Up until three weeks ago, Jemie Fofanah didn’t really know any of the other tenants who lived in her Lower East Side walkup. That all changed when the coronavirus pandemic began rapidly spreading throughout the United States, bringing with it mass unemployment and economic uncertainty on top of death and illness.
With a record 6.6 million people filing for unemployment during the last week of March and an estimated 20 million job losses to come this month, many individuals are suddenly unable to pay their rent—a fact that hasn’t fazed many landlords nationwide. Rent relief would solve this problem, though state and federal legislators with the power to make it happen are thus far choosing not to, failing their constituents at a time of dire need.
In the face of such inaction, some individuals, like Fofanah, have begun organizing with other tenants in their building to demand some form of rent relief from their landlord—and plan a rent strike if they don’t get it. Many of them are new to community organizing, but say they’re happy to learn that experience is not a prerequisite for coordinating a rent strike.
“We’re demanding a rent freeze,” said Fofanah, who, along with the other tenants in her building, send a demand letter to their landlord this past week. “We don’t want to pay rent in May. A lot of us can’t pay rent in May and were lucky to be able to pay in April.”
The task of organizing an apartment building’s worth of tenants might seem daunting on its face, especially for someone who has never done any sort of community organizing or advocacy work. Talking to strangers can be intimidating, and trying to get those strangers on board with something as potentially divisive as a rent strike can seem even more so, especially when you might need to rely on your neighbors’ goodwill during future stages of the pandemic. Demanding anything from a landlord might be the most intimidating part in all this, given the risk of eviction or some other form of retaliation. But, while the landlords haven’t been so amenable, the individuals who spoke with VICE said that the vast majority of their neighbors, even those whose income hasn’t been affected, have received their efforts warmly.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said Adam Cain, a 26-year-old bartender based in Brooklyn. “There’s been a lot less hostility than I anticipated.”
Cain rents a two-bedroom apartment with his brother, Ben—one of nearly 50 units in a large, fairly new building in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The pandemic has affected their individual lives in vastly different ways; Ben, a 28-year-old lawyer, is still employed and working from home. Adam was laid off amid New York’s mass shutdown of all bars and restaurants in March, and, after getting tested at a clinic, received a COVID-19 diagnosis on April 3. “I have symptoms, but they’re pretty mild at this point,” he said.
Talking to VICE, he seemed less concerned about his health than he was about making sure everyone else in his building could remain in their apartments for the foreseeable future. The same was true of Ben, despite sharing close quarters with someone confirmed to have the virus. Even though Ben has not lost income thus far in the pandemic and would have had no trouble paying April rent, he withheld it in solidarity with those who could not pay. He also wanted to make sure that he'd have money to survive on in the months to come, should he be financially impacted in the near future.
“I’m still working, but it’s not easy for me to pay both of our rents,” said Ben. “I could, if push comes to shove, but I should be saving that money right now. I could be laid off soon. Work at my firm could dry up, and then I’ll be stuck in a position where on May 1 or June 1, I can’t afford the rent on top of groceries and other necessities.”
The Cain brothers have made this argument to the other tenants in their building who they are trying to appeal to. “Even if you can pay rent right now, you don’t know where you’ll be in a few weeks,” Ben said.
“It could happen to you,” added Adam. “Just because you can pay rent, if your building is doing a rent strike, don’t scab. Talk to the people you live with, and make sure to build solidarity with your neighbors who can’t pay rent.”
Even when a tenant has been reluctant to join in, organizers say that their interactions were far from hostile. Katie, a white-collar worker in her thirties from the Midwest who asked to have her last name withheld for privacy reasons, told VICE that she and another person who lives in her building have been organizing their fellow tenants to demand some form of rent relief. So far, about three-quarters of her building has signed a letter to their landlord asking for half off their rent for every month that the pandemic continues. The holdouts weren’t against taking action on the rent, she said; they just didn’t want to make targets of themselves, or have the landlord retaliate against them. Katie said she understands these concerns, but feels more than comfortable going forward to demand a reduction on rent.
“We know the building is paid off,” Katie said. “We know he’s not paying [a] mortgage on the building. We know he’s a millionaire. So for him to basically squeeze money out of people in financial trouble right now, we think that’s heinous.”
The Cain brothers told VICE that most of their neighbors are on the same page as they are when it comes to rent relief. After the building’s management company, Lexington Flats, LLC, offered a 5 percent rent reduction, unprompted, on March 25, the Cains and their fellow tenants sent a demand letter on March 30 asking for a full suspension of rent from April through the end of June.
“Needless to say, many of us found this 5 percent offer paltry and wholly inadequate,” said Ben.
The building’s management countered by offering a 15 percent rent reduction for April and May in an email sent on April 1, which, again, the tenants said was not enough. Fifty-nine of them signed a second demand letter sent on April 3 asking for full rent forgiveness for April, 50 percent off rent in May, and 30 percent off rent in June. Management never responded to the second letter, reminding tenants on April 6 that they had 24 hours to pay rent in order to take advantage of the 15 percent discount.
“Basically, they just ignored our letter and tried to coyly attempt to get as many people to break under the pressure as possible and pay,” Ben said. “We felt pretty disrespected at essentially being ignored by management, so many of us joined on to an email I drafted and sent to management on April 6, chiding them for not responding to the concerns articulated in our letter and sternly requesting that they do so soon. Many people also sent this email individually. Essentially our strategy was to bombard management to let them know that they could not just ignore us.”
On April 7, the date that rent was due, management extended the deadline to April 15, leaving the offer of a 15 percent discount intact. With New York state’s 90-day eviction moratorium on their side, the tenants are not backing down. They are currently drafting a third letter to management, demanding that they come to the table and negotiate a better deal than anything offered thus far.
While the individuals who spoke with VICE said that their efforts to organize their fellow tenants have been fairly intuitive, they understand why someone new to organizing might be unsure where to start. Fofanah told VICE that there are a number of useful resources on organizing, starting a rent strike, and building a tenants association currently available online. She said that she found the Democratic Socialists of America’s tenant organizing pamphlet especially helpful. She also recommended reaching out to local housing rights organizers with any questions.
As a law student, Fofanah was well-equipped to parse through local, state, and federal policy to determine what rights she and the nascent tenants association she’s been working to build have. For everyone who’s not so well-versed in legalese, she recommended reaching out to law school clinics in your area that focus on housing and civil services, as well as local social justice firms like the Legal Aid Society in New York City, which runs a legal assistance hotline during the week. “Landlords don’t expect you to know these things,” she said. “But there are a ton of law students out of class right now who are really looking to contribute their work.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said, when asked if she has any advice for tenants. “Also, it helps to try to find one neighbor you’re on good terms with so you can have an organizing partner. Even if that person lives in a different building in your city, it’s really good to have a buddy like that to share resources with, bounce ideas off of, and compare and contrast methods.”
None of the organizers said that their landlords had retaliated against them in response to their demands, though that risk is certainly real. A landlord might ignore maintenance requests or other repairs for the duration of any rent action, or threaten to evict striking tenants once the eviction moratoriums enacted across the country are no longer in place. In order to prepare for the latter possibility, VICE editor Harry Cheadle recommends learning what your rights are by Googling “tenants rights” and the name of your town or city while also reaching out to local organizations and hotlines that work to empower renters.
As for all the landlords trying to squeeze a full month’s rent out of tenants who can’t afford it, Fofanah had one piece of advice: “You need to be on notice. Your tenants are sick of this.”
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