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Nailah Howze, 24, lost most of her income as a freelance photographer, videographer, and event planner when all Californians were ordered to stay home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. She had to cancel an event she organized in the Bay Area and refund customers for the tickets they had purchased. Any events she was hired to photograph were scrapped.
Howze, who lives in Culver City, had about a month’s worth of rent saved. Her roommate, Alex Mercier, 26, lost his job in mid-March. A third roommate had not been around much since the stay-at-home policy was announced, and Howze didn’t know whether he was going to pay his share.
On March 31, the day before rent was due, an official at the company, Saturn Management, emailed tenants telling them they were still required to pay rent — and there would be consequences if they didn’t.
“The governor of California has instituted an emergency ordinance relating to the payment of rent, that although delays eviction for non payment of rent, it does not prohibit an eviction for non-payment of rent in the future,” the email read. “Rents are still due.”
But the company seemed to make a big mistake: It failed to BCC the more than 300 tenants, which would have concealed all their email addresses.
Armed with that information, the Saturn Management tenants became the latest group of renters — among many throughout the country — who are organizing a strike. While these can be risky and end in eviction proceedings, the coronavirus has left many people with no income and little choice than to not pay rent. Activists who have organized rent strikes for years told BuzzFeed News that these actions may be more effective now because unemployment numbers have skyrocketed to historic highs and a larger number of tenants have an incentive to join rent strike movements.
BuzzFeed News interviewed tenants organizing in LA and Washington, DC, as well as tenants who successfully got their rent reduced in Brooklyn, about how they are organizing.
“Everyone understands that there is power in numbers and that we’re in a unique time where so many people are in the same position,” said Carroll Fife, director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment who has organized months-long rent strikes in Oakland and San Francisco and who is also a cofounder of Moms 4 Housing, the group of mothers who occupied an investor-owned home in the Bay Area and, after being evicted from it, cut a deal to purchase the home. Her organization has been flooded with requests for help since the coronavirus began destroying the workforce.
“People are really understanding that if they wanna get through this, they have to rely on each other,” she told BuzzFeed News.
For the Saturn Management tenants, the quick reply-alls that excluded the company made it clear that a lot of people would be interested in organizing a rent strike.
“You may not have a job or food, but you better pay your rent,” one tenant wrote to the other tenants.
They quickly realized how powerful it was to have this list of contact information.
“I don't think they realize they just gave us an incredible organizing tool by giving us every single resident's email from EVERY SINGLE BUILDING THEY OWN. A single building doing a rent strike is strong — but residents from every single building unionizing and doing a rent strike is godly,” wrote one tenant.
“I'm just throwing it out there - RENT STRIKE. All our landlord does is pay employees at a management company to work for them while the landlord collects our checks. A landlord's income is just the sum of our income. They don't work for it,” the email continued.
Howze and Mercier made flyers; they are planning to hand them out to their neighbors and tell people to get in touch. Another tenant circulated information about a virtual workshop from the LA Tenants Union about rent strikes. About 10 people across different buildings met over Zoom to discuss the next steps Thursday morning. Some organizers have started gathering grievances and documentation about how the building management dealt with maintenance issues in the past; others are translating information into Spanish for tenants who may not speak English.
One tenant, Anita Marks, 22, put together a Slack channel for people to communicate. By Thursday evening, it had 169 members.
Marks, a law student who lives in a Saturn Management property in West Los Angeles and supports herself with a retail job at a Nike store, said she wasn’t sure whether she was going to be able to pay rent this month. The store had started cutting down the number of hours she was able to work in mid-March.
“I could potentially not have a place to live, so why not go ahead and make this organizing tool?” she said.
Now she’s helping draft up documents of their demands, get more people from the email threads into the Slack, and fine-tune the group’s message.
Saturn Management didn’t return an email requesting comment. When reached by phone, one employee told BuzzFeed News they were not in a position to comment and forwarded the request to his superiors.
Michael Mannheim, a leasing associate for the company, told Curbed Los Angeles that he was frustrated by the course of action that tenants chose and that he was trying to “keep the line of communication open” with residents and to “make sure that they understood the resources that were available to them.”
“The fact is, now our tenants are banding together, using our error against us, vocalizing their grievances,” Mannheim told Curbed. “But we’ve also had tenants reach out to us to express their apologies for the pack mentality and the nasty correspondence this has caused. Even tenants involved in coordinating the possible rent strike, these are people that — in general — I always thought I had a good relationship with, and now I’m part of the fodder.”
Tenants believe it may be too late for an April rent strike. Howze, Mercier, Marks, and others are, however, working toward a formal rent strike in May and are gathering information to figure out whether to base their argument on the pandemic or on grievances they have with the management company. They said they have not heard from the company since Tuesday's mass email.
The coronavirus has inspired solidarity among roommates who have different jobs; depending on their profession, workers are experiencing the economic impact of the coronavirus very differently.
