An excerpt on rent strikes in Vancouver, New York City and St. Louis from the book “No Trespassing!” by Anders Corr (1999)
Mobilizing Support and the Ripple Effect
Squatting and rent strikes may seem self-interested on the surface: participants seek lower rents, better living conditions, or free land for themselves and their families. But these forms of direct action have major benefits for communities and society as a whole. They create a history from which future movements can learn, they act as a constant check on society’s increasingly skewed distribution of wealth, and they demonstrate the power of united action. When successful, they inspire new movements and encourage landlords and governments into earlier or even preemptive concessions.
Even when they fail, land and housing movements can have a positive effect on their surrounding community by decreasing the profits associated with land speculation and rack-renting (raising rents to the highest possible market value with little regard to the rate of tenant turnover). In the Ann Arbor campaign mentioned above, landlords other than those confronted with rent strikes improved conditions for their tenants. Just as violent resistance has a deterrent effect on repression, rent strikes and squatting deter irresponsible landlords. In addition to the Ann Arbor example, a rent strike in Vancouver, British Columbia, illustrates this ripple effect, or expanding concession principle. Direct action tends to spread. The more a landowner thinks direct action by tenants is imminent, the more likely he or she is to make preemptive concessions.
The Vancouver rent strike failed for strikers but yielded a success for many other tenants. It targeted buildings managed by Wall and Redekop for five months and began with a high degree of participation. After Wall and Redekop announced 9 to 10% rental increases for all units inhabited for over a year, 195 tenants collectively deposited their rents into a Vancouver Tenants Council (VTC) escrow account on April 1, 1971. By August of the same year, only 18 tenants remained on strike, against all of whom the court ordered eviction. Tenants failed to achieve the main VTC goal, a legal right to collective bargaining where voted for by a majority of tenants. In an illustration of the ripple effect, however, the strike did yield victories for other tenants in Vancouver.
According to the VTC, “Scores of individual tenants had their increases ‘voluntarily’ reduced by Wall and Redekop in an attempt to dissuade them from joining the strike… [N]o tenant who was legally ‘eligible’ for a rent increase commencing on May 1st has subsequently received a notice of an increase from Wall and Redekop.”
Even tenants in Vancouver not under management by Wall and Redekop benefited by the strike. “Corporate landlords in the city,” states the VTC, “did not raise rent arbitrarily during the course of the strike.” In an atmosphere charged with the idea of rent strike, almost all landlords perceived the danger of providing provocation for further strikes. Even those considering the purchase of rental property in Vancouver may have paused for a short period before buying. In this way, the strike’s atmosphere of tenant resistance slowed the rate of rent increases for the average Vancouver tenant. 
The ripple effect creates positive spillover benefits for the non-striker from the work and risks of the striker, but strikers can use the effect to their advantage. By showing how the rent strike benefits non-strikers, they win non-striker support. Supporters see the success of squatting and rent strikes as movement toward a solution to their own housing problems.
The housing collective of the West Side Women’s Liberation Center spoke of its support for housing struggles in New York City in 1970 as an improvement of all women’s housing, not as a form of philanthropy. “We must understand our support for the squatting movement in terms of our own very real and immediate housing needs, not as a gesture of sympathy towards others we consider more oppressed than ourselves.”
Squatting and rent strikes benefit society as a whole, but they also depend upon society for success. From the very beginning of a land and housing movement to its growth into a mass phenomenon, it utilizes an existing matrix of social connections. Organizing within one’s own community at the beginning works because it mobilizes already existing networks of people connected by word of mouth. They know each other from current or past neighborhoods, workplaces, social connections, and cultural or political organizations. This style of community organizing uses to best advantage the trust already existing from long-time membership in an organization or group of friends.
Before an occupation in Lima, Peru, on July 27, 1954, a restaurant worker invited several of the waiters to take part. In turn, one of the waiters recruited a neighbor and a family from his provincial club, the Sons of Paucartambo. The club was a group of recent rural-to-urban immigrants from the province of Paucartambo. These provincial clubs are common organizers of urban squatting in the Third World. Because each new member of the squatter organization had additional contacts in other communities, the group could expand its action to include many different supporter communities at once.
The stronger and more diverse the social movements from which a squatting or rent strike campaign emerges, the more likely it is to succeed. At its height, on January 1, 1964, the New York City rent strike of 1963-64 claimed participation by 525 buildings and 50,000 inhabitants, making it the second largest rent strike in U.S. history. The New York University Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter and a small organization called the Northern Students Movement began this massive struggle by organizing six buildings on the Lower East Side to withhold rent.
