Time for a rent strike?

A big ol' pole by the Midtown Greenway has DEMANDS.

A big ol' pole by the Midtown Greenway has DEMANDS. Emily Cassel

It’s May 1. The rent is due. And if you’re not able to pay yours right now, you are very much not alone.

A week into April, roughly 13 percent of Minnesota’s renters couldn't pay rent. And though that’s lower than the national number, which estimates around a third of people were in that position, unemployment has shot up in the state since then; about 560,000 residents statewide have filed for benefits to date.

“And even locally, there’s all sorts of reports of people not receiving their increased unemployment benefits from the state,” says Chris Gray, who’s helping to organize Minnesota Rent Strike. “All that points to: There will be a mass non-payment on May 1. People are really worried.”

Minnesota Rent Strike is one of several local groups calling for a moratorium on rent payment as they work to organize renters. There’s also Rent Strike 2020, which emerged from a national petition to cancel rent. And Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice) has organized a socially distant car rally/caravan protest from U.S. Bank Stadium to Gov. Tim Walz’s St. Paul mansion this afternoon.

“Every apartment building, statistically speaking, will have a few people who can’t pay right now,” Gray says. “The key will be: Can they get organized together, start to organize on a building by building basis? Link with others in the city and really start moving to address these issues?”

One such renter, Tuli Troiani, has been organizing folks living in buildings owned by Mint Properties LLC, which owns and operates apartments throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“I was seeing a lot of people organizing around rent strikes and seeing a lot of people around me having their income seriously affected, having trouble with paying rent,” Troiani says. So they wrote a letter, posted it on their neighbors’ doors, and started organizing from there. The goal right now is to get Mint to instate a rent freeze for all of their tenants—and that includes no debt or backpay. Mint lists all of their 70-plus properties throughout the city online, so Troiani was able to connect with tenants in all of those buildings, or chalk the walks in front with #RentStrike to get people on board.

“A rent freeze is great, but if all that rent is just accruing and people owe thousands of dollars after this crisis is over, there’s no real way to pay that back,” Troiani says. “It basically just delays everyone’s worries with evictions until later, after the crisis. All those evictions just get pushed back a few months.”

Local officials have called for rent cancellation, but there’s been no action from the state yet, and Walz has in fact asked residents to cool it with their calls for a statewide rent strike.

And while Walz did sign a March 23 moratorium on evictions, organizers say that’s not enough. For one: “With no comprehensive, long-term policy beyond the ban on evictions, all indications are that there will be evictions coming,” Gray says. Especially as Trump tries to reopen the economy, “I think there will be evictions.”

Gray bases his prediction on the track record of local property management companies and their opposition to protections for renters with criminal records, policies that would protect against discrimination, and any kind of rent control. “These are tremendously powerful organizations. They have huge lobbying groups at the state level, who have resisted all sorts of progressive policies for renters.”

“The key to counteracting that will be the extent to which renters are able to get together and fight for their own interests,” Gray says.

But connecting people during the time of COVID-19 is a tricky thing. There are people leafleting and door-knocking their buildings, wearing protective equipment. And then there’s the world of internet organizing. In the Minnesota Rent Strike Facebook group, members can take an (admittedly unscientific) poll that puts them in touch with committees and communities that can help.

“There’s a real chance that there are multiple people in your building trying to do the same thing, and we just need to get connected.”

Troiani and other Mint renters have written a letter to the property management company, essentially saying that while they’re not going on strike yet, they’re prepared to do so if their demands go unmet. “Our main goal right now is getting signatures on that letter.”

Different groups of tenants are at different stages right now. “For Mint renters… that letter we drafted and are getting signatures on is our first official contact with Mint as an organized group. Our approaching them is kind of the first step.”

Even in “normal” times, a rent strike is a hard thing to organize.

“It’s not a question of willingness, it’s a question of confidence -- do people feel like they can do this?” Gray asks.

Troiani thinks people get hung up on fear others won’t join in, or they don’t know where to start. “It’s a scary time, and people may be unsure of how to get organized, but it really is as simple as introducing yourself to your neighbors, seeing where they’re at, and talking about what’s best for your building and how to go about it,” says Troiani. It’s not something that’s feasible by yourself. But once you get a few people on your side—even just one or two neighbors— that’s a start.

“Striking is kind of the strongest tool in our toolbox right now. The most leverage we have is withholding our rent,” Troiani says. “But hopefully it doesn’t need to come to that.”

“A mass refusal to move—the idea that if one person gets evicted from their building, they’re willing to respond collectively to defend their neighbor—it’s a very powerful tool in a city like Minneapolis where most people are renters.”