Calls to “cancel rent” are catching fire. First came a couple of tweets on Twitter. Then progressive firebrands like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed the #CancelRent movement. Now, millions are on a rent strike. Even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has declared his support for rent and mortgage forgiveness. As millions of tenants mobilize to cancel rent, they are not asking nicely or relying on lip service from politicians. Rather, millions of tenants are taking action by using a powerful time-tested strategy: rent strikes.
As the desperation builds and another month of bills and rent arrears accrues, tenants are no longer politely asking for help. Tenants are rightfully taking matters into their own hands by organizing rent strikes to bring the fight to their landlords and elected officials to cancel rent. “When we fight, we win! We are here to let them know,” said Kim Statuto, who is a tenant leader for tenant organizing group
Community Action for Safe Apartments in the Bronx. “Thousands of people are on strike! Because we can’t pay and because it should not be on us to bail out the landlords!” While rent strikes are not new, I have never seen tenants come together on this scale before.
In New York, multiple unions that represent thousands of housing attorneys and legal services workers, including myself, have joined the cancel rent movement. As an attorney, I have represented tenant associations on countless rent strikes against their landlords in the past decade. In my experience, rent strikes are an incredibly effective strategy for tenants to reclaim their power and win meaningful demands. Rent strikes have been used as early as 1907. In New York City, rent strikes have been closely intertwined with the civil rights struggles of African Americans for many generations — from landlords charging Black Americans higher rents than white Americans, or the city government’s racist housing policies, such as racially discriminatory rental practices and exclusion from public housing. And rent strikes have been incredibly successful in achieving huge victories, such as rent control in the 1940s.
As lawyers, we must caution clients about the legal risks they are undertaking. These are unprecedented times and there are looming questions: What new laws may pass? How will courts process landlords’ claims for nonpayment of rent? How will judges and juries interpret tenants’ legal defenses within a global health pandemic?
The scale of this housing crisis is terrifying for so many who do not see any relief in sight. It also means that individual tenants can, once again, turn to their neighbors for solidarity. When tenants work together on a rent strike, it can: (1) build collective strength and pressure that summons landlords to the negotiating table; and (2) reduce the risk of retaliation for any individual tenant. Perhaps more importantly, tenants transform from passive and helpless witnesses to their own oppression to empowered actors ready to fight and claim their dignity.
Through the mass mobilization that has already taken place, many cities and states have enacted an eviction moratorium to halt any pending evictions for the duration of the pandemic. But it doesn’t go far enough. These moratoriums only delay evictions — New York extended the moratorium by executive order on May 7, but it also opened the door to start evictions again. Landlords will resume eviction lawsuits at a volume that the courts may not be prepared to handle once the pandemic is over.
We can expect large landlords and their army of lawyers to file thousands of new eviction cases in New York City alone — The Legal Aid Society estimates there may be 50,000 new eviction cases in the city after June 20, if not millions across the United States. In places like New York City, where gentrification has created perverse incentives for landlords to evict long-term tenants, landlords attack with a phalanx of eviction mill law firms. During this pandemic, New York landlords filed hundreds of new eviction cases in New York City Housing Court. What happens when the eviction moratorium is over? Will millions of Americans lose their homes?
It is estimated that nationwide, about 31 percent of tenants did not pay their rent in April. This number dipped to 20 percent in May, in part due to unemployment and stimulus checks that provided a temporary buffer. But the number of impacted tenants will continue to grow by necessity, and as tenants become more organized and politicized. It is estimated 38 million workers have filed unemployment claims — some estimates go as high as 43.2 million workers have been impacted, and, in turn, these are millions of tenants who literally do not have the money to pay their rent.
The question for these tenants is whether they will act alone or join their neighbors in negotiating with their landlords and demanding their elected officials enact legislation to provide relief. In large cities, from Los Angeles to New York City, tenant organizers have brought these tenants into a housing movement that brings with it a confrontational style of conflict between the haves and have-nots, perhaps long overdue. Sky-rocketing gentrification and real estate speculation has produced millions of rent-burdened tenants. These tenants have felt the enormous financial pressure for years with barely a safety net to catch them.
Now, landlords must weigh whether they are really prepared to evict up to 100 percent of the tenants in their buildings or if they will forgive this debt. And for elected officials, they must weigh whether they are prepared to stop a looming homelessness crisis for millions of Americans if this rent debt is not canceled — a recent study estimates homelessness may increase by up to 45 percent.
In places like New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo can solve this problem through the stroke of a pen by state executive order to suspend landlords’ right to collect rent and sue for any rent owed or accumulated during the crisis. Housing Justice for All even organized a protest in front of Governor Cuomo’s mansion with an enormous banner that said “Cancel Rent Cuomo.”
Tenant advocacy groups have made clear that half measures are ineffective and unacceptable — rents must be canceled and they must be universal programs that do not place more burdens on tenants to navigate administrative systems in order to qualify for this relief. Tenants know that they cannot keep waiting for change to miraculously materialize — they know they must fight for rent suspension from their state legislatures to our federal government if there’s any chance of winning.
These are unprecedented challenges that require unprecedented, bold actions to fight for unprecedented solutions — to cancel rents would provide a real path towards recovery. At this breaking point, tenants have lost patience and time has run out — they are no longer willing to beg, persuade and cajole the powers that be to look kindly upon the suffering masses. Decades of growing inequality, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, has left millions of tenants no choice but to rent strike, and to do so all at once. It would heed landlords and elected officials alike to heed the protest chant: “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”