“Having a roof over your head and starving to death makes no sense” By Caroline Spivack
Shuttered stores and boarded up apartment windows on an East Village block in Manhattan.
One evening in late April, seated on the bed in her Brooklyn apartment, Melanie Wang shouted instructions into her cellphone on how to join a conference call to older tenants of a Manhattan building in Chinatown. After a flurry of phone calls, Wang wrangled just shy of a dozen residents onto the call, and in an instant, the chaos of coordinating a digital tenants meeting was replaced with a burst of laser focused conversation. The technology might have been a bit unfamiliar, but there was no hesitance from tenants when it came to talking about the difficulty of paying rent during the novel coronavirus pandemic—and the possibility of going on a rent strike. “As soon as I got people on the phone it was off to the races,” says Wang, a community organizer with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), who sat back and listened as tenants took the lead. “Very quickly they came to a collective understanding of what they wanted to do in their building; just removing that small but enormous barrier of bringing people together made the difference.” It’s a scene that, even just two months ago, would have otherwise unfolded face-to-face. Instead, shut in by government order or simply in fear of being within six feet of another person due to COVID-19, community organizers and tenants are getting creative and turning to digital tools as part of a nation-wide push to cancel rent payments during the pandemic with a rash of both rent and labor strikes on May 1. Through virtual tenant town halls, grainy video calls, and a whole lot of messaging on numerous chat apps, organizers in New York and across the country are tapping into some of the 30 million who have filed for unemployment in the U.S. since early March, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. With widespread economic uncertainty, the act of paying—or not paying rent—has become a flash point for both renters and landlords who say they are not receiving enough emergency support to cope with months of missed income. Meanwhile, government stimulus checks of $1,200 are disorganized, overdue, and woefully inadequate for city dwellers whose rents can easily climb to double that amount. And undocumented immigrants—who don’t qualify for the aid but who are on the frontlines of the pandemic stocking grocery store shelves and sanitizing buildings—are left in the lurch. “I just do the math and there is no way I can pay rent when I’m unemployed. How am I suppose to pay present bills and then make up back rent? I don’t understand,” says Donnette, an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica who lives in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and recently worked as a home health care attendant until her employer died from COVID-19. “We are all deserving of a home.” Now, grassroots groups in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere are helping tenants organize rent strikes. The radical step of renters collectively withholding payment from their landlord is typically used to leverage building repairs or other concessions, but amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, thousands of renters are turning that tool to a political purpose: galvanize a suspension of rent payments, without tenants owing back rent, by putting economic pressure on landlords and thereby state and federal officials to promote tenant-friendly measures. In New York, tenants across 57 buildings totaling more than 2,000 units are coordinating rent strikes, according to Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice For All, a coalition of tenants’ rights groups that is spearheading the push to cancel rent across the state. Another 13,000 individual renters have signed the coalition’s online pledge against paying rent in May. Precise strike numbers will be nearly impossible to track, but the number of commitments alone signals a historic resurgence of the tenant resistance tactic, the likes of which have not been seen in New York since mass strikes were coordinated across the Bronx and Manhattan in the 1930s against rent gouging and poor living conditions. In present-day New York, a statewide eviction moratorium issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo protects tenants from losing their homes until at least mid-June—but they will still be on the hook to make up any missed rent payments after the moratorium expires. And once it does, lawmakers and housing advocates say that the state will see a “tidal wave” of eviction cases in the courts unless renters receive greater support. But for many New Yorkers the decision to withhold rent isn’t exactly a choice when there simply isn’t a paycheck coming in, and what little cash they have is going toward groceries, medicine, diapers, and other essentials. In this way, the rent strikes are a reframing of nonpayment as protest; it’s about using a dire moment to kindle a mass movement similar to the Occupy Wall Street protests that followed the 2008 financial crisis. “This moment is really terrifying, but it’s also quite inspiring,” says Weaver. “It’s in moments of crisis that we’re able to win big things from the first rent control laws in New York state’s history about 100 years ago to public housing and more. It’s in moments like these when we can really push the envelope to envision a totally different world.”
