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Tenant groups call for a rent strike as economy flounders

The first of May marked the second rent day since coronavirus shutdowns began. With more than 30 million people filing for unemployment benefits in recent weeks, tenant groups across the country on Friday called for a rent strike until the economy recovers. NewsHour Weekend producer Sam Weber has more.

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  • Karina Mitchell:

    The first of May marked the second month since Coronavirus shutdowns when rent for millions of Americans was due.

    With more than 30 million people filing for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks, tenant groups across the country yesterday called for a rent strike until the economy recovers.

    NewsHour Weekend's Sam Weber has more.

  • Sam Weber:

    At an apartment building in Queens, New York, tenants came to their windows yesterday afternoon and collectively made noise. This display wasn't the daily appreciation for essential workers. It was a strike declaration. Several dozen tenants announced they would not be paying rent this month.

  • Cristina Jeffers:

    We are working class people. We go month to month with our bills.

  • Sam Weber:

    Cristina Jeffers is one of those tenants. She's a housekeeper who has not been able to work since mid-March.

  • Cristina Jeffers:

    Many of us, our salary is a big chunk for our rent. We really are in trouble. That's why we decided to go and do this strike.

  • Sam Weber:

    Across New York City, organizers estimate that more than 50 buildings have organized to formally withhold rent. And more than 13,000 individual tenants in the city are striking on their own. Rent strikes have also been organized nationally: from Los Angeles to Seattle to Chicago. Organizers believe it's the largest coordinated rent strike in almost a century.

  • Cea Weaver:

    We are encouraging people who already can't pay to come into a movement to not pay together. To turn the fact that you can't pay into political action.

  • Sam Weber:

    Cea Weaver is the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice For All, a coalition of 70 housing groups across New York State. She says rent needs to be suspended for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

  • Cea Weaver:

    We want federal or state action both if needed and the goal really here is we're trying to create a crisis for the real estate industry that will force the government to act.

  • Sam Weber:

    While rent is still due, all evictions have been put on hold in New York and at least 19 other states. And the federal CARES Act – passed in late March – halted evictions nationally for tenants in federal housing programs or where the underlying mortgage is backed by a federal housing agency. Weaver says pausing evictions just delays the inevitable.

  • Cea Weaver:

    It's the definition of kicking the bucket down the road. And if we don't get some real rent relief, if we don't get rent canceled, we are going to see a never before experienced wave of evictions when housing court opens on June 20.

  • Sam Weber:

    But there has been some momentum for suspending rent: In mid-April, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar introduced a bill that would cancel rent and mortgage payments while there is a federal disaster declaration. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the bill's co-sponsors and she spoke about the need to support rent strikes at a virtual town hall earlier this week.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY):

    People aren't striking because they don't feel like paying rent. People are striking because they can't pay rent. They can't.

  • Sam Weber:

    But to many of those who collect those rent payments, the strikes represent a real economic threat.

  • Doug Bibby:

    To me, it's reckless and it is potentially damaging to the economy.

  • Sam Weber:

    Doug Bibby is the President of the National Multifamily Housing Council, an advocacy group representing apartment owners. He says when renters don't pay, there's a cascading effect on the housing industry.

  • Doug Bibby:

    Many apartment owners are small businesses and those small businesses have a mortgage on the property and they have a payroll. They have employees and they have property taxes and insurance that they have to pay. When landlords don't get the money, they have to make a decision on what to cut.

  • Sam Weber:

    In April, more than 91 percent of the rent was collected by the end of the month, according to national data compiled by Bibby's group, a slight decrease from the month before. But Bibby worries things will get much worse for landlords as the economic downturn continues.

  • Doug Bibby:

    I understand people are feeling pain and they're feeling frustrated and they don't have the resources. But the best way to do this thing is not to call a renters' strike. It's to flood the congressmen and senators offices with appeals for help, because what we need right now is the government to step in. This is, this cannot be solved by the private sector.

  • Sam Weber:

    In Queens, tenant Cristina Jeffers knows that her building's owner alone cannot solve the economic crisis, but she says it could be doing more.

  • Cristina Jeffers:

    They have the money to survive without our three or four months of rent. They do.

  • Sam Weber:

    Jeffers's landlord did not respond to a request to comment from PBS NewsHour Weekend. As policymakers try to address the concerns of both renters and landlords, NYU professor Kathy O'Regan says the crisis has also magnified long standing disparities in housing: rents have been rising and renters, on the whole, have less income and savings than homeowners.

  • Kathy O’Regan:

    One of the things that I worry about is the way that this crisis has rolled out and revealed and heightened racial and ethnic disparities. So you have a health crisis that very disproportionately affected people of color. Renters are now the ones most at risk, disproportionately households of color. If we do not stop the rental crisis, we're going to be taking what were preexisting disparities and we're going to be widening. This is a moment to close the gap. It is certainly a moment not to let the gap get wider.

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