Amid COVID-19 regulations and closures, over one million U.S. citizens filed state unemployment claims for the nineteenth week in a row. Despite an overwhelming amount of the population’s obvious inability to pay for basics like rent, food, and healthcare, the government has only provided one $1,200 stimulus check per person. (Both Republicans and Democrats have agreed to a second stimulus check, but the amount and eligibility are still being debated.) Unemployment benefits were increased by $600 a week during the last week of March, but that benefit is scheduled to expire today, which will affect millions of people's ability to pay their bills—and their rent.
Even with the stimulus check and unemployment benefits (which have been notoriously difficult to apply for), 32 percent of households in the U.S. weren't able to pay rent in July. During this economic crisis, citizens and politicians have advocated to cancel rent on national and local levels, but that has yet to come to fruition, leaving tenants vulnerable. In some cases, renters struggling to pay have been charged exorbitant late fees, faced harassment, and been threatened with eviction by their landlords.
VICE spoke to seven renters about their difficulties with rent payments, how they plan to stay housed, and organizing with other tenants during coronavirus.
Some names have been changed or shortened for privacy reasons. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Meka, 36, San Clemente, CA
I’ve lived in the same building since November 2016. I’ve always paid my rent on time and in full. In mid-March, the small business where I work as a martial arts instructor was understandably asked to close by Governor Newsom’s stay-at-home order. I haven’t had an income since then, other than child support for my two kids. Luckily, that's enough for food and bills, but doesn't even make a dent in my rent, which went up from $1,850 to $1,950 in January.
I read as much as I could about the eviction moratorium and got some info from tenants’ unions and rent strike groups, then told my landlord at the end of March that I wouldn’t be able to pay April’s rent. She pressed me to agree in writing to pay back April’s rent over the next six months in addition to my regular rent, but I refused, not knowing how long we’d be on lockdown or when it would be safe to move or work.
By the end of April, she demanded that I tell her what my plans were. I told her that I couldn’t afford to move or sign a lease somewhere else and that I still wasn’t working. I told her she could just deduct April’s rent from my ridiculous security deposit ($4,200). Once she remembered that she would owe me the difference if I decided to move out, she suddenly got a lot friendlier and agreed that we could also deduct May’s rent from the deposit. Still, she wanted me to tell her if I planned to move out or pay her for June.
I told her it was too dangerous to move my kids during a pandemic. Once I said I couldn’t pay June rent, she told me she would evict us. I didn’t hear from her until I found a three-day notice to vacate taped to my front door on June 17 (the letter was dated June 15). There was no summons or anything for me to respond to, but there was a list of charges that included rent for the months of April and May (which she had already agreed in writing to deduct from my security deposit), plus $111 in late fees for each month.
She emailed again at the end of June to say that she would continue with eviction if I wasn’t out by July 5. I haven’t heard from her since, but am planning to stay in the apartment until the eviction process begins. I plan on emailing her again to let her know that I’m still without income and unable to pay rent for August, so I can be in compliance with the eviction moratorium which says that you have to notify your landlord ahead of a missed payment.
If I get evicted, I’ll probably temporarily move in with my ex for as long as we can make that work, and eventually drive out to stay with my mom in New England. We are very lucky to have family that can take us in and help us out, so my kids and I are not at risk of becoming homeless.
Once we're evicted, it’s going to be extremely hard to be able to rent again because of that mark on my record and credit. I’ve signed all kinds of petitions and called Newsom’s office to leave messages asking him to cancel rent for all Californians for the duration of the lockdown, but right now, I’m just taking it one day at a time.
Levi, 22, Iowa
The house I share with my roommates is owned by my university, but is managed by a rental company. When COVID restrictions began, I had my hours greatly reduced, from working about 15–20 hours a month to only working five.
Our landlord offered lease adjustments to all of their tenants on a case-by-case basis, and I was given two different offers. To start, they offered that I pay the full value of rent for the month of April ($400) and they would release me from my lease for May, but they would take my security deposit for breaking the lease (another $400). I told them that was crap (in not as many words), because, under normal circumstances, I would pay $400 for April and $200 for May because they prorate the first and last months, and I would get my security deposit back. The second offer that they gave me, which I accepted, was a 50 percent rent reduction for April and May, taken out of my security deposit.
My roommates and I created a petition to try and get the company to address our issues and ended up starting a rent strike with about 50 other tenants in the building. They responded with an email dismissing our claims and failing to take any action to rectify the situation. They also got the university involved to discipline us for spreading "false information" about the university as it related to our housing situation.
The strike fizzled out at the end of the school year because a lot of our members graduated and moved out or went home for the summer. This was around the end of May. With students coming back to campus, we hope to regain some numbers and resume the strike.
In any case, my household is still not paying rent, and our landlords have not really addressed it at all. They have started the process of fixing some of the issues we raised about the house's condition as a part of the strike, but not all of them. We are at a standstill right now. I would guess that they'll either evict us or withhold our diplomas until we pay the rent we owe. If they try to evict us, I'll be forced to pay.
Madeleine, 30, Brooklyn, NY
I was renting from a small company that is mostly run by an individual. I actually had to recently move out because of the rent situation, but I'm still working with my building and another to create a case against the landlord.
