Winsome Pendergrass, a Brooklyn-based organizer with New York Communities for Change, works to helps tenants stay in their homes. Now she’s facing the same dilemma wrenching millions of Americans whose lives have been upended by the novel coronavirus pandemic. “I’ve been out of work over two weeks,” she says. “I may have a month’s rent—but do I give it to the landlord or do I keep it to buy food?”
Like the tens of millions of cost-burdened Americans who were struggling to make rent before the global crisis, Pendergrass doesn’t see paying rent as a viable option when she’s been ordered to stay home. She hopes all tenants facing a similar decision will come to the same conclusion: Cancel rent. “We are hoping and praying that every single tenant across America will stand up, speak up,” she says.
Now that April 1 has finally arrived, organizers in major cities and, in some instances, whole states are announcing aggressive demands as tenants withhold rent payments.
On a March 31 call, 200 housing advocates organized by the Center for Popular Democracy, Pendergrass was joined by Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Jésus “Chuy” Garcia, who called on federal leaders to cancel rent and mortgage payments for as long as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders are in place.
“This is a public health crisis and every aspect of our lives should be treated as such,” said Tlaib. “Canceling rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the COVID-19 virus pandemic would relieve financial pressure, allowing residents to stay home from work without the added concern of losing their housing and limit the spread of the virus.”
As of April 1, elected officials from nine U.S. cities—Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Paul—have joined the call for state and federal legislators to cancel rent payments and impose a mortgage moratorium for the duration of the crisis.
“Displacement does not make our communities stronger. Increased homelessness does not make our communities stronger,” said Minneapolis Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison, a longtime housing activist. “Right now, we should be focused on protecting the vulnerable from COVID-19, and not risk making more people vulnerable.”
Reports show that nearly 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance in the last two weeks, with estimates that up to a third of the U.S. workers may be unemployed by the coronavirus crisis—more than were out of work during the Great Depression. As the first of the month loomed, the term “rent strike” began trending—along with #CancelRent, #KeepYourRent, #RentZero, #FoodNotRent—with activists urging renters facing hardship to prioritize basic needs while staying safely sheltered to fight the pandemic. Even major chains like the Cheesecake Factory are withholding rent from their commercial landlords in order to protect their workers.
According to information at Rent Strike 2020, at least 1.5 million renters have signed on to withhold rent, with efforts taking place across the country. Organizing tools have cropped up, like 5 Demands, an online effort to make rent strike information “accessible and empowering” by connecting renters with efforts in major cities across the country.
“All you need is to be able to talk to your neighbors and tenants around you,” says an organizer for 5 Demands who declined to be named. “If you can knock on every door in your building and ask them to sign a common letter to your landlord, you have already organized.”
While some landlords claim to be working with tenants to defer rent payments on a case-by-case basis, some tenants are reporting troubling emails from corporate landlords and are using the opportunity to organize larger coalitions across multiple rental properties. A group of 32 striking tenants in Chicago, where advocates are calling for a rent freeze, presented the property management company MAC with a list of demands on the morning of April 1: “We are coming together to fight for our common human right to dignified shelter and community; a human right which MAC treats as a commodity to be bought and sold at whim,” the letter reads.
In LA, where activists staged a protest—more like a parade of cars, to promote safe social-distancing practices—calling on the city to cancel rent, a representative from Saturn Management sent over 300 of LA-area tenants an email reminding them to pay their rent as planned, but forgot to bcc them, giving all of the tenants contact information for each other. Now a group has formed to withhold rent for April and potentially May, says Alex Mercier, one of the tenants on the email. He had been laid off from his marketing job and was already considering not paying April’s rent due to financial reasons, he says. “Knowing that other people are willing to strike is definitely a confidence booster.”
Even if they’re not officially aligned with the national rent strike movement, millions of Americans definitely did not write checks dated April 1, says Tara Raghuveer, a Kansas City-based tenant advocate and national coordinator for the Homes Guarantee, a progressive housing justice platform which put out its own call for a nationwide rent holiday.
“I think what we’ll see is millions of people involuntarily withholding their rent,” Raghuveer says. “None of us have a clue what happens next. Millions of people not paying their rent will be one kind of shock to the economy and another shock to communities across the country.”
Although many states and cities have proposed eviction moratoriums for households impacted by COVID-19, moratoriums don’t offer enough protection for tenants in such unprecedented times, and may only delay, not prevent, evictions, says Doug Smith, an LA-based public interest attorney and urban planner. Smith is seeing situations that are unique to the coronavirus crisis, like a household taking in extended family members to shelter in place together or isolate from someone else who is sick, which might save a life—but which would also put the household in breach of their lease agreement.
“The lack of protection in these actions, even at the state level and local level, are really zeroing in on evictions around failure to pay rent,” he says. “These are not protecting against all the ways that people could be forced out of their homes.”
Plus, most renter protections that have been put in place by local governments require documentation, like proving a loss of a job. But with schools closed across the country, the need to provide child care, for example, has made many parents unable to earn income, even if they are, technically, able to work. These hardships may be difficult to demonstrate during the coronavirus pandemic, and will be particularly difficult for people working as freelancers or in the informal economy.
That’s the challenge for Glendale, California, resident Milagros Christina Ruggles, who sells hot dogs in Hollywood at night and also works as a tutor so she can supplement her family’s income and be with her three children after school. Street vendors were banned from operating by LA’s City Council three weeks ago, and with kids at home, parents canceled their tutoring sessions. Now her husband, who is in sales, is also out of work, leaving the family with no income.
When the stay-at-home order was issued, Ruggles received an email from her corporate landlord reminding tenants to stay at home except for essential activities. “Then, at the very bottom, in capital bold letters: ‘Do not forget the rent is due on the first,’” she says. “How can I do my part and stay at home?” Some of her neighbors aren’t paying, says Ruggles. She’s considering using a cash advance from a credit card or taking out a personal loan, but she’s worried about repaying that down the line.
Last week, Smith’s nonprofit, Public Counsel, along with East LA Community Corporation and Inclusive Action for the City, set up an emergency fund to provide cash assistance to street vendors, including some undocumented workers who are ineligible for the stimulus money coming to many Americans. (New York City’s street vendors have their own emergency fund.)
“These are people who are really just terrified,” says Smith. “They can’t work, they’re not going to get relief from federal programs, and they can’t access unemployment.”
Cash assistance can offer temporary relief to some American workers, but a bigger plan needs to be put in place to help renters start to plan for their own financial uncertainty over time. With federal institutions already offering homeowners plans for deferring mortgage payments, the same policies could be extended to renters to pay back rent—preferably over a year or two, not within a few months.
Some advocates and officials are going a step further to put the heat on state and federal leaders. A coalition of California housing leaders is giving Gov. Gavin Newsom 30 days to issue a plan for rent and mortgage forgiveness or face a coordinated, statewide rent strike on May 1.
Now that it’s clear the timeline of the crisis will be months, not weeks, and potentially millions more Americans will be affected, the window of opportunity is opening nationwide, says Raghuveer. The Homes Guarantee organized a tenant training session on April 2 to talk about launching an even larger grassroots effort in the months to come.
“The political context changes by the day,” she says. “There isn’t a lot of federal talk about a rent suspension right now, but thanks to hyperprogressive leaders in the House, that could change. If we can organize at scale, then we can have a much bigger impact come May 1 or June 1.”