An estimated 20,000 New York City tenants are taking part in building-wide rent strikes as part of the “Cancel Rent Campaign” demanding that Governor Andrew Cuomo cancel all rents due during the COVID-19 epidemic and the economic depression it has set off.
“By not paying our rent, we are able to take back control of our homes and pressure our landlords and elected officials to make the changes needed,” says Met Council coordinator Andrea Shapiro.
The campaign, led by Housing Justice for All, wants all payments for housing cancelled for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. It is also seeking to create a hardship fund for small landlords, and have all subsidies to owners come with basic requirements such as allowing evictions only for good cause, rent freezes, and giving tenants the opportunity to purchase their buildings. It wants to house the homeless and prevent corporate landlords from buying up large numbers of properties.
“It means that all housing costs—rent, mortgages, and utilities—are not owed for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, and they aren’t owed later, either,” Housing Justice For All says. “This must be applied universally and automatically, and must be paired with a permanent and long-term investment in social housing. Social housing is housing that is permanently affordable to people at all income levels, not run for profit, and capable of solving the homelessness crisis.”
Tenants are on rent strike in neighborhoods including Bushwick, Flatbush, and Harlem. In some buildings, not all residents are involved. Some tenants who can’t pay their rent aren’t part of an organized strike; others who can are putting their rent in escrow as in a standard rent strike.
The virus’s spread has created barriers for organizing and building public presence in the streets, but tenant leaders have found creative solutions to unite with their neighbors while keeping the six feet apart required by social distancing.
At 137 West 141st St. in Harlem, tenant leaders used email lists to get in touch with their neighbors and went door to door wearing protective gear to reach the people they hadn’t been able to contact. In other buildings tenants have slid flyers under doors, called everyone they have contacts for, and hung flyers in common areas. Strategic planning meetings are held via Zoom or other digital media. They say their most favorable tool in organizing has been consistency, having regular meetings to continue checking in on one another, in order to not lose momentum.
The biggest challenge tenants face is getting their neighbors past fear, but they have been able to do this by demonstrating strength in numbers. People are more likely to take on these actions when they feel supported by an entire community of their neighbors.
Tenants have also built community by supporting each other during the epidemic, such as by buying groceries for one another or going on grocery store runs for those who have compromised immune systems. Tenants have been hanging “Cancel Rent” banners from their fire escapes, windows, and balconies. At 2 p.m. on Fridays, they have been taking part in “cacerolazos,” leaning out from their windows and balconies and banging pots and pans. On May 1 and May 23, days of mass action, they hung banners at more widely seen locations throughout the city.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed housing issues that were problems well before the epidemic and economic collapse, says Lisa Mac, a rent-strike leader in Harlem: lack of maintenance, overcharging rent-stabilized tenants, and keeping tenants in the dark about their apartments being rent-stabilized. Harlem, she adds, is one of the many neighborhoods that have been hit hard by gentrification and tenant displacement, with landlords neglecting the homes of long-term tenants of color in order to push them out, renovate the vacated apartments, and charge higher rents that only upper-class professionals, often white, are able to pay.
Mac says the rent strike is also about mutual aid and support. Tenants in her building have united to demand changes before and won, but this time withholding rent is giving them more collective power.
“Landlords have a lot of power,” she says. “They benefit from people being afraid, but we are stronger than them when we stand together.”