This episode explores what’s happening on the front lines of some rent strikes and looks toward next steps and strategy, from connecting local tenant unions to building a larger movement. Featuring interviews with 3 organizers in New York: Ali Jaffery, Charlie Dulik, and Nicolás Vargas.
This is our second episode on the rent strikes. Find our first episode here. There are lots of organizing resources in those show notes!
Ali Jaffery is an organizer in NYC. He was also featured in our movement media episode. Check out the Rent Strike Legal FAQ document put together by Regal Tenants Council, the council he belongs to. If you’re a building or tenant’s union in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy, reach out to the Regal Tenants Council at RegalTenantsCouncil@ProtonMail.com to join their growing network.
Nicolás Vargas is an organizer with Freedom Arts Movement, Housing Justice For All, and the Taaffe Tenants Association. Check out Freedom Arts Movement (@freedomartsmvmt) here and donate to their fundraiser here.
You can hear both Charlie and Nicolás on Rev Left Radio’s episode “Organizing in a Pandemic: NYC Housing Justice and Fighting Cuomo.”
Quoted in this episode:
- See full CNN story “Landlords are bracing for a wave of rent defaults.”
- Watch the full trailer for the 1977 film Death Promise here.
- Listen to "Unemployment relief program; Musical Pastels trio; Nita Novi, accordion; Clara D'Angelo, soprano" from 1931. This audio was from a fundraising program that aired December 2, 1931, less than 2 months before the 1932 rent strikes began. Special thanks to WNYC’s archives for this audio.
For more on New York’s rent strikes in the 1930’s, check out “Fighting evictions during the Great Depression: The Great Rent Strike War of 1932 in the Bronx” by Mark Naison from Issue 81 of the International Socialist Review and “Eviction Defense in the Bronx” also by Mark Naison from n+1.
- “1,500 FIGHT POLICE TO AID RENT STRIKE; 100 Men Break Through Lines and Chase Aged Landlord Through Bronx Streets. WOMAN BITES CHAUFFEUR But No Arrests Are Made as Aides of Marshal Evict Twenty Families From Five Houses,” February 27, 1932, New York Times
- RENT STRIKERS DEFY POLICE IN PROTESTS; 600 Shout Abuse in the Bronx, but Disperse as Evictions Are Halted by Rain. STREETS CLOSELY GUARDED Women Make Red Speeches From Windows While Tenants Insist on 15% Cut in Rates, January 30, 1932, New York Times.
Further Resources and Reading:
- Read about the 2019 changes to laws that introduced much need protections for tenants the New York Times’ article “Rent Regulations in New York: How They’ll Affect Tenants and Landlords” by By Sharon Otterman and Matthew Haag.
- For more on the blacklist ban in New York, check out AMNY’s article “New York tenants worry new blacklist ban won’t be enforced” by Sarina Trangle.
- Listen to On the Media’s (pre-pandemic) series ”The Scarlet E,” covering the housing and eviction crisis in the US.
- or a look at earlier rent strikes, check out “Tenant Uprisings and the Women Who Led Them,” a timeline of tenant organizing in NYC from 1902-1920.
- “Housing Organizing in NYC During the Pandemic and Beyond” By Oksana Mironova in a blog post from Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung
- “With Millions Unable to Pay for Housing Next Month, Organizers Plan the Largest Rent Strike in Nearly a Century” by Natasha Lennard in the Intercept.
- “The next COVID-19 crisis: The coming tidal wave of evictions” by Chris Roberts in Curbed San Francisco.
- Check out 5demands.global for some rent strike resources and media.
Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.
Since the calls for rent strikes began in mid-March, a lot has happened. April 1st came and went, and many people, whether they were organized or not, didn’t pay rent. In the US, it’s estimated about a third of tenants didn’t pay rent April 1st. And In New York, where I live, it’s estimated that 40% of tenants didn’t pay rent. Now, May 1st has come and gone with even more tenants not paying their rent and highly organized rent strikes unfolding in major cities. And the economic situation has continued to worsen, with over 30 million Amercians filing unemployment claims since the pandemic began.
The rent issue isn’t going anywhere. If anything, June will bring more tenant activity. It’s also clear that the issue is going to get increasingly complicated. Each tenant, building, city, and state is going to have their own complications. We’ll have to organize like we’ve never organized before to protect everyone. It’s going to be challenging to create a unified movement with so much legal complexity and individual nuances.
