Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Note from the Ministry of Staple Guns

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, canceled.

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 of victims.

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."

She responded.

"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.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Dear Landlord #rentstrike

I wrote a letter to the Randall Group to enumerate their crimes. This time, I made sure the letter rhymes.
Dear Landlord,

It'll soon be the first of the month, so we thought we'd write you a letter. Not that you asked, but all of us struck by the virus are starting to feel better. We thought we should let you know, once again, why the time we've spent, has still not included writing any checks for the rent.

I doubt you're even reading this, I'm not gonna lie. But just in case you are, here are some of the reasons why we'd rather keep our money, instead of giving it away to your rich investors – come whatever may:
  • Because you don't need the money – in fact, you guys are such toffs, you have to donate millions just to get a tax write-off. In your magnanimity, all the millions to charity, you stole from all your renters (what fucking barbarity).
  • Because in case you didn't realize, your renters have been moving out, every time you raise the rent – let there be no doubt. You're making people homeless – forcing kids to live in cars, while you and your investors go to galleries and wine bars.
  • Because you brag of your philanthropy, while your tenants drown in debt.
  • Because I'm not exactly sure how much more fucked up things can get.
  • Because you actually raised the rent in the midst of a pandemic.
  • Because over the years you've made sure the problem is systemic.
  • Because you and your corporate lobbyists, with Multi Family Northwest, have lobbied all the legislatures, to make sure conditions are the best for you to underpay your workers, while with each passing year, you've made it ever more impossible for them to even live near here.
  • Because there's asbestos in the ceilings, and mold upon the walls.
  • Because this carpet is fucking ancient – and that's definitely not all.
  • Because you own hundreds of buildings, up and down the coast.
  • Because corporations like yours are getting bailed out the most.
  • Because you keep reminding us of the money you say we owe, in the middle of a new Great Depression, as bad as ninety years ago.
  • Because the government is paralyzed – no one's answering their phones. They say they'll send us assistance, but there's just a dial tone.
  • Because the suspension on evictions goes til the end of June, and there are lots of our fellow renters singing the same tune.
  • Because you, Randall Group, are slumlords, and at the end of the day, something has to give – things can't go on this way.
So I'll just say, in conclusion, this is a lovely spot for a post-eviction future, when it becomes our squat. But until that happens, we can be reasonable, in fact. We'll consider paying half the rent – if you send us a new rental contract.

Your Tenants

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Rich Peasants, Poor Peasants and "Mom-and-Pop Landlords"

In the course of the evolving patchwork of rent strikes happening right now across the US, there is suddenly a lot of talk in the press about how much the landlords are hurting. The landlords, of course, own the press, control the federal government, run all fifty states, and have a stranglehold on most of the city councils, so this shouldn't come as a surprise.

My landlord, an investment company called the Randall Group that owns hundreds of residential and commercial properties up and down the west coast, reacted to the rise of a pandemic and the lockdown of the country by raising our rent, as they do every year, bringing it now to exactly 150% what it was when we moved in, in 2007. Back when I made much more money, as a touring musician in the era when people still bought CDs, when we moved in here, the rent was $500 a month. Pre-pandemic, with rents everywhere skyrocketing, venues closing due to that, CD sales nonexistent, income about halved, our rent had risen to $1,175 per month. Weeks after the pandemic hit, the automatons at the management company that is a subsidiary of the company that owns the building sent us a rent increase, to $1,250 a month, for the exact same shithole two-bedroom apartment, that didn't seem at all like a shithole when we moved in, and the rent was affordable. Now the old asbestos hiding behind every wall seems much more toxic than it used to, and the perpetually broken clothes dryer in the laundry room seems a bit more broken than it used to. And the poor workers sickening us and themselves with gas-powered leaf-blowers around the property every week seem even more pitiful, knowing that none of the skyrocking profits made by Randall Group from all their real estate investments is going to those workers, or to us residents.

