Walking and Running in Housing Activism

In the Bakuninist programme a general strike is the lever employed by which the social revolution is started. One fine morning all the workers in all the industries of a country, or even of the whole world, stop work, thus forcing the propertied classes either humbly to submit within four weeks at the most, or to attack the workers, who would then have the right to defend themselves and use this opportunity to pull down the entire old society. ENGELS

The response to the Coronavirus in New Zealand has made both the systemic inequalities in our society, and how far the furthest Left government we’ve had in at least forty years will go to address them, a lot more transparent. In particular, the disparity in privileges and care given to landlords and tenants has been highlighted. A common judgment that went around social media was that rental property is the only form of investment that’s seemingly protected from making a loss. 

The Labour Government’s economic response in a broad sense was to ensure the capitalist market economy with private ownership dominating kept functioning. Businesses got bailouts and wage subsidies to ensure that the business world kept functioning as normally as it could, beneficiaries got a slight, temporary increase (which was totally inefficient) and homeowners got a mortgage holiday. Tenants, on the other hand, got very little. Evictions and rent increases are largely banned during the pandemic, but this is a small band-aid over the genuine problem – lots of working-class tenants will struggle to pay rent due to loss of income. The Government’s failure to address this can be pinpointed to a specific weakness: modern political parties (even the Greens) refuse to tame the market and force it below state control. A rent holiday would have meant telling landlords, “at least temporarily, you can’t make a profit”. All the politicians baulked at this.

This inadequacy of the Government response was clear to most renters. The Aotearoa Community Union shifted its work programme almost entirely away from mould removal etc to ensuring that our communities were as strong as possible on a grassroots level to face the Coronavirus together. We initially focused on social housing tenants which had received no extra support or advice, putting up posters with public health advice in languages the tenants spoke: English, Chinese, Serbian, Somalian, etc. We also got Council to agree to provide grocery delivery services. 

The Aotearoa Community Union is also supporting private tenants to ensure they are happy, healthy and secure during this exceptional time. We are providing advice to ACU tenants who are unable to pay rent in negotiating with their landlord, and ensuring that other problems that arise are addressed, including setting up virtual spaces to allow social interaction within communities during the requirement of physical distancing.

Unions Wellington and leading trade unionists like Robert Reid, President of FIRST Union, also have done incredible work on tenant advocacy, flagging property management companies breaking the COVID-19 restrictions and getting a government intervention. Not only is this an excellent achievement, but it marks another step in the trade union movement to broader proletarian political action in addition to its core work of PGs and collective bargaining.

Recently, some local scene activists set up a group “Rent Strike Aotearoa” that seeks to better the renters’ lot through national-level policy solutions.

1) An immediate amnesty from paying rent or mortgages, and a ban on all evictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (to be extended for a period afterwards to help people recover financially and emotionally).

2) Long term rent caps to enable people to recover financially, emotionally from COVID-19

3) The government to buy unoccupied houses (ghost homes) and buildings on the private market for public housing for homeless peoples

4) Remove all obligations to pay for the cost of temporary emergency housing, and reinstate this as a non-recoverable grant.

5) No tenants will be left with debts or fines, retaliatory rent increases or retaliation from utility companies

6) No bad references or rental histories for tenants who don’t or are unable to pay rent

These demands will presumably be won through a general political rent strike through which the landlords and the property management companies have no choice but to beg the government to yield to the demands of the tenants and of RSA. All of this will be achieved without any pre-COVID infrastructure. What’s more, not even a date for this rent strike has been set by the ‘organisers’. Are ordinary renters expected to take a blind leap of faith and stop paying rent, in doing so hoping that enough other people around the country felt similarly?

Anyone interested in a rent strike should take a closer look at how trade unionists handle negotiations and industrial action. No union would ever go into an almost entirely un-unionised industry divided across many small-medium business owners and attempt a general strike in order to win concessions not from the bosses but from the government. Collective bargaining and any other form of union organising involves supporting union members to negotiate with the bosses and taking industrial action where necessary as a show of organised strength.

In a country with so many petty landlords as New Zealand, in contrast to the landlords in the USA or UK who own entire blocks of flats or apartments, there is the added complication of a significant research phase being required to determine which properties are with the same management company and the same landlord so that any action taken by renters is not the equivalent of one or two workers walking off the job and expecting favourable consequences. Like in Australia, supposed rent strike organisers have not organised tenants into these groupings either on paper or in reality. Experience shows that this is quite a time consuming process, not just because of the number of landlords and property managers to sort through, but because tenants in New Zealand who dislike their landlord are more likely to simply think it could be worse or move than put up genuine resistance, which could jeopardise not only their current accomodation, but applications for future flats as well.

A ‘rent strike’ as poorly organised as this could be a disaster to the livelihood of ordinary workers if they were tricked into participating in this to their own detriment. In reality, this probably won’t happen, and the only people who will be putting themselves at this risk will be fifteen anarchists from Auckland’s North Shore or Herne Bay.

This does not mean that a rent strike is categorically a bad idea and this situation should highlight the need for reflection within the union movement on why a genuine rent strike is not possible during this crisis. For example, ACU organisers are currently working on developing a parallel to collective bargaining for renters with the same landlord or property management company.  Our situation also highlights the need for increased collaboration across the union movement as a whole to normalise housing struggle and community unionism as a key pillar of the working class and union movement as a whole.