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The rent strike that wasn’t

As eviction moratoriums end, how can tenants in Madison take back power from landlords?

Illustration by Shaysa Sidebottom.

As quarantine began this spring, calls for a national rent strike flooded the online left. Banners declaring strikes waved around Madison, a mutual-aid group collected tens of thousands of signatures for rent cancellation, and major local publications like Wisconsin State Journal took notice, at least in passing. 

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Three months later, the local movement for rent strikes and eviction protection is still fighting an uphill battle. Rumors and social-media posts about Madison-area rent strikes and tenant unions have created some excitement and hope, but have not yet translated to meaningful power or structural change. Most of the organizers are themselves renters worried about what landlords will do to them if they become the public faces of a radical housing movement. There is little evidence that tenants across Madison joined forces to withhold rent or otherwise put pressure on their landlords.

Experts nationally predict a massive increase in evictions once a federal eviction moratorium ends on July 25. At least one Trump Administration official has voiced support for extending the moratorium, but that depends on Congress passing a new COVID relief package. Renters briefly protected by federal and state-level moratoriums who lost jobs or stayed home racked up debt now due in full, and at this crucial moment, the national rent cancellation movement appears stalled.

“We’re seeing more and more people at the extreme low income level who are immediately being displaced, and people in the middle income level rapidly heading towards homelessness in a way we haven’t seen before,” says Robin Sereno, Executive Director of Madison’s Tenant Resource Center. 

The Wisconsin moratorium was only in place from late March to late May, and eviction proceedings it had delayed already began in June over Zoom. Unlike the federal moratorium, the state version protected tenants whose housing wasn’t federally subsidized in some way or in properties with federally backed loans. 

Even during the state moratorium, tenants could be evicted if landlords could secure an affidavit “attesting to the reasonable belief” that not evicting the tenant would create a threat of violence. According to Sereno, due to the racial disparities around perceived violence, almost all of the evictions that took place during the moratorium were people of color. 

“It doesn’t seem that landlords are hesitating to evict people during COVID,” says Dane County Board of Supervisors member Heidi Wegleitner, whose district covers a large portion of the Isthmus. “In fact I’ve witnessed multiple tenants who are waiting for hearings who have tested positive [for COVID] yet they are scheduled for eviction trials.” Wegleitner also sometimes deals with eviction cases in her job as an attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin, but was speaking in her capacity as a Supervisor.

During the Wisconsin moratorium, according to state court records, landlords in Dane County filed 23 evictions against tenants. Since the state moratorium ended in late May nearly 300 evictions have been filed. According to Sereno, that number of evictions is already slightly higher than usual, which is troubling given that these evictions happened under the federal moratorium, which ended on July 25.

Nationally, liberal Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives opposed a national rent cancellation bill, sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Now Elizabeth Warren’s HEROES act, which extends the federal eviction moratorium to non-federally subsidized rentals, is also unlikely to pass as Congress’ already scant political will for COVID-related financial relief evaporates. 

At the state level, Governor Tony Evers ignored a local petition with around 40,000 signatures demanding rent cancellation in favor of two rental-assistance programs—Dane County CARES Eviction Prevention Program and Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program (WRAP)—for tenants who can prove they lost income due to the crisis. The WRAP program places most of the burden on tenants to wrangle documents and handle the application process, and sends back-rent payments directly to landlords.

The Tenant Resource Center helps renters apply for the CARES program, but Sereno says this money is already running out. According to Sereno, the TRC has already received legitimate requests for funding that far exceed the $10,000,000 the organization is trying to distribute.

Activist groups like Rent Strike 2020 and the @rent_strike_madison Instagram page argue that if enough people withhold rent nationally (or, presumably, within a given local area), it will devastate evictions courts and force legislative rent cancellation, ideally upending the balance of power between landlords and tenants.

The account owner of @rent_strike_Madison claimed to be involved in digitally organizing tenant unions and rent strikes, but refused to provide any details on these efforts in fear of retaliation from a landlord.

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Experts in Dane County disagree on the rent-strike strategy’s usefulness in Wisconsin and Dane County.

“I think the [Dane County Small Claims Court] will just increase the pace of evictions,” Sereno says. “Right now courts are hearing four or five households per 30 minutes, and they’re talking about increasing it to seven. There’s not going to be any negotiation or mediation, unless you have an attorney.” 