According to the latest government numbers, roughly two-thirds of all the jobs lost in March were in the leisure and hospitality sector — that’s largely waiters, bartenders, hotel staffers, and other service-related jobs.
Rosy Garibay, 28, lives in a house in Washington, DC, with five other roommates who all have different sources of income. While she and three of her roommates have been able to telecommute, two have lost most if not all of their work.
Garibay and her roommates started discussing important questions around paying rent in a group text: What were their thoughts on paying rent right now? If they could not get a rent reduction, where would that place them individually?
“We started having that conversation as a house a week ago. OK, rent is coming up. We’re all in very different situations,” Garibay said. She was wondering how they could get a deal with their landlord that “works for all us.”
“We came to the conclusion to send an email” to the management company, she said. But they were met with disappointment.
The company told them that rent was going to remain the same and that they don’t have the authority to lower the rent, according to Garibay. She and her roommates were now looking into information about organizing a rent strike.
“The outcome that we wanted didn’t happen and me personally, I’m in this place where I want to hear more about what other people are doing and what it is going to look like if there are a lot of people interested in a rent strike,” Garibay said.
She wanted to attend a Zoom meeting with the DC Tenants Union earlier this week — but in a cruel twist, emblematic of how people around the country are struggling to communicate, the meeting was zoombombed by online trolls who drew swastikas, showed pornographic images, and shared other racist messages while people were trying to get information on how to organize a rent strike.
This meeting was postponed, and she hopes to attend the meeting later this week.
The DC Tenants Union hotline has been flooded recently, said Stephanie B., an organizer who wanted to remain anonymous for this story. The group is mostly run by volunteers and is now working with double if not triple the number of buildings than before, she said. They now have phone numbers for 1,500 tenants with whom they are working.
Stephanie B. said that DC tenants have already started to organize in ways that others can learn from: One building demanded rent forgiveness in April and got it from their landlords. Tenants in a luxury building are drafting a letter to receive a 10% reduction, in part because some of the amenities, like pools, are not open. The group has also successfully organized hundreds of calls to DC’s city council to advocate for the suspension of evictions.
“This is a moment. I’ve been pretty inspired by the tenants who reached out to us. The viability of nationwide change is possible, whether it’s complete rent cancellation or national laws,” she said. “We’re in a moment of crisis, and it could go either way.”
While some tenants have had to resort to drastic actions like rent strikes, Abby Soule, 26, in New York City has shown that a good relationship with a landlord can go a long way.
When New York City closed bars and restaurants to dine-in customers in mid-March, Soule and her two roommates had meetings and group text exchanges with their neighbors about how they could support each other, emotionally and financially.
Soule and her roommates live in one of three apartments in a brownstone building in Brooklyn and were quickly able to get in touch with their downstairs neighbors to discuss a course of action.
While Soule and one of her roommates were able to continue their work at home, her third roommate, who was working in a yoga studio as a personal assistant to a family and at a restaurant, lost all her sources of income due to the pandemic.
Since the two households living below Soule were still able to continue working and did not need any rent adjustments, Soule decided to advocate for a rent decrease on behalf of her and her roommates. She previously worked with her landlord, Ernest Green, on lowering a rent increase, and said that she and the other tenants had “a pretty good relationship with [their] landlord.”
“We thought there’s no harm in asking,” she said.
“I’m reaching out on behalf of my apartment (3rd floor) to see if you would be open to adjusting the cost of rent for the month of April,” Soule’s text message read.
“The recent school, business and restaurant closures have affected a number of our incomes for this month, and will make it difficult to make rent for April. I understand that this is a big ask, as I'm sure you are also feeling the [e]ffects of this pandemic, but I'm hoping that we will be able to discuss and reach a fair adjustment for next month,” she wrote.
“Unfortunately I depend upon the rent for [the building] to function safe and properly,” Green responded. “I hope you understand and I appreciate the ask but this time I have to say no.”
But three days later, Green had a change of heart. He decided to lower the rent not just for Soule and her roommates but for every apartment in his building by $100.
“I realize that our country is going [through] a crisis and we all need to come together and help each other in times like these,” wrote Green in a group text to his tenants.
“I have always tried to be the best landlord as possible because I value you as human beings first and tenants second. To do my part, I want to help alleviate some of the financial pressure you may be experiencing,” he said.
The brownstone is the only building Green rents out, which allows him to know his tenants pretty well.
He calls himself a “proactive landlord”; as someone who’s lived through two blackouts in New York City, he's been passing tips to his tenants on stocking up throughout the pandemic.
Green, who is a 53-year-old retired sociology professor, told BuzzFeed News he wanted to discuss the financial ramifications of reducing the rent with his wife and family before extending his offer.
“I know what it’s like to be a tenant,” he said. “How you interact with tenants is absolutely key.
“The tenants I have now are absolutely wonderful,” he said. “I want them to stay.”