On April 1, tenants at 1234 Pacific Street in Crown Heights dropped white sheets over their fire escape — a symbol borrowed from organizers in Montreal — to inform their neighbors that they would not be paying rent this month. These tenants are part of a wave of recent rent strikes in cities across the country responding to nearly 10 million new unemployment claims so far as a result of the coronavirus shutdown.
After Pacific Street’s management company refused their collective bargain offer to reduce or eliminate rent for tenants who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, the building’s tenant association formally declared they were on strike and are instead appealing directly to the governor — #CancelRent Cuomo, one banner reads.
In New York City, as many as 40 percent of tenants will be unable to pay rent this month. This number is only expected to go up with projections of a “return to normalcy” ranging anywhere between three to 18 months depending on the path taken: possibly millions dying from the virus or the eventual development of an effective treatment or vaccine.
In the meantime, workers whose income has been affected can expect a $1,200 stimulus check and not a whole lot more. With shelter in place orders still in effect for the foreseeable future and an estimate of up to 47 million lost jobs, people online have been quick to note that the one-time checks, which many people will likely pay rent with, amount to a bailout for landlords. When compared to the multi-trillion-dollar corporate bailout just passed by Congress, rent cancellation is a modest proposal.
Rent Strike 2020, “an activist organization working to build a nationwide mutual aid community and working-class power,” was initially started by Joshua Collins, a 26-year-old socialist truck driver and candidate for Washington’s 10th Congressional District. Since starting the campaign, with help from Socialist Alternative and DSA’s Rose Caucus, 1.5 million Americans have signed onto their petition for governors of every state to issue an immediate freeze on rents, residential mortgages and utility bills for a two month period. In addition, independent tenants unions and residents have been organizing in dozens of cities across the country with the ultimate goal of canceling rent for the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The rent strikes we are now witnessing differ, in many respects, from those of the past where tenants withhold rent to demand that their landlord address various grievances like rising prices, inadequate services or lack of repairs. According to Michael Leonard, a tenants rights and housing lawyer at TakeRoot Justice, “When lawyers are looking for people for rent strikes, they’re looking at people who have bad conditions in their apartments — things that could be translated into the legal language of the courts, which can result in monetary damages.” Prior to this current crisis, Leonard said, candidates who simply couldn’t pay rent did not have a strong legal case for going on rent strike.
The ultimate demand being put forward by organizations like Housing Justice for All, the Right to the City Alliance, Rent Strike 2020 and others this April is a complete cancellation of rent at the statewide level. In other words, individual buildings or tenant groups going on strike this time around are using the tactic within a larger strategy aimed at forcing governors to intervene. “From a strict legal perspective, you have a different kind of person who is ripe to participate in a rent strike,” Leonard added.
Mallika Singh, 22, along with their three roommates who live in Brooklyn, are also on strike. Since graduating in May, Singh has mostly worked gig-based jobs and part-time at a farmers’ market. Once the pandemic swept through New York City — now the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States — Singh and their roommates collectively decided to enter into a two-week quarantine thinking they had likely been exposed at the market. The four of them have all either lost their jobs or are not working at the moment.
“I think landlords are rightly afraid of a rent strike. That is one of the most potent weapons that tenants have.”
“I was hearing stuff like landlords still have to pay their mortgages,” Singh said. “I know a landlord paying their mortgage is not the same thing as someone paying for housing.” Still, there was uncertainty around the risks involved and the terminology being thrown around online. Singh said someone reaching out through social media made them overcome their initial hesitations about joining the strike.
After looking up their apartment on the Who owns what in NYC? website, they discovered that their property management company — which manages or owns 18 other buildings in the city — markets itself as always maximizing the bottom line. They then decided to reach out to the other tenants with flyers inviting them to join them in their strike. On Sunday they received a letter from the management company informing tenants that they were all still obligated to pay rent.
“This is not like the movies where the evil landlord in a suit is trying to take advantage of his tenants,” the letter said. “This is an unprecedented time when everybody will suffer.” Hours later the president of the management company reached out to one of Singh’s roommates pretending to be a tenant in another building in order to join their Signal group chat. He outed himself the next day when he joined their Zoom meeting and forgot to change his display name.