Many tenants in the two buildings organized with the Crown Heights Tenant Union in April to start a rent strike. The CHTU linked us to another building owned by the same landlord. That building was also striking and had tenants in current lawsuits against him. Tenants there had been granted a leave of rent for over a year due to structural and safety issues. We knew at that point that we were in the right and we needed to take action against him. CHTU has been helpful in keeping us organized and helping us find legal representation. We meet weekly and have large daily group chats.
I did not lose my job, as I work in health care, but most of my building and my roommates did. They were unable to pay, and I'm striking in solidarity. The landlord is offering no help. Just this week, we received a letter from his lawyer trying to make a deal with us, but he wants full payment, which is obviously no help. He harassed me personally for weeks on end until I had to block him and tell him that I would only communicate via email. Many of my neighbors are already being threatened with eviction and will be without housing if we can't pull through.
Kalonia, 45, Victorville, CA
I had an older veteran as a roommate who lived with me and my four children for almost nine years. Between his contributions and some assistance from the two fathers of my children, I was paying rent. My roommate passed away at home at the end of March.
I was current with rent until my roommate passed away. The extra $600 I had to pay for the house, plus solely paying for utilities and the internet my two youngest needed once school closed, put me behind.
In May, I was sent a three-day eviction notice after explaining to my landlord the situation I was in. A week later, the landlord and his wife showed up at my home unannounced, saying they thought I might have moved out without notifying them. Eventually, we settled on my paying as much as I could not to fall behind for more than a month. Currently, I have paid $700 of the rent for June. I still owe $800 for June and all of July’s rent. I’m literally going day by day.
As a way to “help,” my landlord emailed me last week about an old tenant—a family of four—looking for a home to move into. He asked how many rooms I would be able to give them. My roommate only had one room. This is a four-bedroom; I have three boys, one girl, and myself.
If I can’t get caught up on rent, they are going to evict me, though it’s unclear when, as they’ve been threatening to file since May. I’m getting conflicting information about if I am covered under COVID-related eviction moratoriums. When I was trying to find legal aid, I consulted the San Bernardino county website. I called some people and asked for help, but they would tell me about what they’d read, but not a definitive answer. I don’t know if I still have a valid lease, since I paid after the three-day notice. I can’t afford legal consultations to get clarification.
I’m emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted and afraid. I don’t have the income to move, and I will be on the street with my children during a pandemic if I’m evicted. This is really hard.
Paula, 27, Los Angeles, CA
I'm rent-striking because of COVID-related job loss, which happened at the end of March, and my roommate decided to withhold rent because she had an ongoing leak in her ceiling. She recently began paying rent again once it was fixed, as she’s still employed and working from home.
On top of all this, our third roommate vacated with less than a day’s notice because she's from Australia and was worried they would close the borders when lockdown began in March. Despite everything, our landlord expects my roommate and me to pay the full rent. We have a balance of almost $15,000 accumulated since April, according to them.
The landlord is complying with the city of West Hollywood's rent moratorium, but we were sent an email halfway into the pandemic essentially asking us to contribute some of our stimulus money to our rent balance. The landlord expects us to return to paying rent after the moratorium is up in September, as well as starting to pay back our balance. If this is required, I will most likely have to move out, and my roommate is planning to, as well.
Simone, 36, Washington, DC
Since 2009, I have been a renter at my current home. I've been rent-striking since April along with more than 70 of my neighbors, many of whom lost their jobs and can’t pay rent.
I had to lay off 28 of the staff at my restaurant, including myself, and have been on unemployment since March due to COVID-19. It’s not enough money to make rent. I informed the landlord back in March that I wouldn’t be able to pay rent. They have yet to offer any rent relief or reduction, despite numerous attempts to negotiate collectively with them as a tenants' association.
Unemployment expires soon, and if the landlord doesn’t respect the union’s demands, I will most likely not personally be without housing—but that's only if my business survives, which is far from guaranteed. If it doesn’t, I would be without housing, potentially along with many of my 225 neighbors here.
Natalie, 25, Illinois
I'm paying rent. However, after asking about COVID relief due to being furloughed from my job as a bartender, my leasing company snatched back a lease renewal they had already offered me.
I was furloughed from my job in March, which I told them when I let them know I was planning to renew. I asked about potential COVID assistance, and they said they had none, so I paid my rent in full. Still, they took the lease renewal offer back the day I tried to apply for it, on April 14—a day before it was due—and told me I had to be out by the end of June. I was flabbergasted: I had never breached my lease or even been late with rent during the pandemic. I emailed and called constantly for some sort of answer or reason why and they refused to respond.
They began charging me holdover penalties (three times my rent) for remaining in the apartment past the end of my lease, and are riding past my apartment, sending nasty letters. I am currently paying my rent, but not the holdover fees. I paid July rent in my building’s online portal and the landlords sent me an email saying they would call the police if I entered the leasing office, demanding I vacate immediately.
I don’t want to move simply because I’m not prepared to after being furloughed in the middle of a pandemic, and I want some answers. Why are they doing this to me, a young Black woman? I will be without housing if I am evicted, and I don't know what I would do in order to find it again.
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