By David Rovics
May 24th, 2020
The City of Portland, Oregon, and Multnomah County, are doing the best job in the country at kicking the can down the road. Now is the time to push for a real solution to the housing crisis, here and across the USA.
Since the pandemic hit, I have joined the ranks of the unemployed, like
so many others have. Dozens of gigs planned in nine countries on three
continents canceled. I’m doing better than many of my fellow musicians,
because I have been moving more towards the modern, crowdfunded
patronage model of artistic existence for years now, in the wake of the
collapse of the music industry, which has never come close to recovering
from the transition from physical merch to “free.” I was expecting to
suddenly start losing my supporters on Patreon one by one, as my
supporters also were losing their own jobs, but so far that hasn’t
happened. Listening to interview after interview with other artists
from around Portland on local radio, though, it’s very hard times. As
anyone knows by now if they listen to NPR, many performing artists have
to do other things to pay the rent, which usually involves service
sector work of some kind, which of course disappeared along with their
gigs, when the cafes, bars, restaurants, convention centers, schools,
libraries and theaters all closed, and festivals were, of course,
For the first time in my 53 years as a US citizen, I qualified for
unemployment insurance. For any of you better-off foreigners who aren’t
familiar with the dog-eat-dog barbarity that underlies the principles
on which most US states run their unemployment insurance programs: if
you didn’t pay into the program with a traditional kind of job involving
payroll and payroll taxes, you don’t qualify to benefit from it if you
find yourself jobless. So this leaves out increasing numbers of the
workforce, what we now call “gig economy” workers, such as, obviously,
touring musicians, but also so-called “contract workers” such as Uber
drivers and all kinds of other people who appear to be working for a
large corporation but are actually “self-employed,” through some kind of
capitalist magician’s sleight of hand. Maybe even an invisible hand,
now suddenly very visible, slick with the sticky blood of its multitude
But, just in time to prevent who knows what from happening (I was definitely smelling smoke), the Congress acted, and expanded unemployment to include something closer to the actual number of unemployed workers — not counting the estimated 11 million undocumented, or the unpaid homemakers, and so many others, but still much better than it had been before they passed the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance). I applied for it, soon after it became possible for people like me to do so. I received a confirmation from a bot that my application was received, and that’s all I’ve heard from the government since early April, aside from the one check signed by Donald Trump himself, that did arrive, now a long time ago.
What we’re clearly seeing in terms of the overall national response to the situation here in the US exposes the dire flaws within both the anemic public health sector and within the capitalist economy, which, in the US, is a kind of house of cards constructed on top of a ponzi scheme called the real estate market. In other countries, it seems, with highly functional governments, and economies that aren’t mainly based on speculation on and investment in the real estate market, it’s possible to temporarily freeze the economy — defer mortgages, cancel rents, maintain industries and jobs with government support so they’re all still there when the crisis is over, etc. But in the US, it seems even the idea of deferring mortgages and canceling rent during the crisis would cause the ponzi scheme to collapse, this whole industry which is based on a constant stream of profits that far, far exceed any actual rise in wages or spending power of the average person. Here in Portland, rents typically go up close to 10% each year, which has resulted in the ethnic cleansing of this city, which lost more than half of its African-American population between the last two censuses, and also lost most of its artists, and so many others. The city is unrecognizable, compared to twenty years ago — like so many other cities in the US, but worse. Portland is the most expensive city to live in in the entire United States, when you consider the cost of housing relative to the income of the average resident.
Although we aren’t seeing any systematic deferment of mortgages or canceling of rents in the US, what we are seeing are lots of temporary bans on evictions. It’s a confusing, patchwork affair, that will probably see waves of evictions happening in some places long before other places, depending on the initiatives of city, county and state governments. Here in Portland, where the housing crisis was a crisis before the pandemic crisis — possibly the worst-hit city in the United States in terms of homeless residents, people living in cars or extremely overcrowded apartments — there has also been the clearest temporary ban on evictions of anywhere in the country.
