Open Letter to My Landlord: The Word of the Month is “Renegotiation”

Dear Randall Group/CTL Management, (Please forward to corporate, as far up the chain as possible.) First of all, in this household, we’ve long ago stopped responding to your…

Dear Randall Group/CTL Management,

(Please forward to corporate, as far up the chain as possible.)

First of all, in this household, we’ve long ago stopped responding to your bizarre annual surveys where you ask whether your tenants are content, without ever mentioning the elephant in the living room.  You give us options to rate how content we are, all of which are designed to reflect badly on your employees if we aren’t happy.  The reason we stopped responding to your survey is because it’s meaningless and pointless, but for the record, we think all of your employees are very nice, and you should pay them a living wage, too.

As unlikely as it is that any of the relevant corporate investors or board members of the Randall Group ever see these letters of mine — this is what your CTL Management, Inc. firewall is there for, to absorb that sort of flak, so you can pretend you’re just playing with stocks — I do try to make them interesting and educational, each monthly update on the rent strike a bit different from the last.  As you know, I also write because it is one of the requirements of some of the relevant evictions moratorium legislation that you be notified each month of whether your tenants’ situation has changed since the previous month, with regards to loss of employment due to the pandemic.  It hasn’t.

But there’s so much more to be said, so much has happened in the past month, as with every month in this very dynamic year.  The word of the month in the New York business press, we are told by Marketplace, the NPR show that I know you and I both listen to every weekday day, is “renegotiation.”  They say corporate clients all over the city are renegotiating their rents, and that they have gone down by an average of 30%.  Still completely, criminally outrageously high by any sane standard, still a number representing a constant sucking sound of most of society’s hard-earned money flowing upwards towards the pockets of folks like the Randalls and the Kushners every moment of every day — but less than it was Before Corona.

Let’s take a quick look back at certain relevant dates and numbers for the sake of context, before I proceed further.

March, 2007:  I moved to this building you own with my family, on lovely Francis Street, in southeast Portland.  Rent for a two-bedroom was $500 a month — a standard amount back then across the country, outside of the gentrified zones that I had been forced to leave in prior years, such as New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco.

March, 2019:  after 12 years of continuous tenancy, paying the rent on time every month, raising our children on the same wall-to-wall carpeting that was here prior to our moving in, you raised the rent annually every March, and by March of 2019 the rent was now $1,175 per month — for a significantly deteriorated version of the same moldy apartment we moved into in 2007.

March, 2020:  weeks into an unprecedented nationwide and largely worldwide pandemic lockdown that completely dominated the news and all of our lives, we received the standard-issue, annual every-March rent increase, as if it had been sent by automatic timer, no human intervention possibly involved.

I’ll stop there in my timeline, because after that things get more month-to-month rather than year-to-year.  2020 has been like that, I imagine you’d agree.  (There are at least some things we can probably all agree on.)  But first I need to stew on this point a little more:  you raised the rent during a global pandemic lockdown.

See, this is when I fully, truly realized what I had already known:  that there is no “you.”  You are just a figment of our collective imagination.  You are not human.  You are a faceless corporate entity, backed by corporate investors from around the world — speaking of which, I’d specifically like to single out the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund putting its oil money into the US real estate market, fuck you very much, your investments are just as destructive to the lives of the American working class as your oil is to the Earth, contrary to your slick social democratic propaganda.  Like your Norwegian oil baron and Russian oligarch and New York billionaire investors, you, Randall Group — theoretically based here in Portland, Oregon in an ugly glass building on Barbur Boulevard — have no idea what is going on, “on the ground,” so to speak.  Or should we say, “in the theater of conflict,” or where your renters live.  You know, that 50% of society that rents, and has to listen to people on TV every day telling us how stupid we are that we haven’t taken out a massive loan in order to invest our nonexistent money in the impossibly over-valued real estate market yet to become “home owners.”

Like the bankers enjoying an espresso in the shadow of the towering statue of the iconic social democratic blue collar worker beside the Norwegian parliament, the Randall Group investors who may live in the suburbs of Oslo or in some gated community in Southwest Portland or Beaverton or Moscow or London would seem to be just as blissfully ignorant of reality on the ground among their thousands of Class C apartment complexes, be they in Portland or Kansas City.  While some of the real, human landlords across the country were doing things like canceling rent for a month and lowering the rent for the duration of the pandemic, actively trying to work with their tenants to get through this very difficult time, as they say, “together,” from your management company there has been nothing but silence, aside from the occasional helpful tip about applying for government aid that has run out, or about keeping the pipes from freezing in the winter.

This deafening silence, of course, is the direct result of your lack of humanity.  I mean by the fact that you don’t really exist.  There is no head on this beast, you’re just a corporate creation, designed entirely to suck the money out of society and feed it to the rich.  That’s why you doubled our rent — not because you had to, but because you could.  And it’s all you know how to do, because it’s the governing formula you gave to CTL Management, a corporate entity that exists only to serve out your instructions — raise the rent every year as much as you can get away with legally, don’t fix anything any more than you need to to abide by the minimal legal codes, don’t pay any of your workers any more than you can get away with.  Not only do I know this is how CTL is told to manage your properties, but you actually award the best property managers for doing exactly the sorts of things I’m describing, every year, in downtown Portland, at a gala event which I have unfortunately had the displeasure of witnessing personally.

