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.

Mindy Isser March 31, 2020

Renters' rights groups rallied outside the State House with an "eviction free zone" sign and flooded the Joint Committee on Housing on Beacon Hill to call for the return of rent control. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

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%.

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.

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.

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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