What this means, to be clear, is the city of Portland — and Multnomah County, which includes Portland and some Portland suburbs — has done the best job of kicking the can down the road. The ordinance passed almost definitely applies to anyone who used to make a living as an artist of any kind, along with lots of others. If your income was dramatically impacted by the pandemic and associated lockdown, you can defer your rent payments until six months after the county has determined that the crisis is over. At that point, you may owe your landlord tens of thousands of dollars, all of a sudden, and thus, the main waves of evictions will happen then, rather than this summer, where it will happen in many other places.
There is a lot of chatter on social media. I say this not to denigrate the chatterers, but to denigrate the platforms on which they are chattering. Not that we can avoid these platforms, but Facebook and YouTube feed on conflict and feed us conflict. So whatever chatter is going on on such platforms is best either ignored, or understood in that context.
There’s also some real organizing going on, with tenants unions in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere really talking to their neighbors and systematically withholding rent in order to get real demands met. Nothing on that scale is happening yet here in the most heavily rent-burdened city in the country, and at least one of the main efforts on social media taking place currently seems to be led by someone motivated primarily by a personal grudge against one of the most effective rent control advocates in the city — perfect for Facebook, where this sad excuse for organizing seems mainly to be taking place, where such grudges can be exploited by Zuckerberg’s favorite conflict algorithms.
But real rent strike organizing here in Portland is very desperately called for right now. And I don’t say this just because I’m an anarchist who is generally in favor of rent strikes, although I am most definitely guilty of both charges. A rent strike is called for in Portland not only because many people are currently unable to pay their rents, although that itself would be plenty of reason for one. A rent strike is called for now in particular specifically because we have the best chance of winning such a struggle right now, because we have one of the most progressive local city and county governments in the country right now.
If this seems contradictory, it shouldn’t. The most widespread labor organizing in the United States over the past two centuries of the labor movement did not just take place during a period of extreme inequality and exploitation of workers. Inequality and exploitation was absolutely massive across the US throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Radical labor unionism was at its peak with the Industrial Workers of the World in the early twentieth century. Yet the lion’s share of unions that were successfully organized were organized when there was not only massive inequality, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but also during a period when there was a sympathetic government that had been elected to power — the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For all Roosevelt’s many flaws, his administration included a whole lot of bona fide socialists, from top to bottom. When workers went on strike after 1932 things were not easy, by any means, but they did not face the same kind of opposition from federal authorities that they faced on so many key moments in the history of the labor movement prior to 1932, and success after success in labor organizing is what followed.
Now here we are again, in a new depression, and with fairly sympathetic city and county governments here and elsewhere, depending on where. If we want to stop the wave of evictions that will come, we must now start organizing against them. We have to stop the evictions before they start. Some of the biggest and most successful unions during the 1930’s were both formal and informal in nature, both organized by familiar structures with presidents and treasurers and such, and also organized through the widespread idea that this world did not belong exclusively to those who could afford it. Ideas that were spread on the street, through means of guerrilla theater, songs, posters, newspapers, and through a myriad of other platforms, became commonplace. Chief among them: that humans have rights. Rights not only to free speech and assembly — which millions of people were exercising daily — but rights never mentioned in the much-vaunted foundational document of the nation: the right to sufficient food, and the right to housing.
When police and landlords attempted to evict tenants during the Depression, oftentimes gatherings of organized unemployed people would prevent the evictions from taking place at all. Other times, the eviction would happen, but then an unemployed locksmith would come and change the lock, and other unemployed workers would carry the tenant’s belongings back into their apartment, thus un-evicting them. There were many successful rent strikes during this period, as well as at other times and places in history. They resulted in buildings being bought by occupants, or given to occupants with government intervention or government loans (as just happened last week in Minneapolis), or by rents being lowered drastically, or by new rent control laws of all kinds being passed, giving tenants rights they never had before.
Artists for Rent Control is, admittedly, a small and disparate handful of anarchist or socialist musicians, graphic artists and other folks based here in Portland, Oregon and around the world. We believe that while there is a dire need for door-to-door neighborhood organizing, there is an equally dire need for popular education. Rent strike organizing will not become widespread just because people are desperate. These material circumstances need to be joined by the understanding that another world is possible. That things don’t have to be like this. That there are other, real, functional and functioning alternatives to be found in many other countries, right now today, that work much, much better than our collapsing house of cards ponzi scheme economy, administered by a kleptocratic government controlled by real estate industry lobbyists who have systematically engineered the whole ponzi scheme to be a ponzi scheme in the first place. One of the many things the developer lobby has accomplished over the course of the past forty years or so has been to completely eliminate, or at least totally eviscerate, rent control laws in all fifty states.
