Can't Pay Won't Pay #RentStrike

We’re all living through a pandemic, but it’s not the same pandemic for all of us

“A lot of folks have it worse.”

This is not the most effective mantra for cheering someone up, whether they’re hearing it from outside their head or within.

When I had rotator cuff surgery last year, remembering how fortunate I was to have health insurance and a 401(k) to empty out didn’t provide anywhere near the relief that a hydrocodone every eight hours did. My state of mind was more dependent on changing my material conditions than my perspective on anything.

Now—nearly by definition of the word—we’re all living in a pandemic. But it’s not the same pandemic for all of us. A lot of folks have it worse.

None of my friends or family have yet been sickened or died from COVID-19. Just today, though, I found out a close friend’s father-in-law finally succumbed to the disease. The ventilator didn’t save him, and he got his good-byes from those closest to him via teleconferencing while heavily sedated. He was 81, and prior to this, he’d been healthy.

I’m still employed, working a job that allows me to do it from home so I can earn my same living without having to put my own health directly at risk. One of my housemates isn’t so fortunate; they work in healthcare, interacting with co-workers who interact with patients. My housemate’s job involves testing COVID-19 samples. They were getting 58 to 60 hours per week, but twice in the past month and a half, they’ve been laid low by some other sickness and had to wait to test negative to go back to work. Getting overtime is over now, though. Their clinic is out of money for it. A lot of folks have it worse.

My three other housemates are all unemployed. Two work in food service, so they basically can’t work right now. The third person was employed as a copy editor on a contract that came up for renewal in mid-April. Whatever the plans had been, it wasn’t a surprise when she didn’t get the extension. Her employer shut down the rest of the team, and her direct supervisor said they’re trying to outsource the work to an English speaking country with lower wages and labor standards. A lot of folks have it worse.

She gets unemployment, but one of my two housemates in food service isn’t eligible to receive it. He quit his last job to get away from the working conditions there, and he was looking for a new one when the governor started shutting everything down. His partner, the other food service worker, had his own hours cut leading up to being laid off entirely, but that meant he was eligible for unemployment benefits. When he tried to file, the Employment Security Department website was still rejecting people and told him he’d have to come to an in-person hearing to have it sorted out. Obviously, that’s not the case, but it meant he didn’t have enough for April rent as we’d planned. A lot of people have it worse. His dad still had a job at Microsoft and he was able to get help with rent and groceries.

We’re not paying rent in May.

There is a more organized rent strike going on, but our participation is less an act of class solidarity than material need. I’m still employed, but I’m a Millennial in my mid-30s who graduated college straight into the Great Recession and have bounced from job to job as they went bankrupt, laid off staff for international consolidation, or union busted.  But I have been employed and have my first union job now. I graduated without debt, and the car I’ve had for 15 years still runs. Once it fully breaks down, I won’t have the money to get a replacement, so it’ll be my last car, too.

We’re not paying rent in May, and in a lot of ways that’s a shame because up till now we’ve had a great relationship with our homeowner. He and his sister live downstairs. We’ve brought each other mail and home-baked cookies. I dug the fire pit in the backyard and bought the new picnic table. In October, it’ll be five years I’ve been here. We told him we can’t afford to keep paying for shelter during this pandemic. He can’t evict us, but our lease is up in the summer, and who knows how renewing it will go? Maybe they’ll come after all of us with debt collectors when the pandemic ends. Maybe the hit to our rental history will make it hard to find any new place.

Then I remember that a lot of folks have it worse. Like my friend who’s been working from home for more than two months and stuck in their apartment because they’re the sort of person with a compromised immune system and enough disabilities that should they get sick and need the hospital, doctors might make the “tough decision” to write them off as having too many comorbidities to devote scarce medical resources that might be used to save an abled person. Of course, their fiance still goes in and out of the house because they work at a pizza place on Cap Hill, and people still want pizza delivered. With luck, the fiance won’t bring home a sickness. They need both incomes to keep that apartment because they’re still paying off student loans at 27. But worst come to worst, their parents might be able to help them out. A lot of folks have it worse.

An acquaintance of mine found out she and her husband wouldn’t be eligible for the stimulus. Rent’s coming and they have no income, but they do have an infant that needs groceries and diapers. I sent her $100 we called a loan because I’m still employed, and a lot of folks have it worse.

Thousands of people in our area still live without permanent shelter. Some can stay in their vehicles but others are completely unsheltered except for their tent or what’s makeshift. Between March 1 and March 17, the city of Seattle did 15 sweeps of homeless encampments even with shelters already overpopulated and unsafe. In the name of public safety, people without homes are pushed even further to the margins and the pandemic is worsened. Hotel rooms sit empty because no one wants to travel. People too poor to afford permanent lodging can’t afford hotel rooms. The problem seems intractable under the capitalism of neoliberalism because they have no money and that’s how we value their lives. A lot of people have it worse.

In jails and prisons, we have still have children, we have people arrested but convicted of no crimes, and people duly convicted of heinous as well as arbitrary crimes all held hostage in cramped spaces that put their lives at risk. We could point out that jailed people bond out and jailers regularly go back to their homes, therefore this is a danger to the community. But like with the unsheltered, this is logic that holds the incarcerated outside of our definition of community. Public safety should be making sure that a drug charge or robbery conviction aren’t death sentences. But we want the bad people to be punished, and they’re all incarcerated so very far out of sight.

So in many ways, I’m quite fortunate. Compared to many of my class, I’m really quite well off. But I’d trade all of that awareness for a rent and mortgage moratorium, for the security that if I am kicked out of my house or it burns in a grease fire, I won’t face brutality if I have lie down outside to rest, that I won’t have to fear death should police choose to send me to jail and cram me in holding cell with fellows of my station who are ill.

A lot of folks have it worse. The frustrating thing is, there’s no reason any of us should have to.

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