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We need a rent strike to bring transformative change

I ran for Olympia City Council in 2017 and was elected that November to a 7-member team charged with leading Washington’s fastest-growing city amidst rising sea levels, rising housing costs, rising homelessness, rising inequality—and rising local and national movements for people and planet over profit.

I came on board with a background in peer counseling and street outreach through several nonprofit programs and community projects, and as a founding member of Just Housing, a local grassroots advocacy organization. As a case manager and a renter myself, I knew rising housing costs were putting more of our people on the streets and keeping them there like a one-way trapdoor into a parallel outside world.

Once elected, I jumped in to lift up community solutions that recognized everyone’s humanity and treated homelessness as a public health and human rights emergency that impacts everyone, whether we run a storefront business or sleep in front of one.

We’ve made progress locally but remain fundamentally stymied by the larger ocean of our national wealth divide.

Now COVID-19 and the looming economic recession threaten to undo our progress and set us back further if we don’t act on lessons learned. I’m speaking out on the precipice of what, without intervention, could become one of the largest mass evictions and ballooning of household debt for families in recent history.

We’re living in unprecedented times with this global pandemic and impending market and political destabilization not seen in generations, yet with the all too familiar pattern of massive wealth transfer from regular people to the very upper echelons. Again.

So much is unknown right now. But I do know this: Prior to this pandemic, our community was already drowning in the unmet needs of our people from all walks of life. Needs not met by disintegrating systems, unsustainable economic structures, tattered social fabric and an untenable “normal.”

Locally and globally, we’ve all been doing our best to survive in a house of cards. The arrival of COVID was an inevitable strong gust of wind in a storm that started a long time ago. We cannot abide even one more eviction or foreclosure over missing payments during this emergency, in our community or anywhere else.

We are seeing a rise in domestic violence, self-harm, drug and alcohol misuse, diseases of despair. We cannot allow families to come through this pandemic only to be carrying more debt on the other side. Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium, ban on rent increases and late fees, and requirement of a “reasonable” repayment plan (individualized but undefined) is important, and I am grateful. But we must go further.

If we organize, transformative policies like a national safe homes guarantee, worker protections, Medicare for All and a Green New Deal start to become real. Rent and mortgage cancellation is the next step on the path to get us there. Rent and mortgage collection must be suspended at the national level immediately, with no accumulation of debt.

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Emergency Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020 (H.R. 6515) does all this and creates a landlord fund for lost rental income. H.R. 6515 would provide immediate direct relief to people, lay a foundation for a just COVID recovery, and set our course toward a holistic sustainable economy for people and planet.

Following the direction of the national Homes Guarantee coalition and our local Washington Community Action Network organizer in Olympia, I will be contacting my representatives in support of H.R. 6515 and urge you to do the same. More coalitions are listed later in this letter.

Transformative change is the kind that builds a stronger house, where all people belong, no matter what we look like, where we’re from, or what’s in our wallet. By its nature, transformative change rubs against entrenched interests—relatively well-positioned individuals and industries out for themselves in a narrow and fragmented sense, whose M.O. is to distract and divide people to keep us infighting.

Gov. Inslee declared his statewide eviction moratorium in order to “help reduce economic hardship” for those “unable to pay rent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The COVID storm has dramatically spiked our awareness of collective vulnerability. While I will always work and hope for the best, we must prepare for a deep economic recession and market destabilization, all while knowing that billionaires, big banks and other pandemic profiteers are poised to improve their relative position.

Those of us who aren’t profiting off this crisis are going to need all the resources we can save in order to take care of ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.

These entrenched interests have the ear of Congress and the White House, so while advocating to our elected reps is a critical tactic, emails and phone calls only take us so far. As an activist, elected official and student of history, I know transformative change happens only when advocacy campaigns are complemented by organized direct action to shake up the status quo. Sit-ins, walk-outs, strikes and boycotts: all are forms of using our bodies and economic resources to interrupt and confront entrenched interests.

In an imbalanced system, it’s the only true match against the power of institutional inertia. It’s impossible to imagine the legendary transformative movements in this country without civil disobedience. Abolition, Civil Rights, the United Farmworkers, the Poor People’s Campaign, the local Fish Wars of the 1960s-70s, Indigenous Water Protectors from Standing Rock to Salish Sea, and the Youth Climate Movement of today.

Throughout history, we can see how direct action helps a great ship chart a new course. That is why I’ve made the very personal decision to join the 2020 Rent and Mortgage Strike. It’s often called “Rent Strike” for short, but impacted homeowners are involved as well. Some landlords in Olympia and elsewhere have preemptively suspended rent collection or worked out arrangements with their tenants. #RentStrike2020 turns an act of individual economic necessity into an opportunity for collective influence as we unite our stories in common cause to #CancelRent and #CancelMortgages.

In joining the strike I’m throwing my weight in with my fellow renters to help balance the scale. No one should feel ashamed, embarrassed or afraid for missing a rent or mortgage payment—ever—and especially not now. Together we will be keenly interested in what a “reasonable” repayment plan looks like in a state with 12 resident billionaires, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—already $24 billion wealthier from this pandemic.

Finally, as a matter of strategy, our housing payments are one of the few direct bargaining chips the majority of regular people have, especially now when more conventional forms of direct action and public demonstration are ill-advised or illegal, due to the pandemic and Stay at Home orders.

The system’s flaws have never been more glaring, and we can no longer accept them. There is simply no room in the world we’re building together. We owe it to future generations to rewrite the rules, working together through direct action and organized advocacy, so we come out of this COVID-19 trauma as people and communities changed for the better. .

What you can do: #CancelRent! Sign on in support of HR 6515 in Congress. Follow and connect with organizations and campaigns working together on a transformative sustainable and #JustRecovery from COVID-19! (Some campaigns are Homes Guarantee, Beyond Recovery, Rising Majority, Homes for All, and the People’s Bailout.)

If you are a landlord: Voluntarily and proactively suspend rent collection, forgive tenant rent debt, and encourage other landlords to do the same, in order to level the playing field. Open your books so current/prospective tenants and community stakeholders can understand your business model and investment strategy, if applicable.

If you are a policymaker: Do everything in your power to ensure immediate suspension of rent/mortgage debt collection. Support social housing development, universal healthcare, worker protections and a just climate transition bill such as the Green New Deal. Use your platform to boost campaigns and social movements, and tap your networks for creative strategies.

If you work in law enforcement or the courts system: Contact the elected Sheriff and encourage their office to refuse to enforce evictions for nonpayment during the course of this emergency.

If you rent or have a home mortgage: Learn about the rent and mortgage strike and find out how to support those who are participating. Engage your friends, family and neighbors in conversation about the strike and about rent and mortgage cancellation. For example, “Even though I’m not participating I respect people willing to take a personal risk to push for improvements for everyone.” The things we talk about, and the ways we talk about them, matter!

Take care of yourself, wash your hands, wear a mask, join or create local mutual aid networks, and thank all the essential workers in your life today and every day. “We want a world where many worlds fit.” —Subcomandante Marcos, Zapatista.

This is an abridged version of an open letter that Renata Rollins sent to the community on May 1, 2020. As well as a writer and in-home caregiver, Rollins is a first-term Olympia Council member serving on Squaxin Island ancestral lands (Steh-Chass), neighbor to Nisqually tribal territory.

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