The signs posted in the first-floor windows of 1234 Pacific Street in Brooklyn tell an increasingly familiar story: “We are striking to cancel rent in New York state during the COVID-19 public health crisis. We are striking because we cannot pay, or in solidarity with those who cannot pay. We will not go hungry or without medical care in order to pay rent.”
The 37-unit, six-story building is one of 57 New York City properties whose tenants are on rent strike, but tenants in places as diverse as Alexandria, Virginia; Chicago; Gainesville, Florida; Los Angeles; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Philadelphia and San Francisco have joined the movement to cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic. They are also demanding a moratorium on evictions and are pushing both community activists and elected officials to address the need for affordable rental housing, a need that has been exacerbated, but was not caused, by the virus.
And while rent strikes are a tried-and-true tactic of the diverse housing justice movement, they are just one tool in a hefty arsenal. Community organizing strategies include occupations of vacant but habitable homes, outdoor encampments, advocacy of legislative relief (including a universal guarantee of homes for all), eviction disruptions, mutual aid, efforts to provide free legal counsel to those facing displacement, and the creation of tiny homes on publicly owned land.
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Taken together, these tactics are bringing needed attention to the link between public health and housing policy.
A recent paper in the Journal of Urban Health describes the stakes: “Eviction is likely to increase COVID-19 infection rates because it results in overcrowded living environments, doubling-up, transiency, limited access to healthcare and a decreased ability to comply with pandemic mitigation strategies, e.g., social distancing, self-quarantine, and hygiene practice,” it reports. Worse, since COVID and evictions disproportionately impact low-income communities of color — communities that statistically have higher rates of pulmonary diseases like asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic kidney and liver ailments than those who are better-resourced — keeping people housed has become a key strategy in pandemic control, something that was acknowledged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when it issued an eviction moratorium in September. That order expires on December 31 and is actually far less robust than it sounds. For one, it puts the burden on tenants, requiring them to fill out a “declaration” affirming that they can’t pay rent because of illness, lost income or both.
“If you don’t know you have to take an affirmative step to notify your landlord, you are at risk of eviction if you’re in arrears,” Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Truthout. “Putting the burden onto the courts and onto landlords would go a long way in keeping people in their homes.”
But that’s not currently the way it works, and despite the CDC moratorium, tenants continue to be burdened. In some cases, landlords have been able to get a monetary judgment for back rent — allowing them to garnish wages or acquire a tenant’s other assets — but cannot legally evict the resident until the moratorium expires. Nonetheless, owners are going to court and filing for eviction so that as soon as the moratorium is lifted, they can call a marshal and empty the unit.
The number of filings is staggering. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, in the last nine months, evictions have been sought in dozens of U.S. cities: 19,474 in Phoenix; 9,876 in Memphis; 9,266 in Fort Worth; 7,242 in Tampa; 5,759 in Milwaukee; and 4,933 in Richmond, Virginia, alone.
Should evictions resume this winter, the National Council of State Housing Agencies conservatively estimates that 8.4 million renter households — 20.1 million people — could lose their homes. They further estimate that between 10 and 14 million tenant households are currently behind in rent, with arrears that will total approximately $34 billion on January 1.
This is where the cancel rent movement — and legislation to curtail rent collection — come in.
The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, HR6515, introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), would eliminate all rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic, retroactive to April 1, and extend 30 days beyond the health emergency. It would also establish a Rental Property Relief Fund to be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to cover landlord losses. A second fund would offset losses to mortgage holders.
Not surprisingly, the hashtag #CancelRent has gone viral as tenants throughout the country are joining Omar to demand rent forgiveness.
Jacob Bernard is one of more than 1,800 tenants who are on rent strike in New York City. “I’m a bartender so I was immediately out of work in March,” he told Truthout. Although he is now back on the job — with reduced hours and lower tips — many of his Brooklyn neighbors remain unemployed.
This financial hardship, Bernard says, was the catalyst for the strike; nonetheless, it took the pandemic to get everyone organized.
“We’d organized a tenants’ association two years earlier and had been trying to get our landlord — Isaac Schwartz, named one of the city’s worst landlords by the NYC Public Advocate — to make necessary repairs. But it was when people were suddenly unable to pay their rent that we were able to go after what we’ve been paying for and deserve,” Bernard said. “We also know that this is bigger than us, bigger than just our building. We’re part of a movement.” (Schwartz declined to speak to Truthout, saying he was “too busy” when reached by phone.)
In Omaha, Nebraska, and Kansas City, Missouri, the movement to build tenant power has included direct intervention to assist those facing eviction. Simon Hinton is a member of Omaha Tenants United, a two-and-a-half-year-old group made up of anarchists, socialists and communists. Prior to COVID, Hinton says, the group helped tenants get hot water restored in one building and forced a landlord to drop exorbitant “move-out fees” in another.
“Since COVID, we’ve shifted our focus to court support,” Hinton told Truthout. “The judges and landlords don’t tell people about the CDC declaration, so we go to court with the paperwork and help people fill it out.” It hasn’t been easy, and Hinton says that group members have gotten into trouble because the courts claim they’re giving legal advice without a license, but this has not stopped the organization’s work.
