“There is no way I can pay rent right now,” said Donnette Leftord, an undocumented New Yorker who started a home cleaning business with her husband. “I am presently unemployed. My small business I started—we cannot go in anyone’s apartment.” When she came to this country, Leftord vowed to herself that she would not be someone who “rips off the government.” She works. She pays taxes. She’s raised three daughters here with her husband. But because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown, she has no income now. Like hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers, the vast majority of them American citizens, there’s no money coming in, so she won’t have any to send out to her landlord on May 1. It’s not a choice, it’s not a moral failing, it’s not laziness. She can’t work, so she can’t pay, and neither can many other tenants in her building. So they’re organizing to not pay together. They’ve joined a rent strike on May 1.
Leftord spoke on a conference call on Thursday, April 16, hosted by Housing Justice For All, a coalition of over 70 tenant organizations across the state that in the Before Times fought for stronger tenant protections and an end to evictions and homelessness in New York. Now, as the statewide stay-at-home order from Governor Andrew Cuomo has ground the economy to a halt, they are fighting for three months of rent cancellation for all tenants. Cuomo has used his emergency powers to declare a stay on evictions for three months, but they believe he must go further. Unemployment has skyrocketed, but even hourly workers who have held onto their jobs may not have income during that period. The moral bill has come due in a nation where so many our people live paycheck to paycheck, but this is also a practical issue. It’s all well and good to put a stay on evictions for three months, but what happens at the end of that period?
“How are we going to pay three months worth of back rent?” Leftord asked, knowing the answer. “How are we going to have the money to pay $6,000, $8,000 in back rent?” Because that’s what the rent in New York is now, even in neighborhoods that were once affordable. That’s what it costs to house a family in the capital of the world.
The result, as it stands, is that we are looking at an eviction cliff in late June. At the end of the three-month period, hundreds of thousands of renters across New York will be hit with multiple months of rent bills when they probably can’t pay one. “Housing courts are going to reopen with a wave of evictions,” says Cea Weaver of HJ4A. “The fact that people couldn’t work for three months is not going to go away when housing court opens.” New York State is already home to some 90,000 people who are homeless. The prospect here is that many more people will join them, thrown on the street when the pandemic is far from over, and when it could return with a vengeance in the summer or the fall. This is a moral travesty, but it’s also a public health disaster. HJ4A and a number of other activist groups and political leaders are calling on Cuomo to cancel rent for three months by executive order. They hope to force the issue by turning what is an inevitable event—hundreds of thousands of people not paying on May 1 because they simply don’t have the money—into a political act.
“There are two tracks for the strike right now,” Weaver explained. “The first track is what you would consider a traditional rent strike. Those are tenants who are collectively building a tenant association in their building and deciding in this moment to not pay rent. And they’re doing that collectively with their neighbors. In addition to that, we have a second group of people who are in collective non-compliance, so to speak. And those folks are people, individually, wherever you are, who are not paying their rent on their own. And we are trying to get them to do that together with us, because we really do think it’s riskier in this moment, if you can’t pay your rent, to not pay your rent in an unorganized fashion. So we’re trying to plug those folks into our housing justice movement.” Of course, it’s not a strike in one crucial sense: unlike with some workplace actions, there are no legal protections for those who choose to participate. They could still be evicted. They’re hoping for strength in numbers.
The conference call featured a number of activists who have organized their buildings to participate in the strike. HJ4A says they have confirmed 15 buildings are actively participating in the strike so far. One was organized by Guadeloupe Perolta of Woodside, Queens, who described—in Spanish, through a translator—how she had written a letter to her landlord, signed by a number of people in her building, explaining their situation and how it would be impossible to pay. He responded that he understands their plight, but rent is still due on the first of the month.
But due or not, many tenants have no choice. “It’s not intentional,” Perolta said. “We are telling the people who can’t pay to join this movement. And that’s why we’re asking you, Governor Cuomo, to cancel the rent.”
HJ4A organizers believe an executive order is the way forward. (The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.) There is an ongoing dispute over whether the New York state legislature is technically in session, and thus can act on this or anything else. Some believe the governor’s vast emergency powers put an action from him on safer constitutional ground, incredibly, than an act of the legislature. John Teufel, a Brooklyn-based attorney, wrote in defense of a theoretical executive order last month in the New York Daily News. But there is also a piece of legislation—Senate Bill S8125A—sitting in the upper body’s judiciary committee right now. Here’s a summary:
Suspends all rent payments for certain residential tenants and small business commercial tenants if such tenant has lost employment or was forced to close their place of business and certain mortgage payments for landlords of such tenants in the state for ninety days following the effective date of this act in response to the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
One of the bill’s co-sponsors is Senator Alessandra Biaggi of New York’s 34th district, who explained why the current regime—where there’s a stay on evictions, but not payments—is insufficient.
