Web Only / Features » March 31, 2020
Millions of People Can’t Pay Rent. Here’s How Some Are Organizing.
Tenants and housing groups across the country are calling for a pause on rent and mortgage payments.
While the fear and panic that people may feel when they’re unable to pay their rent or mortgage can seem individual and unique, it’s actually shared between the millions of others who are in the same boat.
As April 1 looms and the first rent payment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic becomes due, countless people wonder how they’ll be able to afford to pay. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, millions have had their hours cut, been furloughed, or laid off. A whopping 3.3 million have applied for unemployment benefits, and some say the unemployment rate could reach 30%. To put that in perspective, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25%.
The cost of rent has skyrocketed the past few decades, while the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since the $7.25 wage took effect in 2009. And as worker productivity has soared to new heights, studies show that wages have stagnated across the board. This has been a problem for working people even in times of normalcy—in expensive urban cores like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, many bounce from friends’ couches to shelters and even sometimes to their own cars. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing crisis is understandably exploding: Those who were able to just barely pay their rent before are now scrambling to keep the landlord at bay.
Housing activists have been calling for a reprieve on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, and numerous cities states have reacted quickly, placing a temporary moratorium on evictions or a pause on housing court. But none yet have frozen rent payments, and tomorrow is April 1—and the rent is due.
While the fear and panic that people may feel when they’re unable to pay their rent or mortgage can seem individual and unique, it’s actually shared between the millions of others who are in the same boat. Right to the City Alliance, a national network of more than 80 racial, economic and environmental justice organizations, is hoping to turn that collective anxiety into collective action. The alliance is calling for an immediate cancellation of rent and mortgage payments through the duration of the public health and economic crisis for all renters, homeowners and small businesses and a three-month recovery period. These demands expand beyond a rent and mortgage freeze and include calling for the immediate release of those being held in pre-trial and immigrant detention, an indefinite suspension of utility shutoffs, and a guarantee of unemployment insurance, sick time, paid leave, health care, and a living wage for all workers.
For many, rent cancellation is urgently needed to ward off personal financial catastrophe. Coya Crespin of Community Alliance of Tenants of Portland, Oregon, said in a statement, “As a pregnant single parent without any savings, and now schools being shut down, it has been difficult keeping my kids fed. Many of the members of the housing organization I’m a member of have been contacting me afraid of not being able to pay rent in April. The stimulus package check that politicians are lifting up as a solution doesn’t even cover one month’s rent in most cases. People are beyond stressed. I’m beyond stressed.”
Many of these demands have been voiced for years, but have been popularized by the Bernie Sanders campaign and the #HomesGuarantee platform, which would implement a national rent control standard and a just-cause requirement for evictions. Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders agrees that “along with pausing mortgage payments, evictions, and utility shutoffs, we must place a moratorium on rent payments” during the coronavirus pandemic. And because President Trump’s recovery proposal is a paltry $1,200—not even enough to cover rent in many cities—tenants (and even some homeowners) are being forced to make a public declaration that, without more aid, they can’t (and won’t) pay. Housing activists are using this moment of true desperation to demand the support they deserve—but there are some disagreements on the way forward.
While Right to the City Alliance is pushing for an immediate suspension of rent and mortgage payments throughout the coronavirus crisis, and for a three-month period after it ends, others are calling for rent strikes if the government doesn’t act. Davin Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance, said his network is “supporting a diversity of tactics in the alliance.” Rent Strike 2020, a new organizing campaign working in partnership with Socialist Alternative and the Rose Caucus, a group of socialists running for both state and federal House and Senate seats, is demanding “every Governor, in every state: freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for two months, or face a rent strike.” Tenants in New York are waiting for Governor Cuomo to provide some relief, but are prepared to take matters into their own hands and go on a rent strike if he does not act.
Davin Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance said, “We see rent strikes as a collective action that comes from deep organizing on the local level and some of our member organizations are going to use that tactic. We need people to come together, organize, and join the movement for long-term and transformative struggle so we can fundamentally change the housing system and win homes for all.”
The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its COVID-19 Tenant Organizing Guide, urges people to be strategic and think long and hard about what their demands really are: “A rent strike is a tool, not a demand,” the guide states. It specifies, “In a situation where the demand is ‘stop collecting rent from me,’ it’s questionable how effective a rent strike would be. To put it another way, how does withholding rent pressure a landlord to suspend rent?”
There are a number of tactics being put forward in this moment, but one thing is for certain: In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing movement is empowering tenants to take big and bold action. No one can predict what will happen on or immediately after April 1, when millions potentially don’t pay their rent, but Cardenas said, “It’s not likely that we’ll see relief, and even the relief that comes in before May 1 won’t be sufficient for what our families need across the country. There is not going to be a return to normalcy or a return to business as usual.”
To sustain any long-term movement—and to win real power for tenants—it’s going to take more than one-off rent strikes or single issue demands. It’s going to take building powerful, working-class organizations. The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its guide, writes “Building strong, durable organization among tenants where there is an abundance of leaders and widespread trust yields the most successful and lasting results.” This must be the lesson for our movements going forward. April 1 may indeed be a pivotal moment in a growing housing movement that is being propelled forward by the crisis of this moment. How we help to steer the real hardships that so many workers are facing into a sustained and determined fight in the days that follow, however, will determine whether we can transform this moment of collective suffering into collective power.
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Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.
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