The first rent strike episode I put out definitely flattened those factors. I tried to paint with broad strokes how you might start organizing your neighbors. But this episode explores some of the nuances and looks toward next steps and strategy for the future, from local tenant unions to building a larger movement. Since I’m in New York, this episode will focus on what’s going here. Hopefully in the future I’ll have a chance to explore what’s going on elsewhere.
Also, I have a caveat on this episode: Please do not take any advice in this episode as a stand in for actual legal assistance or legal advice. Each case is very different and, if you have a specific legal question, you will need advice on your particular case. Also note that any specific laws mentioned in this episode pertain to New York. Rent laws vary widely from city to city and state to state.
Background Protesters: “We can’t work we can’t pay.”
News Announcer: Renters line the streets and circle in cars, calling this rent strike. It’s the first day of the month and nearly 50 billion in rent is due in the US.
Protester: A lot of us are already choosing between food and rent. We’re saying to choose food.
News Announcer: Across the country, rage rising, with job losses climbing. Renters are fighting back from this LA protesters, to signs of resistance posted across the Mid-west, from Chicago, to Brooklyn, New York, to New Orleans, pledging to not pay. LA and New York Mayors issued no-eviction orders, but renters say, that’s not enough.
One of the most challenging things about this issue is how different each and every situation is. Both mainstream and movement media have tended to talk about the rent strike as a big homogenous movement. But it’s more like a mosaic of different situations, and each situation calls for different tactics. Each rent strike is united by not paying rent, but that’s where the commonalities end. Let’s start by exploring two examples.
Half of my building ended up going on rent strike. My neighbor actually beat me to the punch and reached out to me before I reached out to them.
We live in a brownstone with 5 units. Our landlord only has one rental property. We tried to negotiate a discount. She tried to pawn the discussion off on her building manager who sent us some truly bizarre emails, so the landlord stepped in again to offer us a 10% discount. We asked for more, hoping for some discussion, and she immediately escalated to enlisting a lawyer.
She sent an expensive law firm after us for the debt. First they issued a 30 day notice by certified mail. Then they went so far as to send someone to the building to serve us all 14 day notices as well.
It was clear that the other tenants and I would need some legal advice. We didn’t want to immediately acquiesce to paying the rent with so much up in the air for us personally. Basically, our options were to pay up or lawyer up.
We opted to get a lawyer. We were assured by a couple lawyers that there must be some sort of institutional response to the rent strikes eventually, from either New York lawmakers or from the courts. Everyone owes rent right now. There must be a reasonable response. While that advice gives us hope, our legal footing is tenuous at present. One lawyer told us that under ordinary circumstances he wouldn’t even consider the case. For our small building, we’ll either need to drive the landlord back to the bargaining table with the threat of a drawn out legal fight, or hope for the best from New York lawmakers and courts.
Ali: Hi I’m Ali
Hi I’m Ali Jafri I am organizing a tenant’s council in Bushwick. Previously to this I was on Rebel Steps episode talking about media strategy. I do collective based media work and also organize a leftist film series at Spectacle Theater called Burning Frame.
You might recognize Ali’s voice from our movement media episode. He’s found himself in the middle of a much different rent strike than mine, though he’s just a short bike ride away in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Ali: We’ve organized 16 buildings and 58 units. That’s a 123 lease holders that have signed a demand letter asking for a reduction of rent for everybody by 50% as well as canceling rent entirely for anyone that’s been economically affected by the crisis. There’s also some demands in there regarding maintenance and lease renewals.
Ali started his rent strike after reaching out to the landlord about his own apartment’s situation and receiving a less-than-generous response from the landlord.
