With hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers unable to pay rent after being forced out of work by the coronavirus epidemic, a group of housing activists is organizing what they call “a massive wave of rent strikes” beginning May 1. Their aim is to pressure the state to cancel all rent payments for April, May, and June.
“My building is going on rent strike starting May 1,” Lena Melendez of Washington Heights, a member of the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, said during a telephone press conference April 16.
The strike is a way to ‘turn our individual inability to pay rent into collective action.’
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 90-day moratorium on evictions won’t protect tenants, she added, because when it ends, they’ll owe three months back rent— often adding up to $6,000 or more. There will be “massive evictions” when the courts reopen, she predicts. “There’s no way for them to get the money.”
The state has given homeowners a three-month moratorium on mortgage payments and landlords tax abatements to help them get through the crisis, but “once again, tenants have been left behind,” said Winsome Pendergast of Brooklyn, a member of New York Communities for Change.
“Some of us have not been working for five or six weeks,” she continued. “We can’t pay May’s rent.”
So far, about 15 buildings are involved in rent-strike plans, most in the city, said Cea Weaver of the Housing Justice for All coalition, while more than 2,100 people have signed a pledge to not pay on May 1. Ten thousand people have sent text messages requesting the coalition’s rent-strike tool kit and organizers are working with buildings that are home to about 1,100 units.
That’s a small number next to the 1 million New York State residents that organizers have proclaimed as their goal, but they see a widespread rent strike as a way of making a virtue out of necessity, to “turn our individual inability to pay rent into collective action,” says Weaver.
“If you don’t speak up, you will suffer,” said Melendez, urging tenants not to be ashamed of their financial problems.
The biggest risk going on rent strike carries is that without a legal justification such as bad building conditions, the courts would treat it as simple or willful nonpayment and evict tenants.
“The vast majority of tenants who are on rent strike can’t pay rent. They will face these risks no matter what. They might as well fight,” responds Andrea Shapiro of Met Council on Housing. “People who are doing it in solidarity are taking a risk similar to a civil-disobedience action. We have over 400 people who are in the early stages of a rent strike and already thousands pledging to go on strike.”
“We are telling the people that cannot pay to join this movement,” said Guadelupe Paleta, a 42-year-old nanny and member of Woodside on the Move in Queens, speaking in Spanish through a translator. And those who can pay should “think of those who can’t.”
Undocumented immigrants are particularly at risk of losing their homes.
People who pay taxes using a taxpayer identification number — a common practice among noncitizens who don’t have a Social Security number — are ineligible for government aid such as expanded unemployment benefits and the $1,200 checks that are making their way to the nation’s mailboxes with a certain branding-obsessed egomaniac’s name printed on them.
This includes Donnette Leftord, whose cleaning business collapsed when she went into quarantine after a customer died of COVID-19. The rent she pays for the Flatbush apartment she shares with her husband and daughters is $1,700 a month.
“Presently, I make $408 a week,” she said. “Now you do the math.”
The one-time $1,200 payment isn’t likely to go far in covering New York City rents. “You have studios going for $1,500. Come on,” says Pendergast.
The enhanced safety net is also weak for people in freelance or gig-economy jobs.
“I get zero unemployment,” said Melendez, an Uber driver. The app-based taxi behemoth has refused to cooperate with a state Labor Department ruling that its drivers are eligible for unemployment benefits as regular employees. That will likely delay their payments for months.
Melendez says she has sympathy for small landlords whose cash flow couldn’t handle a three-month loss of income, but that those with portfolios of 100 or more buildings can afford to go without it. Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio are protecting those large-scale owners, she charges, because “these are the donor base.”
“The landlords are going to come hunting for us,” said Pendergast. “It’s their building, but it’s our home.”