The Power of a Rent Strike

The Power of a Rent Strike

Tenants and supporters rallying outside of 80 New York Avenue, Brooklyn this February (Charlie Cauman-White)

We don’t have proof that our landlords sent men disguised as ICE agents to oust previous tenants—recent immigrants—from their apartment before we moved in, but we’re pretty sure it happened. What we do know is that they cut off heat to our neighbors for two consecutive winters, attempting to freeze them out of their rent-stabilized apartments, in some cases, the places they had lived since childhood. We also know that going on a rent strike—and suing them in the New York State Supreme Court, and protesting outside their Williamsburg offices, and picketing various city agencies—helped get the heat turned back on.

As in so many rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, our landlords in Crown Heights were eager to make room for us when we moved there in 2015: white twenty-something transplants with steady incomes. They also wanted to kick out long-term, mostly African American residents by any means necessary—their tactics ranged from garden-variety neglect to illegal abuse. After a shoddy gut renovation of our apartment that turned three bedrooms into five, they quadrupled the rent before we moved in. And we were the lucky ones; our less fortunate neighbors in newly renovated units were stuck in illegal, overpriced “single room occupancy” set-ups, living with complete strangers and without locks on their doors.

What our landlords didn’t realize is that screwing all of us over bred solidarity. Gentrification is a little like climate change: it’s a massive and existential problem, the scope and pace of which seems almost unfathomable. And in the case of both, a little collective action can go a long way.

Kate Aronoff is on the editorial board of Dissent.