When Theodore Bourget lost both of his jobs—in food service and at a University of Chicago performance hall—he wasn't sure what he was going to do. The 23-year-old and his partner were barely going to have enough money to cover the rent for his apartment in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, let alone pay for essentials like groceries and health insurance.
“The turning point for me was when I tried to collect unemployment from the Illinois website,” Bourget said. “It crashed before I could even create a username. So we felt like we were kind of out of options.”
Bourget is picking the last option available to him: Not paying his rent to his landlord, Mac Properties. He's part of a group of tenants from several buildings, Mac Tenants United, that is calling upon the landlord to cancel rent in April and all months affected by the pandemic economic shutdowns. Many members, like Bourget and millions of other Americans, have lost income as a result of the coronavirus. Even as state governments, including Illinois', suspend evictions and the federal government moves to get stimulus money directly to individuals, some tenants and housing advocates across the country are asking if they should really have to pay their rent under such conditions. Flyers in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood summarize the message many housing advocates are spreading: “Tenants, keep your rent. Landlords, keep your distance.”
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Illinois is one of many states that has temporarily suspended evictions. But landlords are still asking for their money, which for most tenants is due on Wednesday, the first of the month. And some renters are preparing to refuse: As of Sunday evening, 32 tenants across 13 buildings have called on their landlord, Mac Properties. Otherwise, residents of the newly formed Mac Tenants United will go on strike, withholding April rent payments on Wednesday, the first of the month.
“So far Mac Properties has refused to cancel rent payments even though huge swaths of the workforce will miss work in the coming weeks and months,” reads one flyer distributed by Mac Tenants United. “Our landlord needs to show some compassion right now in this moment of great uncertainty.”
Mac is one of the biggest landlords in Hyde Park, a diverse, professional-class neighborhood on the South Side that’s home to the University of Chicago. Mac owns 32 properties in the area, housing everyone from students and professors to the elderly and young families in both mid-range and luxury accomodations.
Notably, Mac is owned by the private realty group Antheus Capital, which profits off of gentrification in areas like Hyde Park, which is surrounded by poorer and historically discriminated-against Black neighborhoods. “We have been able to take advantage of early stage gentrification trends to acquire assets at significant discounts and reposition them to command above-market rents and long-term rental growth,” its website reads.
The nascent tenant revolt against Mac is unusual. More typically, rent strikes are coordinated as a symbolic resistance to illegal or untenable living conditions or dramatic increases in rent, with striking tenants often allocating the rent they would pay to a shared escrow account until the matter is resolved. Mac Tenants United, however, is asking the landlord to suspend rent entirely until the pandemic is over, a more radical demand that comes at a time when many tenants simply can't pay rent.
Housing advocates nationwide have called for a freeze on rent payments. Moratoriums on evictions and mortgage payments have been passed to a limited degree at the federal and state levels, but many say it’s not enough. In Chicago, progressive elected officials, including Illinois State Senator Robert Peters, who represents Hyde Park, have asked the city, county, and state to “waive the collection of all rent, mortgage, and utility payments throughout the duration of the crisis” as part of a broader emergency relief package.
The state of Illinois is currently under a “shelter-in-place” order, with all non-essential businesses closed and social gatherings larger than 10 people cancelled until at least April 7. So far, more than 4,500 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Illinois.
Getting the word out to his neighbors has been “really exciting” but also a challenge, Bourget said, given that social distancing guidelines prohibit physical meetings. As a result, door-knocking has been kept to a minimum, with flyering and social media outreach taking priority.
In its last email to residents on March 18, Mac announced it was closing amenity areas, such as fitness rooms and pool areas, and cleaning common areas more frequently in response to COVID-19. A recent video from Mac tells tenants, “We treat one another like family. Your problem is our problem and we’re all in this together.”
Peter Cassel, the director of community development at Mac Properties, told VICE that he was “very mindful of what's happening to our residents,” acknowledging the income loss many are facing. “If people are feeling stressed or have been laid off, we encourage them to call us and we’ll find a solution.”
However, phone calls asking the Mac office for rent relief—both individually and at the building level—have gone ignored over the last two weeks, said R., a tenant and organizer who asked to go by his first initial in fear of retaliation from the landlord.
“They [were] very dismissive, making public statements about how they were getting calls from ‘out of state’ numbers, ignoring the fact that Hyde Park is largely a community of people who come from other areas,” R. said.
The response from Mac has since escalated. Zak Witus, a 26-year-old organizer, says that the landlord removed the group’s rent strike flyers in four different buildings and has even taken down mutual aid signup forms, which offer volunteer assistance to the elderly and immunocompromised, in two buildings.
Despite this, interest in the rent strike has been growing, Witus says. The number of committed strikers more than doubled between Wednesday and Monday, from 14 to 32.
The risks involved in going on a rent strike are high, and organizers have acknowledged this in their interactions with neighbors. There’s no guarantee that the freeze on evictions will last beyond mid-April—meaning those who strike starting Wednesday could be evicted by Mac while the pandemic is still happening. Tenants also risk being retaliated against by their landlord.
R. said, “If you put up a [rent strike] sign in your own windows, that's protected speech. However, as a practical matter, that is not necessarily going to be respected by landlords.”
On the other hand, withholding rent, even if you can afford it, may be the key to protecting those who can't. One organizer with Tenants United who requested anonymity pointed out that even if Mac wanted to evict strikers, the task would be difficult if there were enough people standing together.
“I don't have hope or expectation of any positive behavior,” they said. “[But] I do have reasons to believe it's possible to force them to agree to certain demands. They can't evict everyone.”