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Return of the Rent Party

In Oakland, a bar takes on the housing crisis, one struggling tenant at a time.

 

This is one of many stories from San Francisco's February 2018 Bars & Nightlife issue. Check them all out here.



It's an ordinary Wednesday night in November at Starline Social Club. Patrons loll in booths over tacos and mezcal cocktails, and DJ Lisa, the regular Wednesday-night DJ, spins an all-vinyl set from the quaint stage at the back of the room. Above her, an old-fashioned letter board spells out “RENT PARTY”—the only sign that this may not be an ordinary night at the bar after all. 

The idea of a rent party became popular during the 1920s, when black residents in Harlem used the gatherings as an antidote to exorbitant rents and discriminatory housing practices. In today’s Oakland, the parties are Starline’s uncommon response to a Bay Area–wide housing crisis that continues to displace people to other cities, or worse, to the streets. The club has hosted six of the parties since October, raising a total of $3,600 to help pay rent for individual Oakland residents in need of financial assistance—one recipient for each rent party, chosen based on urgency and need. The DJs donate their fee, Starline contributes half of the evening’s bar proceeds, and partygoers chip in additional donations.

“It came about as a way to maybe alleviate our own mental uncertainty or anguish,” says Adam Hatch, Starline’s co-owner and creative director. “We are fortunate enough to be employed and healthy and mobile. But literally—and I think this is true for pretty much all businesses in Oakland, the Bay Area, L.A., all over the fucking place—there are people outside of your restaurant starving.” In Starline’s case, that juxtaposition is especially poignant: Just one block away, a tent encampment strewn with living room furniture lines the sidewalks under the 980 freeway.

When Starline put out a call for Oaklanders to get in touch about their financial troubles, the response was overwhelming. Hatch received around 150 emails in the first two weeks. But in some ways, raising money to pay one month’s rent for a single individual may seem like a woefully inadequate response to a systemic failure. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that Starline could do more good if it donated the money to a housing advocacy group or a homeless shelter. But for Hatch, the rent party model had an appealing simplicity—especially since he himself once benefited from a similar kind of direct giving. After losing both his parents in the late ’90s, when he was just 17, Hatch wound up homeless for multiple stretches of time.

“I credit this Christian family for being like, ‘What’s up with you?’” he says. The family took him in for a week, and he used the time to regroup and enroll in nursing school. “The kindness that they showed me changed my entire life.”

In turn, Hatch hopes he can help make a difference in the lives of people like Eddie, a 31-year-old Oakland resident who reached out to Starline after reading about the rent parties online. Eddie—who asked that his real name not be used—was put in a precarious position when his previous employer shuttered without notice and didn’t pay him. He owed $800 in rent and utilities for the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his partner and his housemate, and he expected no other income until his new job started the following month.

As the beneficiary of Starline’s first rent party, in October, Eddie wound up receiving $650. His landlord let him pay the rest the next month, along with a late fee. He kept his lease. “I was very surprised to hear anything back from them. I was very lucky,” he says. “The people [in Oakland]—not even the organizations or anything—the people that live here are the reasons why I was able to pay my rent.”

Back at the November rent party, DJ Lisa alternates between soulful oldies and ’90s R&B as folks start wandering onto the dance floor. It’s hard to say how many even know that a rent party is under way. The beneficiaries of these events aren’t eager to broadcast their financial difficulties to the world. Most, like Eddie, choose to stay anonymous and don’t even attend their own rent parties. If you’re looking for the kind of fundraiser that wears its good intentions on its sleeve, this isn’t that.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe a radically ordinary night out is all that’s needed to make a small, but deeply personal, dent in the housing crisis. “Other businesses should be doing this,” Hatch says. “I can’t stress this enough—it’s really simple. We’re not trying to solve the world’s problems. We’re trying to go from person to person and directly try to help these people as they come, case by case.”

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco.

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