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With Tenants Planning Strikes, Calls for a Rent Break Grow Louder

Steven Wishnia Apr 1

Today, April 1, rent comes due for most of New York State’s more than 3.3 million tenant households — and the thousands who have lost jobs since the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic exploded in early March are wondering how they’re going to pay it.

“A lot of people haven’t worked in over three weeks, so where’s the money going to come from?” asks Kim Statuto of the Claremont Village section of the Bronx, a tenant leader with CASA, Community Action for Safe Apartments.

On Mar. 27, Mayor Bill de Blasio, saying “we are in the midst of a crisis only comparable to the Great Depression,” requested that the state cancel the Rent Guidelines Board’s meetings this spring to set increases for the city’s 2.3 million rent-stabilized tenants. That would freeze their rents for the next year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a 90-day moratorium on evictions earlier in the month.

Other tenants and activists say these measures are far less than what is needed. They are calling for a moratorium on rent collections during the crisis and there are rumblings about rent strikes.

A rent freeze would be “definitely welcome relief” for rent-stabilized tenants, says Ava Farkas, head of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, but many people “are not going to afford even a frozen rent.” 

“New York has already issued a mortgage moratorium. That’s good,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote in a message to supporters. “But if we don’t also enact a rent moratorium, New York will essentially be providing relief to people based on class. Relief and protection from displacement shouldn’t just be for homeowners and the wealthy.”

‘By the time June comes around, you’re going to have millions of people who can’t pay the rent they owe.’

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan) have introduced a bill that would suspend all rent payments for the next 90 days for any residential tenant or small business that has lost income or has been forced to close “as a result of government-ordered restrictions.” The measure, which has 22 cosponsors in the Senate and 14 in the Assembly, would also forgive a proportional amount of mortgage payments for landlords who suffer financial hardship from losing that rental income.

“If government tells you that you can’t work, then government can tell you that you don’t have to meet your financial obligations,” Gianaris said during a housing justice town hall sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign on March 30. “We have to start at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.”

But the state, he added, would only be able to help mom-and-pop landlords that have mortgages through New York-based banks. 

“I’m not unsympathetic to landlords, but there will be programs in place to make sure they don’t lose their buildings,” Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan) told The Indypendent. “There need to be programs to make sure tenants don’t lose their homes. There’s nothing in the federal bill for them.”

Epstein, who was a tenant representative on the Rent Guidelines Board for five years, is also introducing a bill together with state Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) that would cancel the board’s meetings for this year and freeze rents.

Governor Cuomo, however, is not sympathetic to either idea. “We have said that no one can get evicted for nonpayment of rent and that to me is the fundamental answer,” he said at a press conference March 30. “That solves all of the above.”

“It does not because money does not appear out of thin air in 90 days,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) responded on Twitter.

“People prior to this were living paycheck to paycheck,” notes Anita Long, another CASA tenant leader from the southwest Bronx. Organizing tenants in the era of social isolation, however, presents a challenge because “we can’t do door-to-door knocking,” Long adds. “It’s hard.”

“Things are not good in Albany,” says Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition of more than 70 organizations that includes Met Council and CASA. “The legislature and the governor are not taking a hard enough look at the crisis.” Individual legislators are, she says, but Cuomo and the Assembly and Senate leaders “have no plan.”

Housing Justice for All has collected more than 75,000 signatures on a petition demanding “an immediate suspension of rent, mortgage and utility payments” and “investment in safe, affordable housing for every New Yorker,” including housing the state’s 92,000 homeless people immediately.

“People can’t shelter in place when they don’t have housing,” says Farkas.

Other epidemic-afflicted states are also grappling with the issue. In Massachusetts, the chief justice of the state’s housing-court system issued an order March 13 delaying most eviction proceedings until April 21. The Boston housing rights group City Life-Vida Urbana had collected more than 6,000 signatures in three days on a petition urging a moratorium. 

State Reps. Michael Connolly (D-Cambridge) and Kevin Honan (D-Boston) also introduced a bill to prohibit evictions and foreclosures while Gov. Charlie Baker’s state of emergency order remains in effect. Cosponsored by 71 of the state House’s 160 members, it was sent to committee on March 30.

On March 27, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order his office described as “a statewide moratorium on evictions.” In practice, it would delay eviction proceedings until the end of May for tenants who can prove that they were unable to pay their rent for virus-related reasons.

“It does not prohibit landlords from evicting tenants,” Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, responded in a written statement. “All it does is extend the amount of time tenants have to respond to their own eviction order — and ONLY under the circumstance where tenants have given 7 days advance notice to their landlord that they would not be able to pay for COVID-related reasons. This is outrageously misleading.”

Even if an eviction moratorium was complete, however, New York tenant groups point out that in many cases it would only postpone people losing their homes, as rent arrears will pile up while they’re unable to work. 

“By the time June comes around, you’re going to have millions of people who can’t pay the rent they owe,” says Kim Statuto, who lives with two adult children who were both laid off last month. “When housing court reopens, you think they’re not going to be evicting people?”

“My landlord will be the first in line with all his attorneys,” she adds. 

Tenants in her building won a temporary 25-percent rent abatement after going 14 months without cooking gas.

Housing Justice for All and the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition are also encouraging tenants around the city to go on rent strike, to create more pressure for canceling rents. On April 1, they issued a toolkit of organizing and legal advice. Meanwhile, tenants in two chronically under-repaired South Bronx buildings held a rally demanding a rent moratorium and threatening to go on rent strike if they didn’t get one.

There is also rent strike organizing underway in Rochester, Albany and Buffalo, says Weaver. “You could call it a rent strike — or that people just can’t pay their rent.”

The idea of a citywide rent strike has been a radical pipe dream for decades but, Farkas says, it’s a more reasonable idea now because it may happen “out of necessity,” as large numbers of people can’t pay their rent for very legitimate reasons.

Met Council is trying to connect different groups of tenants around the city, she adds, to develop an infrastructure for collective action.

“The more there is a crisis,” she says, “the more likely it is that the governor will find a solution.”

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