A few dozen tenants from a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles hopped into their vehicles and caravanned to affluent Orange County.
After the hour-long drive the group converged on the pavement in front of a two-story house with Spanish-tile roofing belonging to Gina Kim – their landlord’s daughter. Mr. Chung Suk Kim had purchased the seven-building apartment complex for $8.5 million in September. Eviction notices for all 80 residents – almost all of them black or Latino – went up a few weeks later, indicating that the owner wanted to convert the units, located near USC, into student housing.
“Vulture landlord, get a real job! Vulture landlord, get a real job!” the tenants shouted. A pair of police cars soon arrived.
Chanting is not the only way the tenants are making their feelings known. Since the eviction notices were posted some eight months ago, they have refused to pay rent.
“I’m not against student housing, don’t get me wrong,” said one tenant, a 32-year-old African-American security guard who makes $14.50 an hour and shares his $1,700 three-bedroom unit with six people in one of Mr Kim’s buildings. “But if you want to come in and invest in property, you can’t just put people out on the streets.”
Los Angeles – is one of the most expensive rental markets in the country and the housing crisis is getting so severe that tenants are increasingly engaging in rent strikes, a practice from the early 1900s.
Led by the fledgling LA Tenants Union, inhabitants of multiunit buildings are joining forces and refusing to pay rent until their landlords negotiate what they view to be as fairer rent hikes.
And some, such as those in Mr Kim’s buildings, are striking to prevent mass evictions.
In the mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Boyle Heights, some tenants were hit with rent increases of up to 80% last year. That building’s 25-plus residents, including about a dozen mariachi musicians, went on rent strike for nine months before settling with the landlord early this year. Their agreement: the landlord would get an immediate 14 per cent rent increase but would increase rents no more than 5 per cent each year going forward.
As real estate speculators and Wall Street gamblers flood the market, rents are skyrocketing, and tenants are displaced because they can’t keep up. Other cities, including Cleveland and San Francisco, also have experienced recent rent strikes, but not as many as in LA, where there have been approximately a half-dozen strikes since 2016.
Organizers in L.A. say they plan to continue the strikes and protests while also pushing for legislative fixes and protection for renters.
Los Angeles has become the epicentre of renter activism. L.A. is home to the largest share of renters of any major US city, with 54 per cent of its homes inhabited by renters.
And LA rents keep rising. Rents rose about 3 % over the past year – a full percentage point higher than the nationwide average – after having spiked by 6% in 2015. LA County’s homeless population, meanwhile, has jumped to 53,195, a nearly 40% increase since 2010.
In organizing rent strikes, the LA Tenants Union is employing a tool that dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, but has fallen out of favor in modern times. Housing activists say their reemergence is a sign of just how extreme the housing crisis has gotten.
As one organizer put it “We are reaching levels of inequality that we have not seen since the Gilded Age, and so maybe it’s time to return to tactics like the rent strikes that were invented in those years,”