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‘Rent relief has to happen’

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In the absence of legislation to help renters, New Yorkers who can’t afford to pay their rent are organizing strikes

Bill Tompkins CoronaVirus COVID-19 Archive Photo by Bill Tompkins/Getty Images

Brennan Stultz couldn’t afford his rent for April. That became clear in mid-March when he, like thousands of other New Yorkers, saw his income dry up during the economic slowdown triggered by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Stultz is a real estate agent at EXR, with spring typically the beginning of his busy season. But nobody is buying property in the middle of a pandemic, and the only way he can show apartments right now is virtually, which he says is effectively impossible. “A year ago at this time I was making $10,000 a month,” he says. “This made it impossible for someone like me to work.”

As those realities began to bear down on Stultz, he hooked up with a friend, Matthew Clifford, whose Williamsburg restaurant, Grilled Cheese Alley, was shuttered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide stay-at-home order. The pair pooled their fears and anger, and decided that something needed to be done. Together, they now administer a Facebook group called ACTION: New York City Rent Strike, a loose alliance of New Yorkers who’ve had their income disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are demanding comprehensive rent relief from both their landlords and City Hall. Through ACTION, an aggrieved tenant can find petitions, phone banks, and a DIY poster-crafting guide that’s perfect for sparking an insurrection from the laundry room.

I first interviewed Stultz on March 31, a day before his rent strike became a reality. He was already gearing up for a revolution.

“We’re not really playing around with nuance right now,” he said. “We’re letting the world know what we need, and hopefully somebody is going to pick up the slack and realize it’s a really dire situation. I don’t know if it’s going to be city, state, or federal, but it has to be one of the three.”

Cuomo has yet to commit to any far-reaching rent nullification, and believes the 90-day eviction moratorium that the state passed on March 20 served as a sufficient answer to tenant concerns. “Even the people to whom you pay the rent have to pay the rent,” he recently said. Members of ACTION believe that the moratorium doesn’t go nearly far enough, and have thrown their support behind Senate Bill S8125A, sponsored by state Sens. Michael Gianaris and Julia Salazar, which would cancel rent payments for certain residents and small businesses for the next three months. It remains to be seen when, or if, that bill will gain traction in Albany.

For now, New York City’s rent strike movement is hyperlocal; tenants are moving door by door to organize their buildings, with the hope that collective action might force their landlords’ hand—and that, eventually, those property owners will force the government into compliance.

Alexz Graves is one of those tenants; she works as a TV producer, her husband in fabrication, and they share an apartment in Bushwick. She remembers telling her family that she’d been laid off while getting a haircut. She was going to be fine, she insisted, as long as her husband kept his job. “I kid you not, I got home after the haircut and my husband said, ‘I got laid off,’” she said. “We just sat there. What are we going to do?”

After joining ACTION, Graves drafted up a letter to inform her fellow tenants that she and her husband didn’t plan on paying rent, urging them to do the same, and slipped copies under the doors of each apartment in her 15-unit building. “I just got super involved and super diligent,” said Graves. “I want to get as many people involved as possible.”

It’s never easy to organize a rent strike, but to do so during a pandemic, where even the mildest person-to-person interaction is rendered a deadly taboo, is even more difficult. (Graves added a disclaimer to her letters: “All hands have been washed and sanitized before handling these letters.”)

To get tenants on the same page, Graves created a private Facebook page for her building, which has done a decent job of replicating the outreach she would typically do in person. Graves says the demographic of her building skews young and digitally literate, but when I interviewed her on April 1, only four of the 15 units had responded to her initial canvassing. The Facebook page hadn’t fared much better. “I’m starting to realize that there aren’t as many people tuned into this, or know what’s going on,” she said. “It was shocking to me, honestly. Not being able to rally people in person has been the main challenge for me.”

John, a Bushwick resident leading a rent strike initiative in his building (and who asked to withhold his last name), echoed some of Graves’s frustrations. I first spoke to him on March 31, one day after he organized a Zoom call with some of the occupants of his building. The goal was to settle on a plan for April, but it was difficult to reach a clear consensus. Some tenants supported the idea of withholding rent until the April 10 late-fee deadline to send a message to management, while others wanted to send a signed letter of intent to the landlord, explaining that those who are able to pay rent will continue to do so only if those who have been laid off receive some form of financial support. In general, John said he was disappointed by the lack of unification with his fellow tenants.

“This is a moment where a lot of people who spent the last three or four years tweeting ‘Donald Drumpf’ or whatever could make a difference,” he said. “Unsurprisingly, they’ve not been willing to do anything.”

While awareness of the broader rent strike movement may not have been high a month or so ago, that’s slowly changing. Tenants’ rights groups like New York Communities for Change and Housing Justice For All have stumped for a state-wide rent strike. To consolidate that momentum, Housing Justice For All issued a 32-page pamphlet detailing the societal precedent for a rent strike, along with a step-by-step guide on how to organize your building. It remains to be seen how influential those calls to action will be toward building a big-tent housing movement, but Cea Weaver, the organization’s campaign coordinator, isn’t sure how important that is. Already, she’s witnessed rent strike rhetoric enter the mainstream.

“If people want our resources, our resources are there. I’d encourage people to use them, and our messaging,” she says. “But the fact that millions of people are uniting in their inability to pay rent and are calling out for action is the most important thing. The scale of absorption has dramatically changed.”

Two weeks after the initial round of interviews, I checked in with each of the people I spoke to for this story to see how their rent strike has progressed, and if their efforts were bearing fruit.

John and his building did eventually settle on a plan: He, and others who could afford it, paid their rent on April 1. They made the decision after realizing that there wasn’t yet a citywide plan of action for tenants in place. Now, he has his sights set on May, and his building’s “tenants’ council”—an informal group of residents who are the most engaged—already sent a note to management to make their intentions to strike clear. John described the contents of the letter as a “soft ask”: an appeal to the landlord’s mercy, with plans to ramp up the intensity if they demurred. Within 20 minutes, John received his response.

“It was from some guy in management who was like, ‘We will reach out to all tenants individually, but we cannot offer rent relief, we have bills to pay,’” he says. But John is undeterred. His building is asking for a 30 percent rent reduction for June, July, and August; if the landlord doesn’t meet those demands, the strike will persist.

Graves and her husband have not paid April rent, and have no plans to pay in May. Despite that, she “hasn’t heard a word” from her landlord in the intervening weeks. She’s spoken to almost half of the tenants in her building, and four units have confirmed that they aren’t paying rent. “We feel okay, we feel protected right now,” she says. “But how long is that going to last? That’s what scares me.”

Eventually, Graves hopes that the magnitude of laid-off New Yorkers will make the rent strike a much less radical idea. “We can’t just ignore it,” says Graves. “There will need to be some sort of legislation put in place. It won’t be tonight, or this month, but the deeper we get into this, the more people in power will be forced to do something.”

Like the others, Stultz says that he’s yet to witness a fully centralized, unified rent strike movement in the city. But he feels more optimistic than ever one month into this new reality; it’s inevitable, he contends, that ACTION is going to win.

“If you told me two months ago that I would be spouting ideas like this, I’d tell you you were full of shit,” Stultz says. “But anyone I engage with on this issue agrees that we’re only asking for help because we’re told we can’t work. All of us, whether we’re bartenders or performers, we all want to get back to our jobs. Rent relief has to happen, so I’m positive about it.”