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724 people are talking about this And that starts on the ground with tenant leaders and organizers. But the need to keep social distance due to COVID-19 has complicated how advocates are reaching New Yorkers, especially some of the most vulnerable who can already be tough to reach, including the elderly, undocumented immigrants, and those who speak little or no English. For Wang and CAAAV—which is working with tenants in two Chinatown buildings who are expected to take collective action—perhaps the biggest organizing hurdle amid COVID-19 is a technological one compounded by a language barrier. While the #Can’tPayMay movement has brewed on widely used social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, many of the cultural groups Wang works with aren’t on those platforms. It’s a seemingly simple challenge that adds a layer of time consuming complexity to reaching tenants. “Organizing digitally has been a real mind bender,” says Wang, who speaks Mandarin and frequently works with tenants who don’t speak English as their first language or at all. “[The tenants] have smartphones, but they’re all plugged into different networks: Chinese are on WeChat, Korean folks are on WeChat or Kakao, Bengali are on WhatsApp. We can’t reach them on Facebook and Twitter. We have to meet them where they are.” At CAAAV, that has translated to teaching its members how to use the video chat features offered by some messaging apps, and helping to create various group chats for tenants. Organizers are mulling the idea of setting up a tenant hotline and sharing that info on various messaging-app platforms, and have also experimented with video and conference call technology. UberConference, for instance, has proved useful because it eliminates the obstacle of dialing in, which can sometimes be a challenge for older tenants, according to Wang. These efforts are as much about keeping tenants informed as they are about helping them digitally connect with their neighbors. “There’s a lot of active teaching in terms of how to use these platforms,” says Wang. “Knowing that I can play a real role in facilitating that conversation is really gratifying, it’s even more gratifying to see communities use those skills to take control of their situations themselves.” In the south Bronx, that mentality is core to the work of tenant leaders partnered with grassroots group Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA). Fitzroy Christian, a volunteer tenant leader with CASA who lives in the Highbridge section of the Bronx—an area of New York City especially hard hit by COVID-19—sees his role as arming locals with information and options. “The informational systems in New York city and state are not weathering the storm properly,” says Christian, who mostly works with low-wage worker whose jobs have been made obsolete or risky as a result of the pandemic. “Part of our discussions with our members is if they have the ability to pay their rent, they should. But if they have to make a choice between paying their rent, their utilities, or taking care of their families, they should withhold the rent because having a roof over your head and starving to death makes no sense.” To that end, New York lawmakers have unveiled a spate of legislative efforts that could help renters and landlords alike. And on the federal level, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar has introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which would relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent, transfer mortgages to the federal government, and allow landlords to recoup their rent costs—but only if they agree to a series of stipulations including a freeze on rents, and an inability to collect back payments. Fitzroy and other CASA tenant leaders have been using Zoom, phone calls, “plus a million emails a day,” he says, to connect with residents. Instead of traditional door knocking and in-person meetings, CASA has switched to video workshops, which are recorded and uploaded on the group’s website, with ample time for attendees to ask questions about unemployment, evictions, and paying—or not paying—rent. The idea of a rent strike, Christian says, “came up organically” for several tenants struggling to make ends meet who wondered if it would ramp up pressure for rent relief. “We have to send a message,” says Mariana Hernandez, a single-mother who rents a two-bedroom apartment in Mott Haven with her two young daughters. Hernandez lost her income as a crossing guard when New York shuttered schools in March, and to make matters worse, her 74-year-old mother is hospitalized at Lincoln Medical Center with COVID-19. With little cash and mounting bills, Hernandez and ten other tenants of her four-story apartment building are withholding rent come May 1. “I’m constantly terrified. I’m scared for my mother, I’m scared for my girls, and I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” says Hernandez, who has yet to receive her $1,200 stimulus check. “My goal is survival, and how can I pay rent when I can barely put food on the table?” Even grassroots groups that don’t typically organize around housing issues are helping their tenants mobilize rent strikes. Organizers with Desis Rising up and Moving (DRUM), which advocates for South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers, recognizes that renters, homeowners, and small landlords are on the edge of a proverbial cliff without greater relief. “We need to be able to protect ourselves and our community and the only way we can do that is if we come together,” says Jensine Raihan, a gender justice organizer DRUM. “If we don’t organize then we have no voice.” Renters across the state will make that voice heard come 7 p.m. on May 1, banging pots and pans at their windows and unfurling homemade banners painted with “No income, no rent” and “Cancel rent.” It’s a show of solidarity Christian hopes elected officials will hear loud and clear. “It is important, truly, truly important, for the actions that need to be taken are taken now—sooner rather than later,” says Christian. “The costs in people’s homes, to their lives, the effects on the community—it could be so devastating.” NY Curbed