Ysvelia Silva planned to spend this spring training for the New York City Marathon. Instead, she is calling neighbors in her apartment complex and urging them not to pay rent next month.
She and other tenant organizers say the majority of residents at a group of 17 buildings in Queens, N.Y., have committed to a rent strike effective May 1. The neighborhood’s five-story brick buildings of mostly affordable housing belong to a larger complex called the Cosmopolitan Houses.
“Life has changed completely here,” said Ms. Silva, 66 years old, who closed her small leather-importing business due to coronavirus. Most of her neighbors, she said, are out of work or running out of money. Some are also infected with the virus. “No one goes through the trouble to do this because they want to. We’re not paying rent out of necessity.”
Where most rent strikes arise from disputes between tenants and building owners, organizers say this one is meant to prod lawmakers into offering more rental assistance during the crisis.
Ms. Silva’s part of Queens has been hit hard by coronavirus. The nearest hospital, Elmhurst Hospital Center, is among the most overburdened in the city and has been called “the epicenter of the epicenter” of the pandemic by the local city councilman.
Many of the residents can’t afford rent next month, organizers say. Others are able to pay but say they won’t, to help bring more attention to the cause.
The Queens strike is part of a nationwide effort to get tenants to stop paying rent on May 1 as they contend with widespread joblessness and economic hardship. Groups in California, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere also are organizing strikes beginning that day.
“Rent strikes are usually used for two things: to get landlords to lower the rent or to get landlords to improve conditions,” said Peter Dreier, professor of politics and public policy at Occidental College. “These rent strikes aren’t really about either.…This is really a protest that’s aimed at the government.”
A number of New York-based tenant groups that have had some recent success pushing for rent-related reforms, including the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance and New York Communities for Change, called for a statewide strike of 1 million renters earlier this month.
About one-third of U.S. households are renters, and nearly half of them were paying more than 30% of their incomes on rent and utilities before the coronavirus pandemic struck, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. While the federal government quickly offered forbearance options to many homeowners last month, assistance for most renters has been more varied by city and state.
Landlords say rent payments are essential for them to pay their mortgages, taxes and building-maintenance costs.
Almost 90% of apartment households paid all or at least part of their April rent by the 19th, a lower rate than normal, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
Cosmopolitan Houses’ general manager, Steve Stadmeyer, said most of the complex’s tenants paid their rent in April and that staff has been directing tenants to programs that can help them financially. He declined to comment on whether the landlord would negotiate May rent.
“We are grateful that the majority of residents have continued to pay their rent because it allows us to keep our buildings clean and residents and staff safe during these challenging times for our community,” he said in a statement. “Building porters and handymen are working every day in the epicenter of this pandemic. It means a lot to us that we have been able to keep them working.”
In New York, rent strikers want state lawmakers to impose a “universal cancellation of any rent, mortgage, or utility payments owed or accumulated during the length of this crisis,” according to a document called the “Rent Strike Toolkit” that is being circulated by tenant groups. They are asking people who can afford their rent to join the strike, in the hopes of sending a more powerful message to elected officials.
Some strikers say that landlords will need help, too, and that government action could be coupled with financial assistance to pay for building staff and maintenance. The Cosmopolitan Houses tenant association wrote in a letter to the landlord that government action should “include relief for small landlords with financial hardship” as a result of the strike.
“I think that’s convoluted logic,” said Doug Bibby, president of NMHC. “The time it takes for that pain [of unpaid rent] to go through the system, how much time do we have for the politicians to make a decision?”
Tenant activism has undergone a renaissance in recent years, as renting in major U.S. cities has become increasingly expensive. Activist groups have been a driving force behind the passage of new rent controls and eviction protections in several states and cities.
In New York, all evictions are suspended until late June, and other cities have similar moratoriums. However, many tenants, legal-aid attorneys and other housing experts worry what will happen to those behind on rent once courts finally reopen.
“I’m not sure there are too many housing-court judges that are going to look kindly on someone not paying rents because they felt it was unfair,” said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. built the Metropolitan Houses for working-class New Yorkers in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, monthly rents were just $8.35 a room, according to the New York Daily News. Two real-estate investors later acquired the properties, changed the name and raised rents.
Tenants at the Cosmopolitan Houses have protested in the past about rent increases, which has helped organizers contact residents about the coming rent strike. Some tenants stopped paying rent in April, but organizers say the number of strikers is set to grow next month. Iván Contreras, a local activist who is helping to organize the tenants, said 80% of tenants in 17 of Cosmopolitan Houses’ 38 buildings have agreed to participate.
“Since 1980, we have never missed a single month of rent,” said Claudia Nuñez, another tenant on strike who said she was infected with the coronavirus. “They have to make a consideration for us.” She said she depends on disability compensation following an injury at her previous job, adding those payments have been delayed.
Carol Moss, who lives in the same building as Ms. Silva, said she hadn’t heard about the strike.
“I know that feeling. I worked for 40 years for my last job and I know what it’s like to not be able to do something, but you still make do,” said Ms. Moss, who has lived in her apartment since 1978 and is retired.
She will pay her May rent, she said. “I have to have somewhere to go.”