“A lot of New Yorkers are paying a majority of their [income in] rent,” Biaggi said. One study found 44 percent of households are rent-burdened, meaning 30 percent or more of their income goes to rent. “So it’s very hard for New Yorkers to save. It’s very hard for Americans to save. What we’re basically saying with the moratorium on evictions is that we’ll evict you later. Because it’s not really doing anything other than pushing the pause button.”
This is the eviction cliff. If there is another way to avoid it, no one has yet raised it. The immutable fact is that many hourly workers—whether they’ve lost their job, been furloughed, or otherwise can’t work and get paid—will not be able to make it. This, after these same people—who are from disproportionately poor and minority communities—were also more likely to contract COVID-19 than salaried workers and those who could work from home.
Of course, there are big problems here for landlords as well. The big fish will mostly be fine in the short and medium term, but the city’s smaller landlords will struggle even with the 90-day stay on mortgage payments that Governor Cuomo put in place on March 20. I reached out to the New York City Small Home Owners Association (NYCSHA) for their perspective on this, but had not heard back at time of publication. The position of HJ4A and other housing activists is essentially that landlords will need to pursue relief, probably from the federal government, of their own accord. In this case—or for now—tenants and landlords are mostly not directly at odds here. “We think landlords are going to need help too,” Amy Schur, a housing activist and campaign director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, told The Real Deal last week. “Someone should be organizing landlords.”
The New York bill targets some relief for landlords of tenants whose rent would be cancelled, and Biaggi suggested smaller property owners in particular are a concern. HJ4A and other activist groups are less enthused about its approach, however. “Those bills are a step in the right direction,” Weaver said, “but we really don’t think they go far enough for what we’re actually demanding.” For one thing, the bill tries to target relief for tenants who can prove they’ve lost their income in the current crisis, and the group opposes this kinds of means testing. It’s a similar debate to the one that sprung up around the relief checks from the federal government that are now going out, somewhat piecemeal, as a one-time payment of $1,200 per person. Is it right, or worth the time and effort, to try to determine people’s income levels and how much they need the help? Can you get accurate and up-to-date information in a timely manner?
“If you just draw the line to the federal stimulus bill that was passed, right, and the money that Americans are receiving, the $1,200—they cut it off at a certain number, rightfully so,” Biaggi said. “The people who have been hurt the most by this are the low-income New Yorkers, the communities of color that have been underinvested in for decades—not just years, decades—and the individuals who don’t have the money to be able to purchase healthcare. And so, they’re the sickest, and they’re the most in need, and we have to help them.
“This moment is a portal for transformation, to be able to finally deal with the issues that we know have been existing for decades,” she added, citing a separate bill in the New York legislature that would provide a subsidy for some individuals on the brink of homelessness, to try to keep them in their homes rather than throw them into the shelter system. “Even though the moment we’re going through is probably, and hopefully, one of the most painful moments we will ever go through in our lives, we have the ability to transform the suffering into a world that is actually more fair and more just for everyone.”
That sentiment is shared by housing activists, who have a sense that there’s opportunity in this crisis. Like proponents of universal basic income, who are currently getting a (severely truncated) trial run of their project, tenants’ rights organizations across the country are beginning to organize not just people in their area, but with other groups nationwide. The coronavirus has exposed the deep and enduring horrors in American life, from the injustice of tying health insurance to employment, on down to the simple fact we largely do not pay the people we now deem “essential” a living wage. We may soon be at a point where we begin to question not just these individual cracks in the edifice, but whether the entire proprietarian ideology that has for so long governed us can be justified when it systematically delivers these kinds of outcomes.
In the meantime, though, these folks are focused on cancelling rent. It’s not a complicated situation, as Winsome Pendergass, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, made it clear on Thursday’s conference call. “Over the years, we’ve been saying we are one paycheck away from being on the sidewalk. Maybe they thought we were joking,” she said. “Some of us have not been working for the last five, six weeks, so we are here to let all of New York know that we can’t pay rent in May! We can’t pay May’s rent. And we are encouraging all tenants to come aboard and join the movement…Can’t Pay May!”