’s a very down-to-Earth sort who relates much more readily to another person’s emotional state than to something on a screen or in a letter from the tax authorities. I’ll paraphrase the conversation.
Kirsten: “I’m a little stressed, because I really must do something with my parents’ house now, I cannot procrastinate any longer.”
Me: “Are you going to sell it or rent it?”
Kirsten: “I’ve been renting it, for the past year-and-a-half, to a nice family from Afghanistan. But I can only do that for two years, and then I must sell it.”
“What happens if you don’t sell it, but just keep on renting it?” I asked, confused.
“Here in Denmark,” she replied, “if you own two houses, you have to sell one of them within two years, or you pay a tremendous fine. You cannot profit from renting a house you own, the way people do in the United States. You can rent it for two years, under strict conditions set by the state, and then you must sell it. If you can’t find a buyer for what you’re asking during those two years, you must lower your price in order to sell it quickly.”
I had spent time traveling and playing gigs in Denmark often several times a year for many years at that point, but I had never known about how Danish housing laws work. Suddenly, the prosperity of the society, and the egalitarian nature of it, made a lot more sense. It is kept that way, by law. People who want to do what so many “mom and pop” landlords do here – make their own living by virtue of the fact that they inherited a house, or had the money to buy a house or two that they can now rent to someone else – do not have that option in Denmark. They have to work for a living instead, or find another way of getting supported through someone else’s labor, aside from taking advantage of their need for housing, and profiting from it. And then complaining of their victimhood when their tenants are unable or unwilling to play this exploitative game.
Denmark is not a classless society, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to one than anything you’ve ever seen if you have never left the United States. And what we learn when we study the history of land ownership, land reform, rebellions, and rent strikes in the world – as I have been doing for a long time now, like a good anarchist – as with other forms of conflict in society that is basically what you would call class conflict, is it’s never a simple picture.
In the songs and tributes to the fallen martyrs, the picture is usually simple – it was all of us renters against the landed gentry, we were united, they were all scum. And it ended with a massacre, it ended with a bloody revolution, or it ended with a victorious rent strike – with land reform or the dramatic lowering of rents, the institution of effective forms of rent control, etc. There are loads of examples of all three endings to such conflicts, just in the past century, let alone the whole of human history.
If class conflict were simply between the 99% and the 1%, to use the meme popularized by Occupy Wall Street, revolution would be much easier. What makes everything so complicated is not just the fact that the state is controlled by the landlord corporations who then lobby the legislatures, make the laws, and control the police forces who evict people and imprison them when they resist the feudalistic status quo. What makes things complex is the fact that within the ranks of that 99%, there is much division.
For example, the ranks of the 99% in the US consist of millions of people who don’t have anywhere to live; tens of millions of renters who can barely afford to pay their rent, or, currently, who can’t afford to; and a similar number of home-owners, many of whom don’t just live in the homes they own (or that the bank owns), but are also paying off the bank, or surviving themselves, off of the income they make from renting an apartment or a house, or multiple apartments or houses, to other people. Although on paper it looks like the 99% has more in common with other members of the 99%, than with the 1%, who actually own more than the 99% do, in reality, this isn’t necessarily the case.
Although if you own a large apartment complex you’re actually quite likely to be well within the ranks of the 1%, financially, if you own two houses and rent one of them to tenants, you’re probably still a member of the 99%, even if you’ve managed to set things up in such a way that the only thing you normally have to do for a living is be a landlord, and to hire people who will keep your rental properties in adequate condition. And if you’re in that situation now and your tenant isn’t paying rent, because they can’t or because they’re on rent strike for other reasons, you are surely having a hard time. And if you are now still trying to collect rent for the month of May, 2020, then you probably identify more with the investment companies who are complaining about the rent strikes than you do with those of us who are engaging in the rent strikes.