So, catching us up to the end of November, from late March, when you raised the rent again.  That’s when we stopped paying, along with a lot of other folks, for one reason or another.  How many aren’t paying because they can’t, and how many aren’t paying because, like us, they believe in something called society, is unclear.  But with each passing month, your silence becomes more deafening, as with each passing month, your management company leaves us with a new invoice, indicating how many thousands of dollars in back rent we owe, all of which will come due as soon as the applicable local, state or federal eviction moratoriums expire.

The thing is, with each passing month, shit is happening, you know?  I know you this.  Whoever you are — and I’m envisioning mostly rich white guys in suits, in different locations, but whoever you are, perhaps a slightly more diverse group than that, I don’t know — you read the business press, like I do.  So you know that even those of us who did finally get money for being unemployed — which in my case took seven months of waiting — that money runs out on December 26th.  Congress is gridlocked and can’t pass any further aid packages, and we are facing what Marketplace referred to a few days ago as a “fiscal cliff.”

Here are some statistics just in in the past month, which I have gathered from reliable, mainstream press reports, some of which you can find, if you like, by perusing the Facebook page of Artists for Rent Control, a network you inspired me to start up some years ago:

• 1 in 15 people in the US currently has an active, contagious, coronavirus infection

• over a quarter of a million people in the US have now died, overall

• 1 in every 1,000 Black people in the US has died of the coronavirus

• in the time before the CDC’s eviction moratorium went into effect, hundreds of thousands of evictions took place in states without their own moratoriums, which have now resulted in at least 10,000 more deaths from Covid-19

• among professional artists like me — which includes some of your other tenants, and many of your former tenants who you long ago priced out of the city — 65% are fully unemployed, and 95% have lost income

I could go on with the statistics, but we all know how dismal the situation is for people who are not happily invested in the booming stock market.

What we also know, importantly, is that you really don’t give a shit about us.  Now wait, an astute reader might be thinking, how do we know this?  All we get is total silence from the landlord corporation with each passing month.  Ah, but there is something called Multifamily Northwest.  This is your lobbying arm, where you invest a small fraction of your profits from raising our rents every year, to make sure you can keep raising our rents every year.  Multifamily Northwest makes it very clear where you stand — you are against the eviction moratorium.  You are against the Oregon legislature reconvening in December to extend Oregon’s eviction moratorium.  You have the ear of the governor, who constantly refers to you as a “stakeholder,” while she never refers to us renters like that.  The only stakes we hold, it seems, are the kind we can hammer into the ground to keep the tent from blowing away.

Not that you’re against a bailout of the landlord corporations, or the renters, as long as it means their rent money going straight to you.  But until that bailout can be worked out, you’re against any eviction moratoriums — your dying and disease-afflicted renters with their hungry children be damned.

So, once again, with feeling:  the word of the month is “renegotiation.”  We can keep on kicking the can down the road.  Prediction:  because the Oregon legislature is dominated by people much more intelligent than you, despite all of the money you regularly bribe them with (I mean donate to their campaigns) — people who can read the literal writing on the wall, and know that ending the eviction moratorium would cause untold suffering and death, and have a very destabilizing effect on society overall, because this is the situation, Oregon’s eviction moratorium will be extended when the special session meets in December.

But with the Congress in the state it’s in in DC, whether there’s ever going to be another bailout is very much a matter of question.  We can wait and see — with us continuing our nonpayment of rent, and continuing to encourage our neighbors to join us in this endeavor, and with you continuing to send anonymous invoices each month indicating our mounting debts — and see what eventually happens in Congress.  Or you can break your sociopathic silence.  You can communicate with your tenants, and renegotiate the rent.

There are a lot of other things you could do.  But “renegotiate” is the word of the month, Grover.

By the end of December, there’s only one word any of us will be thinking of, unfortunately.  And it’s one that you bear such a huge responsibility for, because the main reason all those expendable, I mean essential, workers keep going to work every day at their multiple full-time jobs is because they have to funnel their earnings upwards, to fill your overflowing coffers some more.  In fact, you and the system you support through your lobbying groups — through your campaign donations, which always go to Republicans, when they have a chance in a given race — you are responsible in such a significant way for the ongoing stratification of wealth in this country, for the widening divide between rich and poor, between Black, Brown, and white, for the fact that so many parents never see their children.  You did this.  With intention, if by means of lobbying entities and management companies, rather than by getting your own corporate, “invisible hands of the market” dirty.

And that word for next month of which I speak:  take a fucking guess.  Still don’t know?  OK, I’ll give it to you: exponential.

David Rovics and family

P.S.  The dishwasher is still broken.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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