What began on this small level grew at an extremely rapid pace because it used already existing organizations to multiply the number of activists and participants. The strike drew on the momentum generated by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement after the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. According to Ronald Lawson, the Civil Rights movement “not only allowed Jesse Gray to find response to his organizing among Harlem’s tenants (he worked with them with little success for ten years prior to that), but it also prepared third parties to enter as ‘conscience constituents'”. Fifteen Harlem organizations joined a coordinating committee initiated by the Community Council on Housing in early December, and many others aided in an unofficial capacity. They included block associations, church groups, Democratic Party clubs, the local NAACP, local CORE chapters, and a labor union (Local 1199 of the Drug and Hospital Workers), all of which publicized the movement in their communities. The Harlem, Downtown, Columbia, Bronx, and East River CORE chapters went further and “dropped their reformist approach” to become involved in the actual organization of rent strikes in their districts.
At a meeting in January 1964, a broad and cross-cultural coalition calling itself the Lower East Side Rent Strike formed to help spread and provide support for the movement. The height of excitement occurred at a January 11 mass meeting attended by 800 people and composed of Harlem tenants and representatives of almost every Civil Rights group and tenants’ organization in the city. Prominent speakers included James Baldwin, William Fitts Ryan, and John Lewis. The rent strike first found its support in the Civil Rights movement and then in housing clinics, which had previously concentrated on isolated buildings. Mark Naison identified several factors that led to success in New York City during 1963-64:
There were three main qualities of the rent strike that contributed to its political effectiveness. First, its size. The larger the rent strike grew, the more politicians perceived in it a threat to the public order, or the danger of a broadly based radical movement arising to undermine established political relationships. Second, militancy. The more the rent strike broke laws, or massed large numbers of people together in volatile situations, the more politicians felt the danger of a contagion of civil disorder to other groups and other issues – a breakdown of the peaceful “rules of the game” in which they were used to operating. Third, rapport between leaders and followers. The more stable the movement’s organization was, and the more closely its participants were linked to its leaders, the more politicians grew afraid that agitation would be lengthy and would spread to other issues when the rent strike ended.
Size is the first important aspect of successful movements mentioned by Naison; it plays a role in the other factors mentioned, militancy and rapport between leaders and followers. The addition of new elements from different communities provides the critical mass needed for success. During the St. Louis public housing rent strike of 1969, community support for tenants tipped the balance in their favor and helped win the strike. On February 1, 1969, with 700 rent strike pledges out of 1,300 tenants, the strike against rent increases began in only one housing project. Seven other projects rapidly joined; at the peak, 35 to 40% of St. Louis’ 8,000 public housing tenants participated.
Meanwhile, tenants held demonstrations, gained allies, and sent delegations to government authorities. Like the New York City strike of 1963-64, the tenants used their strong ties to the local Black community to gain massive support. Many organizations and individuals lent a hand, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Black Coalition, CORE, Action, the Zulu 1200s, the Black Liberators, and African American politicians, churches, fraternities, and sororities. Primarily white groups also supported the strike, including church groups, politicians, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the National Tenants Organization, and the New Democratic Party.
When the 58,000-member Joint Council 13 of the Teamsters union met with the strikers in October, endorsed their demands, and organized the Civil Alliance for Housing with 70 members from the ranks of religious, labor, civic, tenant, and business groups, the strike reached critical mass. The alliance supplied the necessary political weight in a meeting with the mayor and other city officials to gain concessions. Three weeks after the discussions on October 29, officials signed an agreement that conceded most tenant demands, including rent reductions for all (to as low as 25% of income for welfare recipients), a new five-member housing authority (two of them tenants, the other three sympathetic to the strike), a program to advance tenants into project management, and a Tenant Affairs Board with one elected representative from each project to hear grievances and set policy.
Two months later, Congress passed the Brooke amendment to the 1969 Housing Act. It provided federal subsidies to reduce rents for public housing tenants across the nation. In addition to Black ghetto riots and the massive Civil Rights, anti-war, and countercultural movements, the St. Louis strike pushed Congress to pass the Brooke amendment…
 Tongue, Mousey. “Redekop Drops by Flop.” Georgia Straight, 4/30/71, p. 2; Tugwell, Tony. “Rent Strike Helps Everybody.” Georgia Straight, 6J11/71, p. 9; Tugwell, Tony.”Wall Redekop Rent Strike.” Georgia Straight, 6/18/71, p. 2; Tongue, Mousey. “22,000 Withheld: Rent Strike.” Georgia Straight, 3/31/71, p. 3; Balaclava, Nigel. “Wall and Redekop is No Two-Bit Operation.” Georgia Straight, 7/30/71, p. 2; Tenants Council. “Tenants Council Statement Re: Wall & Redekop.” Georgia Straight, 8/20/71, p. 10.