Five rent strikes which changed the game

Dominique Hua examines the history of tenants organising together to demand better housing and a brighter future.

January 30, 2018
7 min read

Rent strikes are stories of extraordinary collective resistance, of radical community organising, glimmers of hope in the dark sordid history of capitalism and the exploitation of the working class. Rent strikes are a realisation of collective power and a reminder that the force of change lies in the hands of the people. Sometimes used to support a general strike and other wider struggles, rent strikes have been instrumental in changing legislation around housing and tenants’ rights. Here are six rent strikes through the ages which changed history.

Glasgow 1915

During World War I, women in Glasgow were threatened with rent increases while the men were away at war and thousands of workers flocked to Glasgow to work in shipyards and factories. Already organising to fight terrible living conditions, the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, led by Mary Barbour, Mary Laird and Helen Crawfurd set up tenant committees, rent strikes starting in May 1915, mass demonstrations in support of those facing legal action and eviction resistance. The eviction resistance was a militant one, often confronting the sheriff’s men and factors by pelting them with flour and rubbish. By November 1915, 20,000 people were on rent strike, with the trade unions, in disregard of wartime regulations, threatening a strike in the factories should the police attempt mass repression. The rent strike also spread to other communities and eventually all legal actions against the strikers were dropped and a Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Bill was introduced in the British Parliament, the first time the government had intervened in rent controls in the private sector.

Barcelona 1930

After the collapse of the military dictatorship under Diego Primo de Rivera in Spain, revolutionary anarchist unions such as the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (National Confederation of labour – CNT) were allowed to organise again. Increasingly, the issue turned to that of the housing crisis and an ‘Economic Defense Commission’ was set up. At a massive CNT rally held on May Day, the EDC  presented its demands of a 40% reduction in rents, later expanding it to demand that those who are unemployed should not have to pay rent and that if landlords refused to accept their demands, the tenants would go on rent strike. When this demand was unsurprisingly rejected by landlords, an estimated 45,000 people withheld rent payments in July, reaching 100,000 by August. In spite of heavy police repression, the outlawing of rent strikes and the numerous arrests of activists and tenants, the rent strike persisted, landlords were often forced to reach negotiations with the strikers and families continued to return to homes from which they had been evicted. Though it won few concrete concessions, the movement represented a radicalising moment for many members of the community, and would set the stage for the revolution and civil war to come in 1936.

University of Sussex 1970s

A Tenants’ Association was set up in the autumn term of 1971 at the University of Sussex to address problems such as the poor conditions in university accommodation and in protest of management’s plan to build a new, equally inadequate building. The University of Sussex Tenants’ Association (USTA) demanded student representation for decisions regarding future accommodation and that no contract for borrowing money for development was to be signed until the USTA could submit an alternative proposal, launching a rent strike to pressure the university into agreeing to their demands. 77% of students on campus withheld their rent that term, and as the movement spread, so did the demands of strikers widen as the student union argued that the housing problem was “inextricably linked to the general housing problem of the country”, called for workers’ control of the building industry and the “takeover of all empty property, including office blocks and luxury apartments”. Despite threats from management, the withheld a total of £35,000 for fifteen weeks, agreeing to call off the strike when the university agreed that the new accommodation would not be built and that the proposed 6.5% rent increase was knocked down to 3.5%. The culture of organisation and the tradition of rent strikes continued for years, with rent strikes happening at 44 campuses across the country in protest of a fall in real terms of grant payments in 1972.

Cut the Rent 2015–present

In protest against extortionate rents and poor living conditions, students at University College London (UCL) accommodation set up the Cut the Rent campaign, and around 150 students at the university went on rent strike in the second term of 2015. Through door knocking and regular meetings, the strike soon spread to other halls at the university and by the end of April 2016, an estimated 1,000 students in UCL Accommodation were on rent strike. These strikes were bolstered by demonstrations in and around campus, which soon caught the attention of national press. Students entered into negotiations with UCL Accommodation in June 2016, eventually winning £850,000 to use as an accommodation bursary for the next two years. Students at UCL went on rent strike again the year afterwards, increasing the win to £1.2 million and securing a rent cut for the academic year 2018/2019. The Cut the Rent movement has since spread to campuses across the country, including the successful rent strikes at Goldsmiths and University of Sussex.

Parkdale 2017

Parkdale is a predominantly working class and immigrant neighbourhood in Toronto with a high density of renters. Set up in 2014, Parkdale Organize, a group formed by renters living in the neighbourhood, had already successful in a number of disputes against the landlord Akelius, including fighting the displacement of tenants, creating public spaces for children and supporting a local strike against a local employer. In February 2017, the renters in MetCap buildings in the neighbourhood began mobilising for a rent strike in response to landlord’s proposed rent increase and failure to carry out repairs. They organised a large demonstration on 30 April to announce the rent strike happening the next day, in which two hundred tenants in six buildings went on rent strike. This then spread to six more buildings and by June, 300 tenants had joined the movement. They proceeded to shut down the Tribunal and stopped the approval of the landlord’s rent increase application. The strike forced the landlord into negotiation with the organisation, and they ended up not only addressing the maintenance issues but also substantially reducing the rent increases at the buildings, the win being so successful that the group cannot reveal the official figures of the rent.

The Parkdale rent strike—the first to occur on such a scale in private housing in recent years—and its subsequent resounding success is a heartening story of community organising in a time where it seems that the forces of late capitalism may have fully atomised us. Rent has become such a paralyzing part of our lives that it often seems like a phenomena that is entirely impervious to change. Each payment date is a source of individual anxiety and stress.

The rent strike tactic is making a comeback with contemporary movements taking their queue from previous movements in South Africa, Chicago, and Liverpool to name a few. They are a reminder not just that rent strikes and direct action work, but also that they collectivise our hopes for a more collective way of living and a different, better future.

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