April 1, the day that rent is due for most people, is less than a week away. But with the economic effects of the coronavirus already in clear view, many simply won’t have the money to pay their landlords. What exactly are they supposed to do?
The global pandemic has already led millions of Americans to lose their jobs with only a weak social safety net in place, and the government has done little so far to offer extra relief. While Donald Trump has ordered a freeze on foreclosures and evictions for almost half of single-family U.S. homeowners, the renter class has been left in the dust. New York, the world’s coronavirus hotspot, is also a city where around two-thirds of the population are renters. Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that he “took care of the rent issue” by suspending evictions in the state for 90 days. But that decision only delays the problem. Once the moratorium expires, New Yorkers who can’t pay their rent could still face eviction and mounting costs.
As an attorney from Legal Aid Society put it to Gothamist, “The eviction stay, while welcome, is the quiet before the storm.”
New York housing advocates are now pushing for a bill that would forgive all rent and mortgage payments for three months and are circulating a petition to pressure the governor. But while activists and lawmakers are still fighting to pass the bill—and the governor is seemingly missing from the issue altogether—other actions, including organizing for a rent strike, are being considered. So what does all of this mean for New Yorkers on April 1? VICE spoke to Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All, about a potential rent strike, the current crisis, and how to talk to your neighbors (with appropriate social distance) about what’s happening right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you explain what a rent strike is and why it applies to this current moment?
A rent strike is when tenants come together to take intentional political action to not pay the rent in order to win a demand. It’s an incredibly powerful tactic of withholding your economic power over the landlord. It’s typically used at the height of a campaign as an escalation tactic after you’ve exhausted many other measures, and you’re like, ‘You won’t meet our demands, we’re not going to give you our rent. No heat, no rent. No repairs, no rent.’
But right now you’re talking about demands from the state, correct?
That’s what’s interesting about the discussion around a rent strike right now. Typically when the tenant movement is talking about a rent strike we mean against a specific landlord. It’s a tactic that’s incredibly effective against the landlord because that’s who you’re withholding your economic power from. What’s interesting about this moment is that the tactic doesn’t necessarily meet the target. Right now we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people, a number that could go to millions of people, who are unable to pay the rent. People are demanding that the state step in and do something about that.
So what should New Yorkers look out for regarding actions around rent and housing right now?
We are not currently organizing a rent strike for April 1. We do understand that many, many people will not be paying their rent on April 1. What we’re doing is we’re running a campaign to demand that the state cancel the rent and the state suspend tenants' obligation to pay rent to their landlords. In that context, we believe that there are a number of things that we need to do—we have a petition circulating for the governor, people need to talk to their neighbors, and we’re lifting up our collective voices to demand that rent be cancelled.
A rent strike is certainly on the table as a tactic that we may turn to given that context. We are calling for a universal cancellation of the rent for all tenants. There are too many people in our city and state who work in a precarious economy. Maybe they haven’t lost their job, but they’ve lost a significant amount of their income, if you’re an Uber driver, work in the gig economy, or are a server. We’re saying nobody should have to pay rent for the next three months and that’s that.
If a rent strike does happen, why is it important to join even if you can pay your rent?
There are many, many of us who can’t pay their rent and that number is only going to grow. It’s really critical that renters across the state stand together to demand an economy that works for all of us at this moment. That’s why when we're talking about a rent strike it’s important that you start talking to your neighbors in your building. It’s much less powerful if we are individually not able to pay our rent. If we collectively make a political demand and together are not paying our rent, that’s a powerful tactic.
How should we talk to our neighbors and others about a potential rent strike?
We’ve been saying in the housing movement for a long time that everyone is just one paycheck or life event away from an eviction. It could be a medical emergency, a loss of job, or a death in the family. The thing about COVID-19 is that the life event we’ve been talking about that’s so real for everyone just happened to everybody all at the same time. There are millions of people who are all of a sudden really open to our message and urgently waiting and needing to take action.
