Tenants Plan Rent Strikes as Pandemic Worsens Housing Crisis

Landlords are bracing for tenant strikes across the country as bans on evictions are set to be lifted next month.

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

HOUSTON (CN) — Eviction moratoriums across the country are keeping people in their apartments, but millions of Americans could not make their rent payments April 1. They cannot pay May 1 either. And when the bans are lifted, homelessness will be staring them in the face.

Five weeks ago, the Covid-19 pandemic cost Tiana Caldwell, of Kansas City, Mo., her computer skills instructor job at a community college.

Now she is facing the possibility she and her family will be evicted for the second time in as many years.

Blindsided last year by her second ovarian cancer diagnosis, she fell behind on rent and was evicted. She spent six months living in a hotel with her husband and now 13-year-old son AJ.

She said her husband has vowed to never let the family become homeless again, but rent’s due Friday and they do not have it.

“No one should be expected to make payments during this time, no payments, no late fees, no debt. That’s why I have joined many across the state and country on a rent strike,” said Caldwell, a leader of the affordable-housing advocacy group KC Tenants.

“I can’t pay rent and it is not my fault. I need my governor and my federal government to use their extended power in this crisis to do their job and protect tenants and cancel rent.”

Caldwell told her story Friday on a press call hosted by the Action Center on Race and the Economy, a group that organizes campaigns to help poor people of color.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, also spoke on the call. She said her congressional district, which includes half the city of Detroit, is the third-poorest district in the U.S.

 “I mean I got an email yesterday asking can we raise money to buy diapers for moms. I have 4 million homeowners who could not pay mortgage this month,” said Tlaib, the eldest of 14 children of Palestinian immigrants.

She said in addition to putting a moratorium on evictions through May 15, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has temporarily barred landlords from shutting off water.

“But we’ve already been told when this pandemic goes away that amount is still going to be due,” Tlaib said of water bills.

She said even before the pandemic, many of her constituents were in survival mode, especially black people, 77% of Detroit’s population.

She said the pandemic is a chance to “shift the narrative” from the government helping corporations during health and financial crises, which turn around and slash wages and lay off workers, to focusing on giving people a leg up.

Tlaib said a recent report found that one-third of black Detroit residents say they are very concerned about having a place to live due to the Covid-19 crisis, while fewer than 1 in 10 white residents are worried about housing.

“I don’t like when people say let’s get back to normal, I just feel like they are pretending all of what we experienced beforehand was normal and it wasn’t,” she said.

The congresswoman has sponsored the Automatic BOOST to Communities Act. It would give a $2,000 prepaid debit card to every person in America, and each card would be refilled with $1,000 each month until one year after the Covid-19 crisis ends.

Landlords are bracing for strikes in Los Angeles and New York. The average monthly apartment rent in both cities is more than $2,500.

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said the union supports rent strikes because its members see the effects of the housing crisis every day in their classrooms, and even some of them struggle to find affordable housing in the city.

“When we have a student who is homeless that difficulty is obvious. … We also have to look at students who, because L.A. is so expensive, are living in a place with 10 or 15 people and the impact that’s having on their ability to do homework and focus on school,” he said on the conference call.

Caputo-Pearl said 85% of L.A. Unified School District’s students are minorities and 90% of their families are poor.

“So this strikes right at the core of our student population,” he said.

The Texas Supreme Court has extended the state’s moratorium on evictions until May 18.

Attorneys at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston say that has not stopped some landlords from trying to oust tenants by posting notices to vacate on their doors.

“We have seen a number of cases in which the landlord has conducted a self-help eviction by either locking the client out or conducting utility shutoffs,” according to the firm.

Though much of the nonprofit’s pro bono work is done on behalf of renters fighting eviction, it said, “We do not advise tenants to engage in rent strikes.”

The Houston Apartment Association’s members own more than 600,000 units in the city. Its president Clay Hicks said he has not heard any rumblings about rent strikes in Houston.

“Honestly, I think it’s because Houstonians are smarter than that,” he said Friday on Houston’s National Public Radio station.

“We’re a city of working people who understand the need for our apartment maintenance workers to be paid, for our landlords to be able to buy the cleaning and disinfectant supplies to properly maintain the buildings right now. To pay the waste haulers, which is still vital during this time, the plumbers, electricians and pest control,” Hicks said.

But like Congresswoman Tlaib, Hicks believes eviction delays are not the answer for people struggling to pay rent – they need cold hard cash.

“We need our industry, the policy makers and charities to focus on meaningful immediate solutions to provide rent relief that will help keep people in their homes,” he said.

He said his association donated $100,000 to a renter’s assistance fund and its members chipped in another $30,000.

The Philadelphia Tenants Union is also urging renters to strike.

The Pennsylvania Apartment Association represents 280 property owners with more than 250,000 rental units. Its CEO Marlynn Orlando said she is urging its members to be empathetic towards destitute renters and offer them payment flexibility.

According to the association, the profit margins for its property owners are thin. For every dollar spent on rent, only 9 cents goes to the owners. The rest is spent on operating expenses, property taxes and mortgage payments.

She said rent strikes will be felt immediately by apartment owners: “They will not be able to pay bills or avoid layoffs.”

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