This is the conflict – the conflict among the different elements of the 99% – that tends to cause social movements to collapse, or to turn into civil wars of one kind or another. In Chinese history they refer to it as the conflict between “poor peasants” and “rich peasants.” In the US, India, and many other countries with kleptocratic governments, tragically useless laws, and terribly unequal distribution of land and other resources, the things that are allowed to happen in the absence of the kind of good governance you see in places like Denmark, create a patchwork of subdivisions — not only in terms of farms literally subdivided until they’re completely useless, but by acting as legal mechanisms to create increasing levels of and increasing forms of profound inequality, within the ranks of the 99%.
We have not only landlords like the big investment companies that farm people like me for the profits of their investors, but we have small landlords who charge as much rent as they do because their mortgages are as high as they are. And then among their tenants, there are those who are subletting their apartments at a profit to yet another renter. There are, in effect, these many levels of what we might call rich peasants and poor peasants – some who feel they have enough vested in the capitalist system, as it is, to defend it vehemently, and others who have been so thoroughly betrayed by the workings of the free market that they are ready to rebel against it, by any means necessary. All easily within the ranks of the 99%.
Whether the rent strikes succeed or not will depend not only on how far the actual ruling class is willing to go to defend their wealth. It will depend on the solidarity of the rest of us, with each other – with our fellow renters and our fellow mortgage-holders, along with those lucky enough not to have a mortgage to pay off anymore.
But the success of this movement will, in my view, also depend on another thing: on the widespread understanding that buying a house in order to rent it to someone else and make a living off of that is a fundamentally parasitic occupation, and should be illegal, as it is in more civilized countries than the US or India, such as Denmark.
All of these “mom and pop” landlords – the ones who make a living at it – should be recognized as what they are: parasites. Rich peasants. I have advice for them: sell. Now. Then find a way to survive that doesn’t involve profiting off of our need to house ourselves. If you were so dependent on the income from your rental property that you don’t know what to do without it, what made you think that that was remotely OK as a way to make a living in the first place? Did you think it would all just go fine, and your renters would be happy with whatever you charged, and keep paying their rent on time, and everyone would live happily ever after? Were you expecting to have to evict people, and make use of the armed enforcers of property laws? Or did it take a while to recover from the shock of doing that, the first time you did it? Did it get easier the second time? The rich peasant baby landlords can ask themselves these questions, when they’re living on the streets with the rest of us, after their feudalistic ponzi scheme of real estate investing collapses, as it is now doing.
The way forward is about solidarity, but achieving solidarity will require moving beyond the false consciousness that says it is OK to run a society like this. That housing is a privilege, whose cost is to be determined by profit-minded individuals and corporations, protected by the state’s armed enforcers. We must collectively come to realize that housing is actually a right, that we must demand, as a society. And that a rent strike is an activity to engage in not only if you can’t afford to pay the rent, but if you believe that it is wrong to pay the rent, when so many others are unable to. That an injury to one is an injury to all. That the parasites in this society are not the unemployed, the homeless, the recipients of meager government aid programs, the housing insecure, the couchsurfers, the car-dwellers.
The parasites are those who own multiple properties, and profit off of renting them to people who need housing. This is a parasitic activity, whether hiding behind the fig leaf called “mom and pop,” or whether “mom and pop” has successfully managed to turn their little operation into a bigger one. The rich peasants want to be capitalists, as a rule. This is what needs to change – their minds, and the minds of those who think that what they are doing is OK, who would be doing the same thing if they had the chance. A new world is possible, and a new Portland is possible, but not until we can envision what that might look like — and not until we really know what it doesn’t look like.
David Rovics has been called the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. Since the mid-90’s, Rovics has spent most of his time on the road, playing hundreds of shows every year throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Japan. He has shared the stage regularly with leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, musicians and celebrities. In recent years he’s added children’s music and essay-writing to his repertoire. More importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, and he will make the revolution irresistible. Check out his pamphlet: Sing for Your Supper: A DIY Guide to Playing Music, Writing Songs, and Booking Your Own Gigs