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'Survival': Tenants, landlords brace for largest rent strike in decades

"If banks are getting bailed out and corporations are getting bailed out, why aren't poor people getting bailed out?" one activist asked.
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A demonstrator demands a rent strike in Los Angeles on April 21, 2020.Ringo Chiu / ZUMA Press

Kenia Alcocer is used to sitting down at the kitchen table to crunch her family's monthly budget and figure out how she can make ends meet.

But this month is different. Alcocer, 34, gave birth in January to her second child, a boy named Genaro, whose numerous health issues have added a huge financial strain on her family. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic putting millions of people out of work and increasing financial anxiety across the country, she doesn't think she'll be able to make rent.

"I'm having to choose whether I pay my rent or pay my medical bills or pay other stuff or buy food," she said in a phone interview. "I also have a 5-year-old, my husband got laid off, and so these are the questions that everybody's having to ask themselves."

She added, "Rent is the last thing I want to think about during this crisis, and being evicted is the last thing I want to worry about."

Alcocer is one of tens of thousands across the country who will join one of the largest coordinated rent strikes in decades Friday, affecting three of America's largest cities — Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. Others have already begun.

Alcocer, an organizer with the group Union de Vecinos, which organized a rent strike in East Los Angeles this month, said the larger Los Angeles Tenants Union is planning a citywide rent strike. She predicted that its roughly 8,000 union members will forgo rent this month.

The tenants union had 3,000 members before the crisis. By March, it grew by a thousand, and in mid-April, it doubled to 8,000. She said the growth is a testament to the uncertain times.

"People are looking for something to join because they don't know that to do," she said. "The reason why our campaign is called 'Food Not Rent' is because we're actually telling folks to choose your survival, choose your life, over paying your rent at this point."

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Cea Weaver, the communications coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a coalition of 70 groups from across New York state representing tenants, homeless people and housing advocates, estimated that 10,000 people have pledged to strike.

But, Weaver said, it's not just about sticking it to landlords. They are also advocating for a relief fund for apartment owners, too. What Weaver hopes to see, she said, is "unprecedented government intervention" in the housing market because of the economic effects of the pandemic, and she wants this to be the chance to make the market more equitable.

"We're in a moment where politically impossible things are possible, and a rent strike is not just about canceling rent for the crisis," she said, citing the pace at which Congress moved to pass the massive $2 trillion relief package and other pandemic-related aid. "It's about, like, opening up a whole new world of social housing."

She added, "We don't go back to go back to a world with 92,000 homeless New Yorkers and half our state can't afford to pay their rent."

Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, which has 81,000 members nationwide, said that April was a good month for apartment owners and that many saw tenants use credits cards to pay rent in advance of expected stimulus money.

But for May, he said, there's uncertainty. He said the rent strike is "counterproductive" and would put more stress on the economy.

"There's definitely growing concerns," he said. "Everyone anticipates that there's going to be distress, and it's going to be more pronounced than April."

Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents the apartment industry, called the strike "reckless" because of the ripple effects on the housing market.

More than 43 million households are renters, according to the organization, and a wide enough strike could be devastating, he said.

"These people don't think through who they're hurting, and they're disrupting the entire financial ecosystem in doing this," he said. "They think they're hurting the big, bad landlord, and what they're really hurting are all kinds of people just like themselves, and they are spreading the economic malaise more broadly in the economy."

He said, instead, that there should be a more directed focus on pressing local and federal lawmakers to intervene. He said his group, for instance, has been pushing for a sweeping bill promoted by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., which would provide $100 billion in direct relief to renters, as well as assistance for landlords and those experiencing homelessness.

Image: Capitol Hill in Seattle
A pedestrian walks past graffiti calling for a rent strike in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood on April 1, 2020.Ted S. Warren / AP file

Housing advocates fear mass evictions without government intervention. More than 30 states have moratoriums on evictions during the outbreak, but some will expire in the next month. Other states, like Colorado, have no such mandate, which has left evictions to courts and local governments, creating a patchwork of policies and ever-changing guidance.

In New York City, the American center of the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, has called for a rent freeze and a halt to evictions. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is also a Democrat, has signaled no willingness to cancel or freeze rents.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, barred evictions through the end of May. Tenants must notify landlords within seven days of failing to pay and provide documentation proving that they were affected by the pandemic. Arizona created a $5 million fund to assist those struggling with paying rent because of the outbreak.

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But advocates want more direct relief to the most in need.

"We were already fighting for an eviction moratorium before the crisis, and now we're seeing that that was possible during this crisis," Alcocer said. "If banks are getting bailed out and corporations are getting bailed out, why aren't poor people getting bailed out through this process, as well?"

She said some of the members of her organization didn't get stimulus checks from the CARES Act because of their immigration status or have been unable to access unemployment benefits — and others are having to choose to potentially expose themselves to the virus by continuing to work.

New York state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat, introduced legislation calling for rent forgiveness, as well as financial relief for landlords.

"First and foremost we need to protect renters and tenants that are [in] desperate straits right now and from that point forward, landlords who rely on that rent to pay their bills should be next up the ladder," he said in a news release announcing the bill.

The legislation calls for 90 days of rent forgiveness for residential and commercial tenants if they lost their work or businesses because of the pandemic, as well as a 90-day suspension of some mortgage payments.

"If the federal government showed up with some magic pot that paid people's rent for them, that would solve the problem across the board," he said. "I'm not prepared to wait and hope that happens, because in the meantime, people are already suffering."