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What It’s Like to Not Pay Rent, According to Striking Tenants

Inside a rent strike in the Bronx.

Defective locks make for dubious building security. Walls sag with water damage and look as if they’re melting. An infestation of vermin plagues apartments. These are the conditions that some tenants in an apartment building on Sheridan Avenue in the South Bronx have endured for years. But it was the outbreak of COVID-19 in March that was the final straw. Now, 14 tenants in the 30-unit brick building have collectively withheld rent. With the help of the tenant group Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), they have urged their landlord, multinational Monarch Realty Holdings, to forgive their rent for the duration of the city’s public health crisis.

The Bronx building is one among dozens across the boroughs where the pandemic has generated a flashpoint between tenants and landlords. But, in joining together to organize rent strikes, some tenants have turned their inability to pay into a form of protest, urging rent forgiveness while sending the message that they require greater government relief.

At the Sheridan Avenue building, the city has flagged 158 open housing-code violations — keeping apartments in disrepair is a common harassment tactic employed by landlords — and placed the building into a program to force repairs. Tenants say the pandemic has deepened ongoing issues at the property, making repairs within apartments a risky, more time-consuming endeavor for staff and tenants alike.

Curbed interviewed five tenants at the Bronx building to find out what pushed them to mobilize a strike, and what taking collective action in the midst of a pandemic means for them and their families. Organizers say Monarch has responded with a willingness to negotiate payment plans, but has said that it cannot forgive rents. The landlord did not respond to a request for comment.

Stanley Turner, 64, and his wife, Darlene, moved into the building in the 1980s with their two young sons. Turner, who is a U.S. Army veteran, was laid off from his job as a security guard at a Midtown hotel in March. The Turners are receiving unemployment, but have continued to strike in solidarity with their neighbors.

I’ve been living in the building 30-something years — I’m one of the first people to move into this building. Our family has a house up in the North Bronx where we lived. When our boys started getting bigger, that’s when we found our own apartment. We’ve been here ever since. But the building has gone down a lot from the way it used to be when we first moved in.

We haven’t had a new toilet in 30 years. We used to have a leak in the bathroom and a hole in the ceiling; they finally fixed that. Hot water is an issue. Heat is an issue. The lock on the front door is not secure. The intercom system barely works. The garbage chutes don’t work for whatever reason. Our building is in peril.

We’ve been talking about this with CASA for a while and we thought a rent strike was now feasible because people couldn’t pay anyway. My wife and I got laid off on the same day — March 16 — because we work in hotels. We’ve just had to roll with the punches. I’m a military guy. Whatever comes at you, you just have to roll with it. You learn to adapt. I don’t see myself going back to work until August or September. My wife knows right now she’s not going back to work until October. I work for a five-star hotel so my reopening is different from a taxi driver or a restaurant. A lot needs to change for us to work.

We have unemployment now but, because of the rent strike, we need to stand with our neighbors. I don’t want to hurt them. If I pay my rent and they don’t pay their rents, then it looks like we’re not together on this. We’re keeping up that united front. Sometimes your best offense is a good defense, so we’re trying to do the best we can do as a collective.

Mariatou Diallo, 38, is a home care attendant in the Bronx who is originally from Mali. She lives with her 8-year-old daughter, Aissa, and says she has been unable to pay rent since April. Diallo spoke through an interpreter in Mandinka.

We are anxious. We worry. We fear. It’s not that we don’t want to pay the rent forever. We’re rent striking because we don’t have income. There was no choice but to strike. Everyone wants to live in livable, good conditions. That’s not the case in our building. There are some issues with rats, and some holes in the building. They wait weeks to do repairs. In my bathroom, the window is broken; I have to put a linen in the window so people outside don’t see me in the bathroom while I’m taking a shower, and this has been going on for so long.

The company that I work for doesn’t have enough cases. I work two or three hours here or there until I get to 18 hours a week, but I don’t have enough resources to take care of my daughter. To survive, I rely on food stamps. I prioritize buying the most-needed items. I buy meat. I buy fish. I buy anything my daughter needs. I want her to have a full belly. It’s not enough, but I try to manage and stretch out what I have to hold on until we get to the end of the month.