But then, after who knows how many of Randall Group's renters stopped paying the rent, along with us – after the state of Oregon surprised all of us tenants rights advocates by passing a very temporary suspension on evictions, and then the city council unanimously voted to strengthen that suspension, for Portland residents under their jurisdiction – then the landlord's minions at CTL Management, Inc., suddenly expressed sympathy for their renters in a form letter, for the first time ever that I know of. Now that paying the rent is temporarily optional, they suddenly have to justify their existences.

How did they do that, you wonder? Did they talk about their investors, and how much they'll be hurting without their quarterly returns? Did they talk about the mortgages they owe? No, because they don't owe mortgages, they're not that kind of landlord. They buy buildings and charge as much as they can to rent them to people who need housing, that's how it works. They take advantage of the fact that rents are higher in other cities, and they raise them here, not because they need to, but because they can. Because the purpose of their corporate existence is the profits of their investors – period. How those profits are made is incidental. But they invest in real estate because it's the most profitable investment you can make. And the main reason it's so profitable is because the landlords made the laws, and control the police forces.

CTL wrote us a letter to try to appeal to our empathy for the workers that come around now and then with duct tape to fix our broken appliances, the workers who mow the lawn with a gas-powered mower, and use gas-powered leafblowers, because the company that employs them is too cheap to use electric appliances that don't sicken the workers and the residents. The workers who are obviously being paid low wages, as evidenced by the fact that almost none of them speak English as a first language. Corporations don't hire poor, uneducated immigrants out of the goodness of their hearts, because they love Mexicans – they do it because people who are not from here, who don't speak English as a first language, who don't have a college degree, and who, in many cases, are not here legally, are easier to exploit, to pay badly – and now the company says they care about them, as they hope we care about them, too. Apparently, all these decades of raising the rent and handing millions of dollars of profits to their investors every quarter did not allow them to put away a little money to pay their undocumented workers, and now maybe they'll have to lay them off, and blame us rent strikers for this.

But there are, of course, other landlords. Let's be clear – if you live in an apartment building, your landlord is probably a faceless corporation that exists solely for the purpose of profiting off of your need for housing, in order to pay the investors their profits every quarter. But if you rent in a house, your situation may be different. Maybe you have what they call a “mom and pop” landlord. These are the landlords that are getting the most sympathy from the corporate and “public” media.

In the interest of full disclosure, and to make a broader point, let me say here now that I am one of them. In addition to being a renter on rent strike against a disgusting corporate entity on the west coast, I have inherited my mother's house in rural Connecticut. My sister also owns a house in Boston, which she lives in. Given that she has experience with these things and is better at math than me, she figured out how much we needed to charge to rent the house in Connecticut, in order to cover the costs of maintenance and taxes. So we charge our tenant $700 a month to rent this beautiful, three-story, three-bedroom house in the countryside. Currently, we charge $0 a month.

If the crisis continues for a very long time, such that our tenant can't start paying rent again, what will happen? There are many possibilities. Perhaps I'll have to find another way of paying the property tax next year, or perhaps property taxes will be suspended by the town for the year, since this is ostensibly a democracy, and in democracies these things can be done. Perhaps we won't be able to put away money this year, for the next time the house needs a new roof, and we'll have to put that off for an extra year. Houses of this type generally need a new roof every 15 years or so, so you have to plan for this, because it's expensive. (Incidentally, fixing the roof on our apartment in Portland was used as a justification by a particularly stooge-ish property manager we had for a while for that year's rent increase.)

But what about these poor “mom and pop” landlords who are not renting out a property they happen to own, basically at cost? What about those “mom and pop” landlords who make much or all of their living from renting a house or two that they bought or inherited, to other people?

Let me tell you a little story. Before the pandemic, I spent most of my adult life traveling the world and playing music, for a living. Especially in North America and northern Europe, as it happens. I was visiting my friend Kirsten in Denmark. Her parents had lived well into their nineties, but both of them had recently passed away. Kirsten and I were taking a walk around the public lake near the center of the beautiful town she lives in.

