California tenants are on rent strikes as Covid-19 relief falls short

rent strike

Tenants across California are organizing rent strikes for the month of April.

The strikers’ argument: They will not be able to pay their landlords for the foreseeable future and that the minimal protections now in place fail to provide relief for vulnerable renters.

As Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders have led to a surge in unemployment and slowed down the state’s economy, the California governor, Gavin Newsom, has passed a two-month delay on imposing evictions for people who cannot pay rent due to the crisis. His order prevents the enforcement of evictions until the end of May but requires tenants to repay the full amount later, forces renters to jump through numerous hoops and opens the door for evictions to resume in June.

An Indybay Feature – “Rent Strike against Gentrification and the Pandemic” – said on March 31, 2020:

In the Mission District of San Francisco, Station 40 has served the Bay Area community as an anti-authoritarian collective living and organizing space for nearly two decades. Five years ago, their landlord attempted to evict them, only to be forced to back down by a powerful coordinated solidarity campaign. Now, Station 40 has taken the initiative to respond to the crisis currently playing out across the world, unilaterally declaring a rent strike in response to the economic precarity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Station 40 is a 17-year-old collective living space that has seen hundreds of residents and thousands of guests and many iterations over the years. The space has hosted numerous and diverse events, housed countless people, served food to the masses, beat the odds on everything from infestations to evictions. They have been a hub for organizing Mutual Aid workshops, healing pop-ups, memorials for fallen anarchists, revels, book releases, report-backs from comrades all over the world, prisoner support projects, reading groups, and for countless other benefits. Food Not Bombs cooked there weekly for the better part of 15 years. Communication infrastructure like Indybay and Signal have their roots at Station 40.

Other media reports said:

While several large municipalities in California have passed stronger protections, tenants’ groups say the California governor’s order does not go far enough and could pave the way for an even more catastrophic housing crisis than the one plaguing California before coronavirus.

Activists are now coordinating rent strikes, a practice that has gained traction in LA in recent years and involves tenants organizing as a group, withholding rents and making collective demands.

“We are all suffering, but we shouldn’t have to suffer to this extent,” said Melissa Reyes, a 25-year-old Los Angeles resident who plans to withhold her rent and is helping organize a strike in her Boyle Heights building. “This is about survival and necessity.”

Governor Newsom’s order only temporarily restricts the enforcement of evictions, still allowing landlords to start the eviction process, file notices and move to kick tenants out when the moratorium ends. His policy further requires tenants declare in writing that they cannot pay due to Covid-19, and that they have documentation, which could be a hurdle for undocumented workers, people with non-traditional employment and those dealing with medical crises.

It also does not stop landlords from moving forward with evictions for reasons other than non-payment, such as remodeling or taking a rental off the market.

“It includes a lot of ways for tenants to trip up,” said Michael Trujillo, staff attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley’s housing program, adding, “The governor has the power right now to just prohibit all evictions.”

In a state where many workers have to divert a significant portion of their paychecks to rent, activists have called for a complete moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and a statewide suspension of rent, meaning a rent freeze or forgiveness so that tenants do not wind up with insurmountable debts.

“For some, the decision is pay rent and starve, or don’t pay rent and pay for food,” said Chris Estrada, an organizer with the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, which has fielded calls from dozens of tenants who do not have the cash to pay this week. For many others, he said, the reality is, “‘if we pay April, will I starve in May?’”

In a city such as San Francisco, where the median rent for a one-bedroom is $3,479, paying retroactively will be impossible for many. “If six months later, I had a $20,000 debt waiting for me that I was expected to pay off right away, that would not be possible, especially after months of not having a stable paycheck,” said Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together.

The city of Oakland has passed what advocates said was the strongest protection in the state, with a moratorium that prohibits all evictions and prevents late fees and rent hikes in the next two months. While tenants will owe back rent when the emergency is over, the ordinance prohibits landlords from evicting them because of non-payment during that time, a move meant to encourage payment plans. “This should be passed everywhere,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, an Oakland attorney, adding that she did not know a single tenant advocate in the state who supported Newsom’s much weaker policy.

LA’s city council stopped short of passing a complete ban on evictions and requires tenants defend themselves against an eviction in court. The policy gives tenants a year to repay landlords. San Francisco also continues to allow limited evictions.

“The reality is corporate landlords are already negotiating with their banks to figure out their mortgage situation and how to not pay,” said Kenia Alcocer, 34, who will not be paying rent in East LA and is helping other tenants strike. “Why not us? We’re the ones most impacted.”

Alcocer, an organizer with the group Union de Vecinos, gave birth in January to her second child, who suffered from numerous medical complications, which has already been a huge financial strain on her family and has escalated Covid-19 concerns. She estimated that more than 300 tenants who have worked with her group would not be paying rent this week, adding: “They are talking to their neighbors and their family members, and the numbers are growing rapidly.”

Alcocer is encouraging others to strike in solidarity and said she heard from one tenant who panicked, paid April’s rent and now regrets it: “Now, he has no money for food, no money for anything else. He has no job.”

The LA Tenants Union is pushing a “food not rent” campaign and urging people not to pay this month even if they temporarily can afford it.

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, a co-founder of the union, said that while there were clear risks to striking, “There has never been a better time to use what little power we have, which is often your rent check, as a way of demanding that the city and state do right by a majority of its constituents.”

In LA county, she noted, an estimated 600,000 people spend 90% of their income on rent: “Tenants were already in crisis.”

Some have noted that the $1,200-a-person check from the government as part of its Covid-19 stimulus package would barely make a dent in some people’s rent even as the emergency bill offers major benefits to large corporations. Activists have argued that although corporate landlords should not get bailouts, smaller property owners should also see a suspension of mortgage payments.

Kyle Cunningham, a 32-year-old Boyle Heights resident, said he had lost all income as a freelance camera operator and that he had asthma and was uninsured. Withholding rent was the only feasible option for him and his fiancé, who is also a freelancer, he said: “It’s a completely unprecedented situation for me. I’ve always paid … But I need to redirect the money I have to protect my family and buy groceries and the other necessities we need to stay inside.”

Carolina Reid, faculty research adviser at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, said without drastic action, she feared the economy and housing market was heading toward another crash like the foreclosure crisis of 2008, which led to widening inequality and is still affecting California a decade later: “I’m worried about what happens when this crisis ends.”

Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Newsom, did not respond to specific criticisms about the policy, saying in an email the order would provide “significant relief to millions of Californians who worry about making rent next week and in the months to come – especially in jurisdictions around the state that didn’t act locally to implement their own moratoriums”, adding, “These protections provide a strong, statewide foundation that cities can build upon.”




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