A Coronavirus Rent Strike Could Leave Renters Vulnerable
“If someone’s seen a meme telling them not to pay their rent, that’s not going to protect them from an eviction."
With millions of people across the country applying for unemployment due to shutdowns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, many tenants will be unable or unwilling to pay rent when it comes due April 1, leading to calls for a nationwide rent strike.
But there’s a difference between not paying your rent and organizing a rent strike. And not recognizing it could put vulnerable tenants at risk of eviction.
On social media, people are sharing powerful images about refusing to pay rent; one features a drawing of a woman wearing a mask and says, “tenants keep your rent, landlords keep your distance.”
In neighborhoods in cities across the country, people are hanging white sheets from their windows to show that they won’t be paying rent.
But some tenants rights experts are worried that people who think they’re participating in a rent strike simply by not paying rent without rallying support from neighbors and fellow tenants first could be putting themselves at risk.
“The danger in launching something like that without adequate preparation is potentially exposing people who could’ve paid their rent to being evicted without much to show for it,” Gregory Afinogenov, an assistant history professor at Georgetown and organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords in Washington, DC, told BuzzFeed News. “Landlords don’t necessarily care about why you’re not paying rent, they’re going to file eviction proceedings regardless.”
In cities including New York City, Seattle, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, and Chicago, and states including Texas, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, authorities have temporarily paused eviction proceedings, but in some places eviction cases can still be filed. President Trump signed a bill guaranteeing some federal eviction relief, but millions of Americans aren’t protected by the law.
“If someone’s seen a meme telling them not to pay their rent, that’s not going to protect them from an eviction,” said Afinogenov.
Landlords can still file eviction cases against rent strikers even while court processes are temporarily stayed, and people who don’t pay rent now could find themselves facing debt or fees later on.
For a rent strike to be successful, some tenants unions say, neighbors need to work together and present landlords with clear demands. The Philadelphia Tenants Union has been circulating a document with tips. It advises talking to neighbors one on one and warns against mistaking online enthusiasm for actual commitment. “The people who respond to a post in a community Facebook group will be a small fraction of the fellow tenants you will need on board for successful collective action,” the document says.
“If someone’s seen a meme telling them not to pay their rent, that’s not going to protect them from an eviction.”
A typical tenants' rights campaign might involve requesting a rent reduction or paying rent late as a group before fully refusing to pay rent at all. Sudden mass layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic might seem to be accelerating a nationwide interest in rent strikes, but the Philadelphia Tenants Union is cautious.
“If you have no income to pay rent, then a ‘rent strike’ is an immediately attractive action. But that is not so much a rent strike as it is non-payment of rent,” the guide says. “A rent strike means building deep organizing roots among all tenants and collectively withholding rent even when people have the means to in order to meet a demand.”
Maddie Rose, an organizer with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, told BuzzFeed News that while interest in rent striking has spiked, many of the people she’s been in touch with are in “the early stages of talking to their fellow tenants through leaflets and phone calls,” and probably won’t be ready “to start making collective demands” until May 1.
“[T]his happened so suddenly and it takes time to coordinate with other tenants, especially when your home is owned and controlled by a large developer,” Rose said.
But for suddenly unemployed rent strikers like C. Dage, a tenant in Austin, rent is due next week. Dage lost their job at an after-school program three and a half weeks ago when schools closed, and overdrew their bank account when it auto-paid their bills. To pressure the company that owns their building to permanently forgive their April rent, Dage and their roommates agreed not to pay on April 1, and they’re trying to get the rest of their large apartment complex on board.
“There are … at least two or three [people] who are also committed to not paying, but I’m not sure about their roommates,” Dage said. “It’s been difficult to gauge where people are at just because of the fact that I can't really talk to people in person.”
To comply with social distancing while communicating with neighbors, Dage said they hung flyers in common areas of their building rather than going door to door. “The next day after we posted flyers the property manager sent an email to every resident saying we have to pay our rent on time this month just like every month, and by the end of the day she ripped down every flyer throughout the complex,” Dage said.
For now, Dage and their roommates are protected by a 60-day municipal eviction freeze that Austin’s city council passed Thursday. But with no job, they said they don't know how they’ll earn the money to pay back rent when those two months are up, which could mean owing their landlord more money and getting evicted down the line.
“I think it’s unrealistic of the city to expect people will magically be able to come up with two months' rent when they couldn’t pay one to begin with,” said Dage.
Rent strikers in some communities are presenting landlords with clear demands. Organizers of Rent Strike Raleigh in North Carolina are asking authorities to freeze rent and utility payments and open up vacant housing, including hotel rooms, for those who have nowhere to go, as well as workplace protections, free health care, freedom for at-risk prisoners, and an end to ICE deportations. Organizers of Rentstrike ATX in Austin are making similar demands, and also encouraging participants to "talk to your friends, your neighbors, your roommates. Talk to your landlord's tenants. Coordinate across complexes and neighborhoods. Spread the strike, and lay the foundation for a group action against your landlord.”
Rent strikers in Montana are asking Gov. Steve Bullock to suspend "all rent, mortgage and utility payments for 2 full months."
A mortgage payment freeze would provide relief for landlords, some of whom say they won’t be able to make their payments without rental income. But most landlords aren’t mom and pop operations; in 2017, a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found that more than half of rental properties in the United States were owned by "institutional investors" like banks, funds, or corporations.
“The current crisis is laying bare the tenants rights crisis that has already existed for years, and it’s becoming harder to pretend the status quo is sustainable.”
On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that some major banks would forgive mortgage loans for homeowners throughout the state.
Rent strike proponents are encouraging people who need rent relief but aren’t prepared to strike to download form letters to send to their landlords requesting a rent reduction. Whether tenants who are short on cash this month choose to strike or negotiate with their landlords individually, they hope that in the long term the economic fallout of the pandemic could drive collective action that will strengthen tenants' rights.
“People are a lot more engaged now than they would have been,” said Dage, the Austin renter. “People had been introduced to some of these ideas, like the nationalization of health care and housing, but [now] it’s not something to theorize about anymore, but something that's impacting people’s daily life.”
Max W., an organizer with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, agreed. “This moment has the potential to advance the movement to build tenant power in a major way,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The current crisis is laying bare the tenants rights crisis that has already existed for years, and it’s becoming harder to pretend the status quo is sustainable.”