Even though we’re supposed to be self-isolating and we are, it’s also not impossible to talk to your neighbors right now. You can post a flyer in your building lobby, on people’s doors so they see them, and post our petition asking the governor to cancel the rent. You can ask people to sign up with their phone numbers and then set up a WhatsApp group for your building, where people can talk to each other about what's going on.
So what should we be doing on April 1?
I think on April 1 thousands of people aren’t going to pay rent because they can’t. If someone calls me right now and they’re saying ‘I can’t pay the rent,’ we are advising them not to. Because if you can’t pay the rent and you're choosing between your rent and your groceries and your medical care and all your other costs of living, the most important thing right now is to stay healthy. You can’t be taken to court right now—the housing courts in New York are closed. So we’re hopeful we’re going to win our rent cancellation, we’re fighting like hell to win it.
If you can’t pay the rent on April 1 you’re not going to have to pay it for at least a little while. We’re really afraid that you will have to pay it later, that’s why this energy has to continue, but people should rest easy knowing that they’re not going to be evicted right away. That being said, lots of people have lost their income and have no hope of income coming in, which is why it’s important that all rent is forgiven, no questions asked.
Thousands of people aren’t going to pay the rent on April 1 and that’s not in anybody’s control. We hope that by May 1 if the situation hasn’t been rectified by the city and the state government, that there’s some way for tenants to not pay rent collectively and intentionally and powerfully and not alone.
If you are someone who can afford to pay rent right now, would you advise not paying rent on April 1?
It depends on what’s going on with your building. It’s really important that rent strikes happen on the local level, because you want your landlord to feel some pressure. Our theory here is that by pressuring a number of landlords we can create a political crisis for the governor and force the governor to act. If there’s a rent strike going on in your building on April 1, I would absolutely say don’t pay rent on April 1. If there’s not, it’s a different situation.
Some of us are more vulnerable than others when it comes to possibility of eviction and punitive measures. How do we make sure we are doing everything we can to protect those members of our community, both now and when the eviction moratoriums are lifted?
For those of us who can pay the rent, it’s really important to try and find a way to reach out and not let people who can’t pay the rent feel like they’re alone and isolated and don’t have any resources at this time. There are mutual aid networks popping up across the city and across the state and there’s probably one in your neighborhood. You should figure out what sort of ways you can safely communicate with the people who you’re living near. Not everyone knows about the eviction moratorium and what's going on with it, so if you find out about this and you can make sure folks in your building know about it, helping to spread the word is always important.
Are you seeing rent raises as another big problem right now?
I think that landlords aren’t expecting rent on April 1, whether the state cancels the rent or not. Landlords know that people can’t pay the rent, that’s just the reality. What’s happening is for tenants whose rent leases are expiring during this time, people are seeing pretty crazy rent increases. We think that’s because landlords know that it’s going to be really hard to find other housing so they’re price gouging. The idea is that maybe they try to make in nine months what they would typically make in twelve. They’re just using this moment of vulnerability to raise people’s rent because there’s nowhere to go. We’ve absolutely heard that happen.
How do you see this current moment fitting into the history of rent strikes in the state?
Rent strikes are a powerful tactic that helped us get first forms of rent control in the early 20th century. This is an incredibly interesting political moment where we’re thinking about using rent strikes as a way to win massive public policy. It’s out of times of great crisis and great tenant organizing that we’ve won some of the most radical and vital housing policy. Out of World War I we got rent control, out of the Great Depression we got public housing. Out of the fiscal crisis in the 1970s we got an expansive network of limited equity cooperatives and not-for-profit housing.
I actually do think this is a terrifying moment in so many ways, but it’s also a moment of great potential where thousands and thousands of people who have never been involved in the housing movement before are understanding for the first just what we mean when we say that the housing market is precarious and unstable and bound to fail working people. They didn’t think that was them. All of the sudden now they know it’s them. We have this moment to really change how our housing system is structured and to push for bold solutions and that’s what we’re trying to do.
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