This pandemic makes having a place to sleep more important and losing it more worrying; an apartment is more important than food to eat because at least you have a place to sleep. I’m very worried about being evicted, being that I have my daughter. I wouldn’t know where to go. Aissa is 8-years-old and she doesn’t understand the situation. She sees it on TV every day. She sees it all and she asked me “Mommy, what’s going on?” You want to protect your child from these things, but she needs to know. It was a very difficult conversation for me to explain.

Cheik Soumahoro, 67, is a retired taxi driver who lives with his wife and four children in their Bronx apartment. Typically, Soumahoro’s adult children help him pay the rent, but with one daughter on maternity leave and another whose employer died of COVID-19, he has not paid rent since April. He also spoke through an interpreter in Mandinka.

When I think about a month or two from now, I really don’t know what is going to happen because we have no means. We hope that the government will help us, otherwise we have no way to deal with the reality of the rent. I get money from my retirement and I also get money from public assistance — about $300 a week — but it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough to take care of everything.

My children are the ones helping me pay the rent. But one of my daughters just gave birth and therefore she is not working. One of my other daughters was working in home care and was taking care of someone but the person died from the coronavirus. Now she doesn’t have enough hours of work because of the pandemic. I worry about being evicted. If we get kicked out of the apartment, I wouldn’t know what to do. Because of the pandemic we cannot afford to pay the rent, but I also refuse to pay because of the building conditions.

I want to live in a secure place for my own safety. The place I’m living in right now is not secure. The building is open all the time and homeless people come into the hallway. Whenever we have visitors, they’re scared to come to the building. Every time they come they see homeless men lying in the stairway. That’s not something you want to see in your home.

Baka Badala, 55, works as a hair braider in a Manhattan salon. As a result of the pandemic, she has been out of work for the last three months and has not paid rent since May. Badala, who is originally from Burkina Faso, lives in her apartment with her husband and two children.

I don’t have no savings. I have children to feed. I know that I applied for food stamps many times; I didn’t get it, and I live paycheck-to-paycheck. I understand the landlord needs the money. But if you don’t make money, even if you want to pay, how are you going to pay the rent? I got my $1,200, but it’s not enough to go buy groceries for the kids … most of the time it’s cereal, it’s canned food.

The salon is closed. They’re closed everywhere. How are you going to do it? Even if a customer calls you, you cannot do hair braiding at home because you have children. I’m not sleeping great. I don’t know what the landlord can do and where the rent strike can take us. It’s frustrating. You’re sitting down with all these things, but you don’t know what to do; you don’t know where to turn and everywhere you turn it’s “Oh, your income is not enough.”

Fanta Doumbia, 48, supports her five children and herself working as a home care attendant in the Bronx. She is originally from the Ivory Coast and spoke through an interpreter in Mandinka.

When I first came to this country, my husband was renting a room on his own. We looked for a new place together. I have five children now and I’ve been living in this building for 15 years. My husband passed away in 2005. It was a big adjustment living without him. I’m the only one my children have. If I get sick, who’s going to take care of them? I worry about that a lot. They’re too young.

In the past, I didn’t have the proper papers to work so I was helping out doing hair braiding. It was really difficult for me. But I went to school, I got my certificate to work in home care.

The savings I have right now are not enough to cover the rent. The little money I have, I use to buy groceries, pay some bills — but that’s all I have. I’ve been in this building and paying rent for 15 years, but there’s no money to pay now. I’ve never experienced such a situation or done anything like a rent strike.

I want to pay my rent. In our tradition, if you’ve been evicted from your apartment, that’s a shame on you. Everyone will see and say “Oh she doesn’t have money to pay for her apartment,” and mock you for that. But there’s a pandemic; there’s no money. There are no choices. Everything is in the hands of God.

Statements were edited and condensed for clarity.


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