People need to know about this. People need to know that there are alternatives to this cutthroat, profit-over-people economic model that has recently been dramatically exposed as a completely failed model, in terms of sustaining human life, the most vulnerable of which we are losing daily, in vastly disproportionate numbers, to the ravages of the housing market that has been exposed by this pandemic, with those dying the most being the ones living in the shittiest housing in the most neglected, decaying, rat-infested, overcrowded apartment blocks of New York and Detroit, along with all those living without running water or electricity in places like the Navajo reservation, or the farmworkers of the Yakima Valley, currently on strike. Or again, in Detroit.
People need to know that most wealth is inherited. That the landlord class has created this situation of inequality through a legalized system of bribery called lobbying. That they make their record profits not by doing anything useful, but by sitting on money and property that has been passed down in wealthy families from the US and other countries for generations. That they raise the rents according to a formula they come up with, as wages rise, to make sure there’s that “sweet spot” between evictions and those who are just barely able to pay, so they can maximize their profits as they maximize our misery. This is systemic, it is intentional, it is feudalistic, and it is so very wrong.
And it doesn’t have to be this way. Another world is possible — hether your landlord is a big corporation like mine is, owning hundreds of properties up and down the coast, or a so-called “mom-and-pop” landlord (a rich peasant, to use a Chinese analogy) who has taken advantage of the pro-landlord housing market to live off of your labor through charging you a “market rate” rent, despite the fact that their mortgage may have been paid off decades ago. Society can and must be restructured. This will inevitably involve a lot of government intervention, which government will do to save itself and to save capitalism, just like with FDR. But that won’t happen until we make it happen, through rent strikes and general strikes, among other vital tactics.
And that won’t happen until people believe that this kind of change is right. In the US in particular, this presents what I would call our biggest obstacle. A far bigger obstacle than the circumstances of the pandemic presents, and a far bigger obstacle than that of actually organizing people to work together. The biggest obstacle is our minds — our American minds, which have been force-fed so-called “free market” values from birth.
So, this is a call to arms. My personal weapon of choice is a staple gun. We can all do our best to spread ideas — through music, art, photography, videos, essays, etc. — on the internet. But physical space is the space we’re talking about having control over — housing. And we have to be in those physical spaces, too. This is why we have been plastering many neighborhoods of Portland with informational (and rhyming) posters, questioning the failed values of capitalism, encouraging people to think about how society could be done differently, and encouraging people here in Multnomah County not to pay the rent, which is the first step in this inevitably jagged and tumultuous transformational process that must be undertaken if our species is to ultimately survive in any recognizable form.
While we have very limited resources in every possible sense as a network, Artists for Rent Control has two main aims, and your participation, in whatever form possible, is wanted. One, we aim to keep our messages visible on the telephone poles of Portland. You can print out posters and put them up yourself, ask for a shipment of them from us, or donate for printing press costs. The other main aim of the network, in the tradition of similar networks of unemployed workers in the past, will be to react quickly to any attempted evictions going on in the area, once they start happening. To that aim, we’ll soon have our website set up so that anyone with a phone can sign up to receive a push notification when there is an eviction attempt taking place, so that they can drop everything and rush to wherever this is happening, and hopefully prevent the eviction from occurring. For this to be effective, we’ll need thousands of Portlanders to sign up. For that to happen, we’ll need thousands of Portlanders who believe that another Portland, and another world, is possible. And we’ll need to convince them of this fact.
I have personally been roving the streets of Portland for weeks now, spending hours most days putting up posters, close to a thousand altogether so far. This itself has been a fascinating experience. The lockdown of society has been serious around here, and very few members of the public are generally in the streets, but the reactions I have gotten from people as I’ve been putting up posters have been overwhelmingly positive. Many, many people are unaware that there is a suspension on evictions. Their landlords, in most cases, have not told them anything. If they opened a piece of mail they may have received from a neighborhood association about it, then maybe they know. Or if they listen to NPR on a daily basis, they may have been listening on the right day, so they heard about the ordinance. But it’s not getting a whole lot of press, for some reason. So by putting up these posters, we’re providing a basic and needed public service.