“Evictions for any reason need to stop,” Hinton said. “The more people have to move in with friends or family, or onto the streets or into shelters, the more the virus transmits. It can literally mean people’s deaths.”
Tara Raghuveer is the founder and director of KC Tenants in Kansas City, Missouri, and is the national campaign director of the Homes Guarantee campaign at People’s Action, where she’s coordinating a long-range organizing drive to assure that no one is denied shelter in the world’s richest country. People’s Action’s demands are extensive and include universal rent control, reparations for centuries of racist housing policies, the creation of publicly owned social housing, and restrictions on real estate speculation. These, Raghuveer says, form the foundation of a “homes guarantee.” Jamaal Bowman (D-New York), Cori Bush (D-Missouri), Ilhan Omar (D- Minnesota) and Marie Newman (D-Illinois) have pledged to support this guarantee.
More immediately, however, KC Tenants has been working to shut down Kansas City’s eviction courts. Raghuveer reports that the group has, on several occasions, gone to the courthouse, blocked doors and verbally disrupted the eviction process. KC Tenants also successfully disrupted eviction teleconferences, with one judge agreeing to suspend remote hearings through year’s end. All told, Raghuveer says that KC Tenants have had a hand in delaying at least 350 evictions, but adds that there has been a notable spike in illegal lock-outs. “One woman didn’t know she was being evicted because she never received the notice to appear in court, so she lost by default. We attempted to block the eviction, but the sheriff was successful in changing the locks,” Raghuveer told Truthout. “We raised money for her so she could go to a hotel, but this is obviously not a permanent fix.”
Still, whether through mutual aid or simply taking matters into their own hands, people are doing what they can to support each other in remaining housed.
In the East Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community moved dozens of homeless people into 20 vacant homes owned by Caltrans, the California transportation agency. Although 62 would-be residents were quickly arrested for trespassing and unlawful assembly — and then booted out — they are hoping that, like Moms 4 Housing in Oakland and activists in Philadelphia, they’ll eventually be allowed to take possession of the properties.
In Philadelphia, the city’s housing authority recently turned over more than 50 vacant buildings to members of Philadelphia Housing Action to shelter people with annual incomes below $25,000. A community land trust — typically a nonprofit or public entity that manages residences meant to remain affordable in perpetuity — will oversee the buildings.
The demand that the vacant properties be turned over to tenants originated in an encampment of 100 people who set up tents across from the most expensive condominiums in the city. According to encampment organizer Alex R. Stewart, a member of the Workers Revolutionary Collective, “We chose that spot because we wanted to highlight the disparities and show the tale of two cities that is Philly.” An ongoing mutual aid network developed in the camp and continues to provide meals, mental health counseling and a laundry service for people in need, many of whom are now housed in the turned-over buildings.
“We opened up the first house on March 23, 2020,” Wiley Cunningham of Philadelphia Housing Action told Truthout. “After an encampment was evicted that day, we went to an abandoned house and it became an emergency shelter.” Cunningham notes there are vacant homes all over Philadelphia, including public housing developments that were emptied and are waiting to be demolished or sold to developers. “By July, we’d opened up 12 houses. These early units were in good condition. Basically, all we needed to do was change the locks and turn on the utilities. In a few places copper pipes had been stolen so we needed to replace them,” Cunningham said. Other homes, he says, need more extensive work but those repairs, too, are underway.
Stephanie Sena, executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia and a professor at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University, cautions that while this is inspiring, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the housing crisis. Getting 50-plus homes for the community land trust is a start, she says, but notes that it is also important to work on local, state and federal legislation and address systemic issues such as the diminishing stock of available public and affordable housing.
Sena also supports the creation of “tiny homes,” units of under 300 square feet for one- and two-person households. “There is space for tiny homes in the tool box of solutions to the affordable housing crisis,” Sena says, “but tiny homes are not really what’s needed. The solution is public housing.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, she explains, the federal government began disinvesting in public housing, putting no money into its construction or maintenance and letting needed repairs go undone. Meanwhile, Sena notes, HUD funding has been slashed and the U.S. is losing affordable housing at an incredible rate.
“People will rent-to-own the tiny homes and pay rent based on income,” Sena said. “The city has said it will create two tiny house villages within the next year or so, one in West Philly and the other in the northeast. The first will have water, electricity and bathrooms in each unit; the second will be pods, with shared kitchens and communal bathrooms.” Each community will have about a dozen homes, as well as a community center, social services and a garden. Construction is being funded by private philanthropy, and the Office of Homeless Services (OHS) will select residents.
This makes the project somewhat controversial; some activists fear that OHS will bar those with felony convictions from accessing the dwellings and will impose a raft of rules on residents. Instead, many activists prefer the less restrictive land trust homes. But despite the inevitable disagreements, housing activists throughout the country are cheered by the groundswell of activism that has led tenants, the unhoused and activist communities into coalition.
“Despite the pandemic, we’ve been doing traditional grassroots organizing to build deeper, broader tenant movements all over the U.S.,” Raghuveer told Truthout. “Rent strikers and people at risk of losing their shelter are doing all they can to stop the violence of evictions and promote a vision of collective and community ownership of housing for everyone.”