Ali: I was sitting at home. You know rent was due beginning of April. We have that room, That roommate had to move out, and I was like okay so we’re just not going to pay for rent for a room that is empty. It just was not something that we were going to do. That’s how I felt personally. Then I spoke to my roommates and they were really really on board with not paying for that room. And so we sent crafted a nice email. All of the nice language and you know thoughtful references to what’s happening in this crisis, to say that you know we can’t be responsible for that room until it’s filled. And you know we’re trying to fill it, but given the nature of the crisis it’s really hard to fill rooms right now. And they just sent us back a form email, essentially saying rent is due by the first and you know what we can offer you know is fifty dollars. A fifty dollar credit for the entire apartment if you pay on time. I was like there’s no way they didn’t send this to other buildings. You know we just had too much of a formulaic feel to it. They had also sent some other communications leading up to the first of April that also felt like they were just blasted out to everybody and trying to say, “Well we can’t you know we can’t change the amount that’s owed for rent, we can’t waive any portion of rent, because we have all of these costs: mortgages, property tax, maintenance.” There’s no way that not everyone’s getting this and there’s no way that people are pissed off about this because people are going through a really tough time financially in general and then you know very specifically a lot of people have just completely lost all work, all income.
With some creativity and research, Ali found a way to connect with the other tenants.
Ali: Sitting around at home I was like well what should I do. We’re supposed be social distancing. I don’t really know my building mates. I don’t really know them super well. There’s a couple of them that I had met through just kind of organizing a little bit of a minor collective action against the landlord when they were doing maintenance a year ago. But how do I push past that and really say “Hey we should actually forms of sort of tenants union so sort of tenants council right now.”
Ali mentioned a tenants’ council. Tenants councils and associations are going to be the backbone of any housing movement. Neither of these are technical terms. Here’s Ali’s definitions.
Ali: Yeah sure a tenants council or a tennis association, I take these terms as relatively interchangeable, really is just a group of tenants in individual buildings coming together or in multiple buildings coming together, typically based in geography or with a specific landlord. Right so, in our case it’s a specific landlord, Regal Management Services LLC. We organized almost the entirety of the buildings that are residential apartment buildings that they own. Really it’s just about bringing people together. We have general meetings. We have a group chat. We are able to speak to each other’s needs, voice each other’s concerns, and then also vote on measures of how we’re going to act collectively. And so it’s really about being on the same page with each other, acting collectively. In terms of the actual structure of that it can be directly democratic like we have, or can be kind of a little bit more consensus based, or just kind of voluntary at will based. Given the necessity of a rent strike everyone has to kind of sign the dotted line and say that they’re going to do this specific action and so in that case we have an even higher degree of solidarity and heightened degree of collectivity.
Ali: So what I did is I did a bunch of research on Regal Management. I did a bunch of research on the crisis. I did a bunch research on specifically how much revenue they must be bringing in, Regal Management specifically, and how much their cost must be. And just doing the math it became pretty clear that at minimum they’re making 75% percent profit. So pocketing 75% of the money that they have coming in. I was like that’s a pretty compelling point for why they must decrease rent or wave rent for those who are struggling right now. And then I was like the maintenance issues have been so prevalent just in our building and the building next door, that this has to be a widespread issue. So then having looked up the information, we set up a list of the different apartment buildings and I just went one Sunday afternoon. Said you know I was gonna go to walk and hand out some simple flyers that just laid out a lot of information and try to talk to people about joining a tenants council. And I went and knocked on all the doors my building, everyone was on board, went and knocked on the doors next door, everyone was on board. And then I just hit up like, on that first day, like six buildings that were in Bushwick that were in easy walking distance and vast a majority of people are who are super on board. And I was really encouraged by the fact that there was a lot of solidarity amongst people who you know, even if they didn’t have it particularly bad themselves, like went to some apartments where everybody’s employed, everyone’s you know feels confident that they’ll still have their jobs going into the future, but they still were down to join and a lot of those people ended up signing the demand letter in solidarity with the folks who have lost work, you know who are in the service industry, or in any of the number of industries that have been hit hard by this crisis. And so very positive the reactions that we were getting and so that that point is I was like we have a tenant’s council and I started just a telegram chat invited people. The way in which I was collecting information is that you know when I would knock on those doors and we would have a conversation from six feet apart with my mask on. I would actually have them give me their phone number and I would write down in that contact, phone number, but also what the apartment is, the address of that apartment. I would check it off the checklist. And then I would have them download the app in front of me. Download telegram right now so that I can add you in that way it wasn’t any kind of like issue with chasing people down. And that first week I basically had up I think it was eleven buildings, completely organized with the exception of like one or two apartments in a couple of those buildings.
Ali mentioned knocking on doors in that account. I didn’t recommend that in our last episode. And other tenant organizers have also expressed concerns about going door to door, but some have found ways to do it safely and effectively.
