- People facing recent layoffs and financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic are becoming increasingly anxious about paying rent on April 1.
- The widespread anxiety and financial stress have spurred rent strikes in major cities around the world.
- Collective action, however, is not limited to neighborhoods in big cities; people are turning to social media to protest the demands on tenants and to mobilize for a large-scale rent strike.
- While some social media users say their content may not be the most effective tool to discuss a complicated issue, they hope to open up a dialogue and connect with other struggling people.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
As April 1 fast approaches, people facing recent job losses and financial instability due to the coronavirus pandemic are struggling to come up with rent money. Rising anxieties about upcoming rent payments, coupled with widespread frustrations about a perceived lack of governmental intervention, are spurring rent strikes around the world.
In Montreal, renters began hanging white sheets in their windows to signal their participation in a rent strike. The movement has since made its way across Canada and into the United States, where rent strike groups are popping up in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, among other cities.
Collective action and protest, however, isn't just taking place in neighborhoods; tenants have mobilized on social media to call for large-scale rent strikes.
Telegram, a popular cloud-based messaging app in which users can join public groups, has witnessed the rise of a particularly active group chat called "U.S. Rent Strike 2020."
For the past week, the group's 1,000 subscribers have been posting photos of rent strikes nationwide, along with memes and action plans for striking tenants.
On Twitter, outraged tenants worldwide are mobilizing with the hashtags #CancelRent and #RentStrike.
Twitter users are circulating photos of windows covered in white sheets (signifying participating in a rent strike) and voicing their support for a large-scale movement.
The movement has seen particular enthusiasm from those living in New York City where many workers deemed "non-essential" have lost their jobs — and the average rent is 82% of the median American salary.
Andrea Shapiro, a social worker and Program Manager at the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants' rights organization in New York, says the organization's hotline has been flooded exclusively with calls from residents who are unable to pay their rent. She's also noticed a "dramatic spike" in people participating in the discussion online.
"It's a way we can, sort of, all act together," Shapiro told Insider of the #CancelRent and #RentStrike posts on Twitter. "We really rely on collective action to get things done for tenants. We're used to doing mass mobilization, and in a world where we can't do that, being able to use social media has really kept people connected and kept the pressure up for what we need."
Indeed, online action has elevated the visibility of calls for suspension of rent. Shapiro says that the first petition the organization circulated for a rent moratorium received around 15,000 signatures, and the current petition has reached nearly 50,000 — a significant jump from past petitions addressing rent laws that received closer to 2,000 signatures.
New York politicians have also gotten involved, taking to Twitter to voice their support for a moratorium on rent payments for ninety days.
Some people are turning to TikTok, using music and humor to draw attention to the issue.
TikTok user @elbabyhands posted her a video of herself dancing while presenting her reasons for a freeze on mortgage, rent, and utility payments — and calling for a rent strike.
@joshua4congress is a good candidate to follow for more about this. ##coronavirus ##rentstrike
The video has been liked over 15,000 times.
TikTok user @gcmmv, a college student in Montreal who goes by Gemma, posted a video that she hoped would be a playful conversation-starter about a rent strike in her city.
what if we organized a rent strike on tiktok 👉👈🥺 ##coronavirus ##rentstrike ##boredathome
In the clip, she imitates a landlord demanding money from tenants — set to the soundtrack of Kreayshawn's "Go Hard," which includes the lyrics "I'd really like to do that, but I don't have any f—— money."
Inspired by the grassroots community organizing happening in Montreal — and affected by stories of friends in the food and beverage industry who lost their jobs and income — Gemma wanted to add some levity to the discourse while tackling an important topic.
"My goal, honestly, was to kind of be funny and a little bit light-hearted about a serious situation," she told Insider. "But I wanted to raise awareness [about a rent strike] in general."
While she believes that the "real difference" will come from the grassroots efforts happening in neighborhoods around the city rather than funny videos online, Gemma hoped her post would spur discussion about a rent strike, even if that discussion took the form of a thread in the comments section.
"It's more of a solidarity movement and starting a discussion in different age groups," she explained. "Maybe it's someone's first exposure to the idea of a rent strike if they're not exposed to community organizing in their daily life."
To date, the video has received over 34,000 likes.
Others are adding to the discourse on Instagram, posting memes and educational content to spark discussion.
Instagram user @fronty_python, who goes by Liam and prefers "they/them" pronouns, addressed the ongoing tenants' crisis with a graphic uploaded to their meme page.
While the self-described "memer" says they're "no expert" on how a rent strike could be effectively carried out, they hope the post could start a conversation and get people thinking about cautious collective action.
"My meme was in the hope that people who are unable to pay rent would feel inspired to organize in their communities with other people in similar positions," they told Insider, "but definitely NOT to just stop paying rent and be made homeless as a result because there wasn't enough community response to evictions."
Liam added that memes, while not necessarily the ideal format for fully-informed political discourse, can serve an important function in isolating times and effectively open up a dialogue.
"I think [memes] are very useful for spreading inspiration in an accessible way," they explained. "Memes can be a good way for people to feel involved when being socially isolated can probably make everything feel out of control and lonely."
Serena Thomas, a restaurant worker and community organizer in New York, used her Instagram stories to educate struggling tenants on their options. She posted several stories addressing a rent strike, including a template for a letter that renters can use to approach their landlords.
Thomas, who received the template from a friend, wanted to use her platform online to connect with those who were struggling.
"Social media can be a great way to get the word out to a lot of people and to connect with people, especially in a time when they're not supposed to be physically connecting," she said. "It's actually really perfect for this [situation], specific to a pandemic."
Ultimately, Thomas hopes that people following her stories will "get informed" and see the template as a real tool — or, at the very least, as a way to think about contacting their landlords. Moreover, she hopes that bringing visibility to tenants' struggles will lead to greater solidarity in the rent strike movement.
"I think there's a lot of people out there who can pay rent, and they don't realize — or they don't connect with people who can't," she said. "So I think the idea is to build that bridge in solidarity to help them also be part of this movement."
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