Kirsten is in her sixties, and has spent most of her adult life working as a sort of counselor and as one who teaches other people how to do this kind of thing – a profession they call “pedagogue” in Denmark, but it's one of many professions that don't exist as such in the US. And there are a lot of pedagogues in Denmark. Half of the people work for the state, and what they do is they take care of the other half of society, basically, or at least those elements of the other half of society that need help. By US standards, it's a bit like living in Disneyworld, but without any advertisements, and nothing is made of plastic, and most everyone looks very healthy and fit.

But on this day, Kirsten was having a bit of stress. She doesn't like dealing with numbers or money, she's a very down-to-Earth sort who relates much more readily to another person's emotional state than to something on a screen or in a letter from the tax authorities. I'll paraphrase the conversation.

Kirsten: “I'm a little stressed, because I really must do something with my parents' house now, I cannot procrastinate any longer.”

Me: “Are you going to sell it or rent it?”

Kirsten: “I've been renting it, for the past year-and-a-half, to a nice family from Afghanistan. But I can only do that for two years, and then I must sell it.”

“What happens if you don't sell it, but just keep on renting it?” I asked, confused.

“Here in Denmark,” she replied, “if you own two houses, you have to sell one of them within two years, or you pay a tremendous fine. You cannot profit from renting a house you own, the way people do in the United States. You can rent it for two years, under strict conditions set by the state, and then you must sell it. If you can't find a buyer for what you're asking during those two years, you must lower your price in order to sell it quickly.”

I had spent time traveling and playing gigs in Denmark often several times a year for many years at that point, but I had never known about how Danish housing laws work. Suddenly, the prosperity of the society, and the egalitarian nature of it, made a lot more sense. It is kept that way, by law. People who want to do what so many “mom and pop” landlords do here – make their own living by virtue of the fact that they inherited a house, or had the money to buy a house or two that they can now rent to someone else – do not have that option in Denmark. They have to work for a living instead, or find another way of getting supported through someone else's labor, aside from taking advantage of their need for housing, and profiting from it. And then complaining of their victimhood when their tenants are unable or unwilling to play this exploitative game.

Denmark is not a classless society, but it's a hell of a lot closer to one than anything you've ever seen if you have never left the United States. And what we learn when we study the history of land ownership, land reform, rebellions, and rent strikes in the world – as I have been doing for a long time now, like a good anarchist – as with other forms of conflict in society that is basically what you would call class conflict, is it's never a simple picture.

In the songs and tributes to the fallen martyrs, the picture is usually simple – it was all of us renters against the landed gentry, we were united, they were all scum. And it ended with a massacre, it ended with a bloody revolution, or it ended with a victorious rent strike – with land reform or the dramatic lowering of rents, the institution of effective forms of rent control, etc. There are loads of examples of all three endings to such conflicts, just in the past century, let alone the whole of human history.

If class conflict were simply between the 99% and the 1%, to use the meme popularized by Occupy Wall Street, revolution would be much easier. What makes everything so complicated is not just the fact that the state is controlled by the landlord corporations who then lobby the legislatures, make the laws, and control the police forces who evict people and imprison them when they resist the feudalistic status quo. What makes things complex is the fact that within the ranks of that 99%, there is much division.

For example, the ranks of the 99% in the US consist of millions of people who don't have anywhere to live; tens of millions of renters who can barely afford to pay their rent, or, currently, who can't afford to; and a similar number of home-owners, many of whom don't just live in the homes they own (or that the bank owns), but are also paying off the bank, or surviving themselves, off of the income they make from renting an apartment or a house, or multiple apartments or houses, to other people. Although on paper it looks like the 99% has more in common with other members of the 99%, than with the 1%, who actually own more than the 99% do, in reality, this isn't necessarily the case.