Ali: As far as I know and based on you know the organizers that we set up in those buildings now, haven’t come across anybody who refused to open their door just because of like the crisis and because of social distancing or whatever. So it was really effective going and knocking door to door. I know that some tenants organizers don’t feel comfortable doing it right now for them personal reasons and that flyering has had some effectiveness or proves to be somewhat effective. It’s not as effective inherently as face to face conversations. I definitely am seeing a higher rate of return on people joining the tenants council from knocking on doors.
If you are finding yourself door knocking, please take extreme precautions!
As Ali started organizing, he found people willing to jump in and start organizing as well.
Ali: Eventually I came across some folks in some apartments that were it not only down to join but down to help organize it. So there one person that I already organize my building to go on rent strike for April. And that person has been really instrumental for our help. And then there was another person who really wanted to do this themselves they wanted to organize a tenant’s council but they were too busy doing mutual aid projects and so they were so glad that I started it and said “okay I’m going to help you by helping you drive to Crown Heights right I can’t help every day but I could definitely, I have a car, I can definitely drive you out there to Crown Heights and we can canvas those buildings.” And so we did that together. Now we have a situation where about eleven people are in our organizing group. Like you know like around ten percent of the leaseholders who signed the demand letter on are now in our organizing group which is good to you know kind of spread work out and really have people to lean on to do research but also to bounce ideas off of. And we do all of that through telegram and then the occasional zoom chat or Jitisi call.
On April 1, only one building was organized, and that alone inspired some harassment from the landlord. Also, this interview with Ali was recorded just 2 days after the tenants union sent their demand letters, and already, the landlord is trying to intimidate them with illegal harassment.
Ali: A building was actually visited by that building was actually visited by co owner of retail management services Bernard Schwimmer. And this is a person who none of us had ever met. There LLCs, these major corporations that are created to just basically buy up buildings in order to eventually flip them and make a profit, and essentially enacting a scheme of financial speculation at the mercy of the housing market. Their primary interest as owners when it comes to you know their face in their name is keeping their face in their name you know away from what they’re doing, which is acting like slumlords. And so it was very very out of character for him to show up. And he showed up to their apartment to intimidate them. He was basically saying “Why are you grouping together? Why are you all grouping into this you know formation? You know it doesn’t make any sense. Just talk to me individually, talk to us individually. We’ll respond to your requests individually.” They basically said it’s inappropriate for them to be showing up the way that they were and saying what they were. And that they can just respond to the email that they already sent and that individual requests and complaints were sent their way and were just dismissively cast aside already. So there’s no argument for saying that they should have spoken individually to them. In the past forty eight hours after sending the demand letter in, we’ve seen some harassment from them as well. Within an hour or so of having sent a demand letter out the building manager showed up to multiple buildings, openly harassing people essentially saying that “you know you need to tell us who started this.” Then showing up to another apartment and saying like “Oh I’m just here to check in on some maintenance issues. Can you let me in?” It’s like the maintenance issues that that he then was forced to reference because the person pushed persistence and said what do you what do you need to look at, were just like old old maintenance issues from many, many months ago that have like since been solved.
So far, the experience has been surprising - but in a good way!
Ali: I feel like what’s been most surprising it’s just been the you know inherent solidarity that people have been showing with each other. I didn’t quite expect people to be so caring about their fellow tenants, cause you know you don’t really know the people in your building. But I think that they saw that there is a connection between them and this person through this structure of this LLC. And they felt like okay well here’s an easy way for me to stick it to a completely corrupt and inhumane system that is obviously trying to make a buck off of people struggling who are just the working class who are struggling at this moment. I’m sort of just seeing that there’s an opening here of separating the owner class from the working class. And you know the owner class from the renting class is really everyone who doesn’t pay a mortgage. There are plenty of people who have well paying tech jobs for instance who don’t pay a mortgage and they are even in solidarity right with this.That’s a huge opening right. That’s a huge strategic opening and it kind of blows open a lot of the structures of society essentially in this moment, where the owner class is just so clearly ruling the day in terms of all economic help and all laws that are being passed.
I spoke to Ali on May 2, just a day after all of the Regal Tenants Council officially went on strike. They’ve set a deadline for Regal to respond. If their demands aren’t met by the deadline, the council plans to escalate their tactics.