“I think landlords are rightly afraid of a rent strike,” Leonard said. “That is one of the most potent weapons that tenants have.” So far, Singh and their roommates have managed to get 25 other tenants on board from the 84 units they reached out to and have formed a tenant council.
A rent strike is not without its risks, but there is safety in numbers. New York City recently passed one of the strongest eviction moratoriums in the country as a result of the organizing done by Housing Justice for All and Right to Counsel NYC, two coalitions that Leonard works with. The moratorium prevents landlords from evicting their tenants for a 90-day period, but only delays what could turn into a mass eviction crisis a few months down the line.
“So many were not able to pay rent today. Why would anyone expect them to pay 3x as much in 90 days?” tweeted State Senator Michael Gianaris, who introduced a rent and mortgage relief bill to New York. With eviction courts closed, Leonard said, “tenants are definitely in a stronger position than ever to make demands. This is a moment where we can use these tactics that were not really available to us before.”
Across the country, organizers are helping tenants plug into their local networks. Housing Justice in NYC, Philadelphia Tenants Union and the Autonomous Tenants Union in Chicago are some of the groups that have released thorough tenant toolkits specific to the COVID-19 crisis. Seasoned tenant groups like the Ridgewood Tenants Union, which lent support to Singh and their roommates, have been busy providing mutual aid, which includes initiating tenants who are new to organizing.
In Austin, a rent strike hotline has been set up to provide information on legal rights and how to negotiate collectively with landlords in addition to trying to connect tenants to legal support. “Poor and working-class people don’t have the same resources as large corporations to defend themselves,” said Sam Law, a graduate student at the University of Texas who is assisting with the hotline. “What that means is that the cost of this crisis is going to be borne by them.” Large retailers like Subway, Mattress Firm and the Cheesecake Factory have already told their landlords that they will not be paying rent this month.
Rent Strike ATX in Austin is part of 5 Demands Global, an autonomous network that was formed by various organizers working at the local level around the time the coronavirus outbreak started to spread in the United States. In addition to setting up a map and directory of organized rent strikes in North America, 5 Demands Global is focusing its organizing efforts toward winning demands for workers at the national level: free testing, treatment and medical care for all; immediate guarantee of food stamps and paid sick leave; cancellation of rent, mortgage payments, utilities and debt payments; the immediate release of all prisoners and immigrants in detention; and for unoccupied homes to be made available to anyone who needs shelter.
When I called the national rent strike hotline the Sunday before April 1, no one picked up. Peter, who is based in Detroit, called me back shortly after. The hotline had gone live the day before and was receiving about a call an hour. Peter said there were only two people answering calls but that they hoped to be fully staffed by the end of the week. “We’re ramping up, and we’re ready to support however we can,” he continued. “We’re anticipating that people are going to really be feeling the crunch by May 1.” Other housing organizers have also set their sights on scaling up a rent strike by next month.
“It’s a good way to build power for a general strike for a shutdown of the economy,” Peter said, “because that’s the only way to keep us all safe during the coronavirus.” Peter admitted that the national rent strike hotline doesn’t have the full capacity to support most rent strikers, but views the five demands as a framework that can pull people in from the mainstream due to the volume of people who are “involuntarily rent striking.” As Peter noted, “Really what we’re trying to do is to connect people to their local organizations, and it would be irresponsible of us to do anything else.”
Without an organized movement to address the rental and looming eviction crisis at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, Leonard fears we may see a repeat of some of the consequences that followed the 2008 housing crash: the mass displacement of residents, rental properties being handed over to banks and buildings left without essential services, leaving tenants to fend for themselves.
Some of the buildings Leonard was in contact with before the outbreak have begun to reactivate the tenant networks that may have been idle over the past few months. Leonard said that the structures built by organizers “doing the slow work of tenant organizing over the past however many years are going to be valuable in crisis times.”
A well-organized rent strike presents an opportunity to shift a housing crisis that workers will experience individually to a much larger crisis of the state or national government. Without such a movement, little can be expected from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has already declared the COVID-19 housing crisis “solved,” or President Trump, who built his real estate fortune on displacing tenants from affordable housing units and receiving generous government handouts.
“When people are just shit out of luck with no real legal defenses, its a different kind of demand,” Leonard said. “I think you also get a different type of militancy. Everyone was pretty afraid of this idea three months ago but now folks are like, ‘It’s time.’”
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