Although if you own a large apartment complex you're actually quite likely to be well within the ranks of the 1%, financially, if you own two houses and rent one of them to tenants, you're probably still a member of the 99%, even if you've managed to set things up in such a way that the only thing you normally have to do for a living is be a landlord, and to hire people who will keep your rental properties in adequate condition. And if you're in that situation now and your tenant isn't paying rent, because they can't or because they're on rent strike for other reasons, you are surely having a hard time. And if you are now still trying to collect rent for the month of May, 2020, then you probably identify more with the investment companies who are complaining about the rent strikes than you do with those of us who are engaging in the rent strikes.

This is the conflict – the conflict among the different elements of the 99% – that tends to cause social movements to collapse, or to turn into civil wars of one kind or another. In Chinese history they refer to it as the conflict between “poor peasants” and “rich peasants.” In the US, India, and many other countries with kleptocratic governments, tragically useless laws, and terribly unequal distribution of land and other resources, the things that are allowed to happen in the absence of the kind of good governance you see in places like Denmark, create a patchwork of subdivisions -- not only in terms of farms literally subdivided until they're completely useless, but by acting as legal mechanisms to create increasing levels of and increasing forms of profound inequality, within the ranks of the 99%.

We have not only landlords like the big investment companies that farm people like me for the profits of their investors, but we have small landlords who charge as much rent as they do because their mortgages are as high as they are. And then among their tenants, there are those who are subletting their apartments at a profit to yet another renter. There are, in effect, these many levels of what we might call rich peasants and poor peasants – some who feel they have enough vested in the capitalist system, as it is, to defend it vehemently, and others who have been so thoroughly betrayed by the workings of the free market that they are ready to rebel against it, by any means necessary. All easily within the ranks of the 99%.

Whether the rent strikes succeed or not will depend not only on how far the actual ruling class is willing to go to defend their wealth. It will depend on the solidarity of the rest of us, with each other – with our fellow renters and our fellow mortgage-holders, along with those lucky enough not to have a mortgage to pay off anymore.

But the success of this movement will, in my view, also depend on another thing: on the widespread understanding that buying a house in order to rent it to someone else and make a living off of that is a fundamentally parasitic occupation, and should be illegal, as it is in more civilized countries than the US or India, such as Denmark.

All of these “mom and pop” landlords – the ones who make a living at it – should be recognized as what they are: parasites. Rich peasants. I have advice for them: sell. Now. Then find a way to survive that doesn't involve profiting off of our need to house ourselves. If you were so dependent on the income from your rental property that you don't know what to do without it, what made you think that that was remotely OK as a way to make a living in the first place? Did you think it would all just go fine, and your renters would be happy with whatever you charged, and keep paying their rent on time, and everyone would live happily ever after? Were you expecting to have to evict people, and make use of the armed enforcers of property laws? Or did it take a while to recover from the shock of doing that, the first time you did it? Did it get easier the second time? The rich peasant baby landlords can ask themselves these questions, when they're living on the streets with the rest of us, after their feudalistic ponzi scheme of real estate investing collapses, as it is now doing.

The way forward is about solidarity, but achieving solidarity will require moving beyond the false consciousness that says it is OK to run a society like this. That housing is a privilege, whose cost is to be determined by profit-minded individuals and corporations, protected by the state's armed enforcers. We must collectively come to realize that housing is actually a right, that we must demand, as a society. And that a rent strike is an activity to engage in not only if you can't afford to pay the rent, but if you believe that it is wrong to pay the rent, when so many others are unable to. That an injury to one is an injury to all. That the parasites in this society are not the unemployed, the homeless, the recipients of meager government aid programs, the housing insecure, the couchsurfers, the car-dwellers.

The parasites are those who own multiple properties, and profit off of renting them to people who need housing. This is a parasitic activity, whether hiding behind the fig leaf called “mom and pop,” or whether “mom and pop” has successfully managed to turn their little operation into a bigger one. The rich peasants want to be capitalists, as a rule. This is what needs to change – their minds, and the minds of those who think that what they are doing is OK, who would be doing the same thing if they had the chance. A new world is possible, and a new Portland is possible, but not until we can envision what that might look like -- and not until we really know what it doesn't look like.

A Tale of Two Narratives

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