Andrea Borgen Abdallah, a prominent LA restaurateur and owner of Barcito in Downtown, is calling on an industrywide rent strike in response to this week’s countywide closure of outdoor dining. Borgen Abdallah published an op-ed today in Life & Thyme making the case for collective action as the only substantive solution to the industry’s existential threat.
Borgen Abdallah began floating the idea on November 13 when she sent out an email to her fellow board members of the California Restaurant Association’s Los Angeles chapter. She had been stewing over the previous day’s meeting that focused exclusively on lobbying to reopen indoor dining. But it seemed impossible to justify reopening indoor dining, especially with new coronavirus cases spiking across the country. It was the wrong fight to focus on, nor the winning strategy: Even if indoor dining reopened, it still wouldn’t be enough to cover costs and keep many struggling restaurants afloat. So Borgen Abdallah sent an email proposing a different idea, one that would suture the hospitality industry’s bullet wound, rather than treat it with a band-aid.
“I can’t speak for everyone on this thread, but without rent relief, we will not survive this,” Borgen Abdallah wrote of dining restrictions in her email. “A rent strike seems like the only strategy that has any legs.”
The proposed rent strike was met with positive response from board members. As Borgen Abdallah describes, a strike would withhold rent from landlords to place pressure on them to join restaurateurs in demanding financial support from the government.
“I think a rent strike is our best opportunity to rally those troops, garner support from both the public and our officials, and make the big, impactful change we need to attempt to survive this,” Borgen Abdallah wrote in her email to the CRA-LA board. “Anything short will eventually lead to catastrophe.”
On Sunday, November 22, LA County health officials announced that outdoor dining would be shut down on November 25 at 10 p.m. due to a sharp increase in new cases around the county. The focus of her fellow board members and restaurateurs shifted back to litigation and countering the new restrictions. Two days later, on November 24, the California Restaurant Association went to court hoping to block the proposed closures, but ultimately lost. That same evening, Borgen Abdallah says, fellow board members were “busy calling in to that county meeting” to discuss both new dining restrictions and a new stay-at-home mandate.
But it seemed to be the wrong fight yet again. The dance of opening and closing restaurants misdirects from the central issue: Federal relief for the industry. And the best shot at achieving that, says Borgen Abdallah, is through a rent strike that pressures landlords into siding with tenants.
In her op-ed, Borgen Abdallah doubled down on her call for a rent strike.
The should-they or shouldn’t-they of restaurant re-opening is a distraction. It distracts government officials from having to provide us with any tangible relief, prevents restaurants from organizing around a central message, and convinces the public that our survival is strictly tied to this single issue...
We need to go on a rent strike. We need to join together, start withholding rent, and force our landlords to share this burden with us. Only then an we unite in demanding relief from our collective obligation to pay.
Beyond the op-ed, Borgen Abdallah is also launching an Instagram account and website called No Relief, No Rent to help recruit and organize a rent strike. Some of her colleagues, including Here And Now’s Sarah Meade, have already joined in support, but noted that they have been withholding rent since March yet their landlords won’t budge on negotiations. “We’ve all been fighting our own individual battles, without a collective voice, or agenda,” Borgen Abdallah adds. “This is an opportunity to bring us together, and demand relief, in unison.”
Borgen Abdallah is currently in talks with the Independent Hospitality Coalition over potential support. The IHC is an activist organization made up of independent restaurants and hospitality workers across the state. Their support may sway more restaurants across the city (and state) to join in collective action, and the visibility of LA’s restaurant industry could influence local industries in other regions across the country to take similar action
Should a rent strike in Los Angeles prove successful in getting landlords on the side of restaurants to fight for government relief, it may prove instrumental in winning much needed legislation for the industry. Whether that relief comes from local officials — or an incoming federal administration that appears more willing to push rescue packages — is yet to be seen.