Other reactions have been less positive, and generally comes in the form of posters being quietly taken down — never when I’m looking, and, as far as I can tell, almost always in the dark of night. If you look up the laws in Portland on this kind of postering activity, you’ll find it’s illegal, but very mildly so. It’s not considered a real crime, but more on the level of a nuisance. People who are bothered by things on telephone poles in their neighborhood have the option of complaining to the city authorities, which say on their website that they will send someone to take down the offending items within 72 hours. Whether it is city workers or employees of a property management company, posters that are nearby really shitty-looking apartment complexes full of oppressed-looking renters get taken down fast. Posters put up in almost any other neighborhood, even on very busy streets, have often been staying up for weeks. For the record, the cardstock that Minuteman Press uses will still look good after several serious downpours, and the ink won’t start running for at least a month.
What is especially notable to me is the postering I was doing for progressive city council candidates, also during the lockdown, resulted in those posters getting ripped down in every neighborhood I put them up in, presumably by passersby who either don’t like progressive politicians, or, I suspect, by people who just don’t like any politicians, and are annoyed by the claims any politician might make about doing anything useful, since many people just assume they’re lying in order to get votes. An assumption that I’m convinced does not apply to, say, City Councilor Chloe Eudaly, but certainly does apply to most politicians, so it’s an understandable and even perhaps laudable reaction to such a poster, generally.
Not so with the informational posters we’ve been putting up that feature the phrase “don’t pay the rent” in the center. Whether people are paying the rent or not, very few people seem to be bothered by the idea of not doing so. That, all by itself, is a good sign.
I get a lot of raised fists and shouts of encouragement from renters of all ages and in all neighborhoods, wherever I put up these posters — as well as, of course, people who are minding their own business and moping down the sidewalk without stopping to read them. But the one negative reaction I got from someone who actually stopped to say something to me other than “yeah” or “right on,” was a middle-aged woman who was out walking her dog, who read the central line of the poem (not bothering to read any of the rest) and repeated it in horror.
“Don’t pay the rent?” she asked. “Why not?”
I gave her the one-sentence version of my speech.
“Many people can’t pay the rent right now, and so while there is a suspension in evictions, if the rest of us also don’t pay the rent, we may have a window of opportunity now to force the government to do what many governments have already done in European countries — defer mortgages and cancel rents for the duration of the crisis.”
“I own a duplex down the street, and I don’t know what I’d do if my renters stopped paying the rent. Deferring my mortgage wouldn’t really help me. I don’t have a mortgage.”
In other words, she makes a living mostly or entirely by exploiting the fact that she owns a duplex, which she may or may not have inherited, but which is entirely paid off. Without needing to charge so much rent, she makes enough money from renting one house to make a living herself. She is a professional rich peasant.
I didn’t respond directly to her situation, not wanting to make any inaccurate assumptions, and not wanting to appear unsympathetic. I started talking about my own landlord, to put the situation into a context that is especially relevant for most renters these days on the west coast.
“My landlord is a corporation that owns hundreds of buildings. They’ve
been raising the rent so much every year that my rent is now more than twice what it was when we moved in in 2007.”
Her response then was so telling, and summed up the problem — and the solution — fairly neatly.
“That’s just how it goes,” she said.
No, rich peasant. No, “mom-and-pop.” No, corporate investor. No, house-flipper. No, real estate developer, banker, financier, corrupt politician, and everyone else — no. It’s not “just how it goes.” It’s not how it goes in civilized countries, and it doesn’t need to be how it goes in this one. Real rent control is possible, and we can do it here, too. It starts with a rent strike. It ends with victory. Join us.
David Rovics has been called the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. Since the mid-90’s, Rovics has spent most of his time on the road, playing hundreds of shows every year throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Japan. He has shared the stage regularly with leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, musicians and celebrities. In recent years he’s added children’s music and essay-writing to his repertoire. More importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, and he will make the revolution irresistible. Check out his pamphlet: Sing for Your Supper: A DIY Guide to Playing Music, Writing Songs, and Booking Your Own Gigs