As evictions are settled in small claims courts, tenants actually don’t have a right to counsel in Wisconsin. Without free legal aid, tenants are at a stark disadvantage in any dispute with landlords.

Much of the calls for the national rent strike in leftist magazines trace back to Rent Strike 2020, along with an organization called 5 Demands. These campaigns did succeed in signal-boosting the eviction crisis. Their national petition to cancel rent and mortgages has 1.8 million signatures.

In Ithaca, New York, the city council voted to give the mayor the power to cancel rents, an act currently awaiting support from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

But Sereno says rent strikes probably wouldn’t work in Madison. 

“In Wisconsin the tenant/landlord laws have been written so that there are almost no protections for tenants,” Sereno says. “That’s different from places like Chicago where rent strikes have had some success.”

During the reporting of this article, I did hear rumors of ongoing rent strikes in buildings in Madison, but no one I talked to was willing to go on the record to give specifics. They felt putting their names in print criticizing their landlords would expose them to retaliation. 

This isn’t an unwarranted fear. Many tenants know how easy it is to violate their lease in the eyes of the landlord. If you do something that pisses off your landlord that’s technically not illegal, like hanging a political sign they don’t agree with, even if you’re up-to-date on rent, your landlord can harass you with little recourse. The Wisconsin Legislature has over the past decade enacted a raft of new laws that eat away at tenants’ rights, bolster landlords’ power, and preempt the authority of local governments to regulate rentals. Several state legislators, including Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, are landlords themselves.  

People shouldn’t live in fear of speaking out about their living conditions and their basic needs. Tenants should feel safe to criticize their landlords, whether on the record with journalists or on social media, without fear of retaliation. From an organizing perspective, the retributive power of landlords creates an absurd situation: people are trying to start movements, but can’t attach a face or a name to their efforts.

The activist energy that spawned around rent striking should be transferred to what can be done to make people’s lives better here and now.  

Some of these changes need to come at the state level. A major legislative change that could help immensely is to demand Wisconsin take evictions filed during the COVID crisis off the public record. 

Another solution could be the tenant unions formed in the wake of the multi-pronged COVID crisis. 

Madison Tenant Power, which began to form in fall, is one such activist group hoping to tip the scales of power back towards tenants. The pandemic has both made the issue more dire and created huge practical barriers for organizing. “If this wasn’t COVID time we’d be knocking doors at apartment complexes, seeing if people are interested in seeing how a tenant union could help them,” says one organizer with the group, who asked for anonymity due to concerns about landlord retaliation. “That work is on hold. You can’t really do that online super effectively. People are tepid about this.”

Instead of asking vulnerable tenants to go on rent strike, MTP is planning to contact tenants facing eviction with information on how to demand a jury trial. Eviction courts are still figuring out how to actually hold jury trials. If tenants create a backlog of jury-trial demands, that buys everyone a whole lot more time to stay in their homes. This also could give tenants more leverage in rent negotiations with landlords, who often depend on a lack of knowledge of tenant rights to make their evictions efficient and quick.

“If a bunch of people request a jury trial it could slow down the courts for months and months while they try to get their shit together and slowly get through these jury trials,” the MTP organizer says.

For another example of potential activism, according to Sereno, an east side property called the Villages—owned by a Salt Lake City company called Sundance Bay, where Mitt Romney’s son, Matthew Romney, is a managing director—is about to non-renew 50 people’s leases, likely so owners can gentrify the property. Madison Tenant Power could demand answers from these landlords, and spread the word on landlord actions that are technically legal but obviously inhumane. 

Madison Tenant Power could also target management companies like Madison Property Management, which has earned a terrible reputation among tenants. According to a TRC study, MPM evicts more people in Madison than any other company. MPM currently has two-and-a-half stars on Google reviews. The reviews tell of basic neglect and squalor. 

Tenants of a downtown MPM property, who asked me to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from MPM, showed me documents indicating that MPM increased water fees during lease renewals at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, when people were losing jobs and income at unprecedented rates. 

People need to come together to demand answers from people like Matthew Romney and Madison Property Management. If tenants can at least start to feel safe in exposing these bad actors, the imbalance of power that puts people on the street in the middle of a pandemic will shift. 

“People are harassed and neglected by landlords every day all over the city in awful ways because people think they have no power,” says the Madison Tenant Power organizer. “There’s power in numbers. There’s power in people speaking in one voice defending themselves. Landlords are not used to that.”

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