Portland community members prepare for rent strike due to lack of support during COVID-19 crisis

By CORY ELIA

The closure of a vast majority of business establishments and subsequent layoffs of employees has resulted in thousands of Portland renters asking themselves something important during the COVID-19-induced economic recession:

How will I pay my rent?

This question and concerns regarding it have been asked of City officials like Portland mayor Ted Wheeler since the crisis began.

It even resulted in one activist taking control of a podium and voicing concerns during a press briefing by the mayor. In their message, they called for a rent freeze, as have many renters here in Portland.

The Oregonian reports: “Multnomah County, Portland suspend evictions during coronavirus outbreak”

Lat week, the City of Portland announced that it’s allowing tenants impacted by COVID-19 to delay paying rent during the state of emergency declared Thursday morning, March 12th. The order gives renters six months to pay their back rent after the state of emergency has ended.

An eviction moratorium was also declared. Gov. Kate Brown made the no-eviction order statewide late last week, but advocates have said that’s still not enough.

Oregon Renters Rights shows renters how to delay paying their rent.

***

A petition has been formed appealing to Wheeler and Brown to offer some form of financial support or a suspension of rent for the thousands of workers impacted financially by the shutdown of businesses.

The response to this came from Wheeler and was that the City of Portland has no legal standing to implement such a rent freeze / suspension of rent.

Photo by Keller Laura

This resulted in a Facebook group being formed called PDX Rent Strike 2020 (with 326 members) and a community page called PDX Rent Strike (with 1,328 members). On the page it is stated the purpose of the page is to facilitate “a group to coordinate actions in regard to the upcoming rent strike”.

The group’s new website PDX Rent Strike is here.

Photos by Elliot Young

The rent strike is planned for the month of April 2020. Even though there won’t be a physical gathering, an event page has been created.

Organizers for the groups spoke about the movement on KBOO’s Wednesday Talk Radio Program for those more interested.

One of the main organizers for the group and event is Randall Gravess, who stated that the movement has already drawn national attention and other cities may follow Portland in the rent strike. “At the end of the day we are looking at a massive economic crisis, and once again our government has chosen to save billionaires”, Gravess said. “I wanna clarify— we are demanding a rent suspension not a rent freeze”.

Gravess states that the group demands are directly tied into saving as many lives as possible during the pandemic.

The group demands are: free healthcare, no work, no rent, release of prisoners, and housing of the homeless. “Our intention is to come together as a community and make it clear we will not pay for this crisis. The rent strike is a tool to protect the millions of suddenly unemployed Americans who individually would be evicted for not paying but who can stand together to present a united front.”


The toolkit shared by the organizers, including a sample letter to landlords and how to organize your neighbors.

As an urban studies and an renter organizer, Olive jumped into this rent strike movement because she wanted to make sure renters were informed and being taken care of. She said she only speaks for herself, not the group or organizers.

(Olive didn’t want to include her last name for fear of future retaliation from landlords and for work purposes.)

“People can’t make this month’s rent,” she said, and the ones that can are terrified to use their last bits of cash when they have no stable income.

There’s going to be bailouts for the banks, airlines, cruise lines, and many other industries— and she said she thinks there should be one for renters and for home owners holding a mortgage.

“We don’t want anyone left behind, but that doesn’t mean we don’t understand the larger social dynamics,“ she said for her support of small property owners who may not be paid rent in April.

She made it clear that she doesn’t want to see a repeat of the 2008 crisis, where banks got bigger and many in the middle class lost their homes and businesses.

There are resources for renters, Olive said, at the group page and rent strike toolkit above, adding that the property lawyers she has talked with don’t really recommend a rent strike because it’s risky to the individual renter. She said she couldn’t give legal advice, but the rent-delay order requires renters to reach out to their landlords. There is a sample letter on the Rent Strike site.

“People who are calling for a rent strike— they have no other choice,” she said. Even if folks don’t have to pay rent during the crisis, they still won’t be able to pay all the back rent built up when it’s over— and Olive said she doesn’t think they should have to pay it back.

***

There have been a few different movements formed in support of community and the homeless. One movement that has been seen in Los Angeles, California is housing homeless individuals in abandoned or foreclosed homes.

Though squatting to house folks during the outbreak have been proposed and discussed by some rent strike advocates, nothing of significant size like the movement in Los Angeles has happened here yet. However, there are homeless individuals attempting this on their own.

A Portland Metro local homeless man reached out to Village Portland recently and explained that he was cited for trespassing— by officers in full gear with rifles— while trying to squat in a house for shelter during the outbreak.

He stated “I’m as scared as anyone else and was looking for a safe place to stay”. 

Some people making calls for more squatting, Olive said, but it’s more difficult in Portland because there aren’t blocks of empty houses like in places like Detroit, Michigan

Olive pointed out that the squatters in Los Angeles (part of Moms 4 Housing, started in Oakland, California) are providing shelter, fixing up the houses, building community with pre-existing neighbors, and even planting gardens.

Squatting can be a win-win for communities, she said: “Would anybody really be upset if they refurbished it [a house] and added value?”

***

City officials are working to find ways to provide enough room to shelter Portland’s homeless. Oregon Convention Center was opened along with the Charles Jordan Community Center. The Jupiter Hotel also announced they would help to add 81 more beds for the homeless during the crisis. 

This movement has already drawn the attention of more frustrated citizens and resulting in community members posting pictures of graffiti dedicated towards the movement around Portland.

Gravess foresees that “America is likely to be the only country where Coronavirus leaves more people bankrupt and homeless than it kills”.

For those hoping to get involved or find more information, Gravess suggests that folks should check out the Facebook community page where a number of graphics and toolkits are provided.

“If people want to get involved, we ask that they begin organizing using the toolkits provided and contacting their neighbors. The more decentralized the process is the more likely we are to succeed.”

Cory Elia is a journalist, photographer, videographer, documentary director & producer, radio personality & podcaster. His journalistic focus is on politics, protest, and poverty. 

Contact Cory:

Facebook: Cory Elia 
Twitter: @therealcoryelia

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