New York tenant leaders are planning a “massive wave of rent strikes” across the state, the latest escalation in a campaign to force action from Governor Andrew Cuomo as he continues to resist calls to lift rent obligations for those financially impacted by the coronavirus public health crisis.
With just two weeks before next month’s rent deadline, the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance and the Met Council on Housing launched a pledge on Thursday urging New York tenants to collectively withhold their rent on May 1st, regardless of whether they can pay.
The largely unprecedented organizing effort would send convulsions through New York’s already cracking rental market and, in theory, leave Cuomo with no choice but to take action. It comes as the number of New York residents who’ve applied for unemployment in recent weeks skyrocketed past one million. Many of them are still unable to access the state's benefit system.
“What's happening is that millions of people can't pay rent, and we're trying to turn that into a moment of collective noncompliance,” Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, told Gothamist. “It’s more like mass nonviolent civil disobedience than a traditional rent strike.”
The coordinated demands include canceling rent and allowing tenants the opportunity to renew their leases for the duration of the crisis, along with permanently rehousing homeless New Yorkers. Progressive leaders on the federal level, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have backed such measures.
For his part, Cuomo has repeatedly stated the "rent issue" was solved by halting evictions for three months — a solution that housing attorneys say will result in a tidal wave of eviction cases once the moratorium is lifted. He has so far declined to support a bill with bipartisan support that would cancel rent payments and provide relief to landlords as well. Inquiries to his office about the proposed action were not returned.
Some rent strikes are already underway in parts of the city. In one Crown Heights building, as many as 30 of 32 units plan to withhold rent from their landlord Isaac Schwartz, whose Brooklyn real estate portfolio totals over $87 million, beginning next month.
“The governor doesn’t listen to tenants, so we’re trying to create a crisis of capital that will get some of these landlords in his ear and move this issue to his desk,” said Maxwell Papperella, a resident of the building who helped organize the strike using a toolkit provided by Housing Justice for All.
As an estimated 40 percent of New York residents struggle to pay rent, landlord groups are also petitioning the state for emergency assistance. Earlier this week, the Real Estate Board of New York delivered a letter to the governor calling for a bailout, which would include both rent and mortgage forbearance and property tax relief. Landlord organizations say that a widespread rent strike would be devastating.
"This is a chaotic time and the last thing we need is more chaos, which is what will happen with a massive rent strike,” Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), a landlord group, told Gothamist. “Many renters have already been able to pay their rent. Those who can't have worked with our members to get help. A rent strike helps no one.”
But while REBNY and CHIP claim that landlords are working with tenants facing hardship, many city renters say that has not been their experience. One REBNY member has allegedly sought to jack up rent by 25 percent to take advantage of new “demand” created by proximity to a makeshift hospital. Another has attempted to deregulate units where protected tenants have lived for years, according to residents.
Beyond asking for short-term rent cancellation, the proposed rent strike will also aim to secure concessions, such as good cause eviction and a two-year rent freeze, in the likely event of a landlord bailout, organizers said.
“People are not going to pay rent on May 1st, either alone or not alone,” said Weaver. “That can happen in a managed way or a chaotic way. So, what does that management look like? Does it protect private real estate interests or does it protect us?”
Those interested in organizing their buildings should consult the Legal Aid Society (212-577-3300), Legal Services NYC (917-661-4500) or the Met Council on Housing (646-542-1920). Additionally, the Met Council on Housing encourages prospective strikers to text “Rent Strike” to 33339 (use “Huelga de Renta” for Spanish). Nothing in the above article should be construed as legal advice.