Movie Voiceover: Rich and powerful landlords are forcing helpless tenants out of their homes. And they’ll use any means necessary to throw out in the street. (Explosion sound)
Actor: People live in those buildings. People! And as crummy as those dumps are, they’re peoples homes. And don’t forget, mister. They’re not leaving, and I’m not leaving. So you can take this here polite bribe, and you can shove it up your polite ass.
Movie Voiceover: Death Promise! Starring Charles Bonet, tenant, young, strong, deadly.
That’s from the trailer for Death Promise, a 1977 action film that follows one tenant as he seeks revenge on unjust landlords who killed his father. Today’s tenant struggles probably won’t end in a rooftop fight scene like this film. Let’s look at what our next steps might be.
Keeping our housing and our rent for the next month or two is manageable for most tenants - at least in New York. The government has no interest in mass evictions during the pandemic and the courts are more or less on hold. A lawyer told me that with the backlog and existing cases, it will likely take months for the legal system to catch up. But eventually, we’ll likely have to tackle mass evictions and court cases.
So what are some tools we have at our disposal? To discuss what the future might look like, I chatted with some other New York housing organizers.
Charlie: My name is Charlie Dulick. I am a tenant organizer with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and I support a community group in Brownsville and east New York called HOPE, Housing Organizers for People Empowerment. And both of those groups are part of the statewide housing coalition here, Housing Justice For All. And even before I was in this most recent role, I’ve been organizing with Housing Justice for All for two plus years more or less since the coalition got off the ground.
Nicolás: My name is Nicolás Vargas. I live in Brooklyn. I’m an organizer, a member of the organizing committee for Taaffe Tenants Association. I’m a freelance writer with I.W.W. Freelance Journalists Union. I’m an organizer with the Freedom Arts Movement. I’m a senior adviser for digital strategies at housing justice for all and I’m an advocate for tenants rights, advocate for one big union, advocate for socialism.
NY Housing Justice for All had a huge win just last year in 2019 when they helped push for some ambitious changes to housing laws.
Charlie: So Housing Justice for All is relatively recent, only a couple years old. And it basically came out of the history of upstate and downstate having completely separate housing movements and, even within the city, there being different coalitions where half of their tenants associations and neighborhood tenant unions and nonprofits would be advocating for one thing and then half of the others to be advocating for someone else and upstate would be talking about some other bills. And it was really easy every year for legislators in Albany to say “Hey it doesn’t seem like the tenant union really wants one thing. It’s really divided, so we’re not gonna do anything at all.” Not that the point of the coalition is always straight legislative work, but that was like an important way that our power was limited. And we came together about two and a half years ago formed this Housing Justice for All group that really importantly has groups in Buffalo, Syracuse, Kingston, Binghamton, every major city upstate, also linked with different types of tenants like mobile home tenants which are obviously not as prevalent in the city, but are obviously affected by the same things that most tenants are, the power of big real estate etc. etc. Last year we had a massive massive massive push to change a lot of the state’s rent laws and you know had amazing success on that front. Both legislatively we passed what’s pretty widely considered the biggest tenant reforms in about a hundred years and closed a bunch of horrible loopholes, expanded rights for renters, did things like you know eliminate and make illegal to the tenant blacklist, protect tenants that are both rent stabilized and you know not rent stabilized. But more importantly than that, we also built these important links between different types of tenants, geographically and by tenancy. So building coalitions between homeless New Yorkers, people in public housing, rent stabilized tenants, you know mobile home tenants, people in cities all over. And I think that’s like what the coalition is most proud of and why we are in a position today to have been able to facilitate what is now the largest rent strike in and rent withholding in round about a hundred years as well.
Leading up to May 1, the organization used its network to support the oncoming rent strikes.
In addition to organizing with NYHJ4A, Nicolás has been focusing on the struggle in their own building by organizing and supporting the Taaffe Tenants Association. They’ve had some similar experiences to Ali.
Nicolás: So the Taaffe Tenants Association formed maybe a little over a month ago. It was a kind of reactive response to the shared material consequences of the state’s under-preparedness for this crisis. And folks who are experiencing very unique but ubiquitous kind of lack and insecurity and vulnerability. There have been other iterations of a tenants association on my block. My block has five buildings, the Taaffe block has five buildings, that are owned by a Greek American billionaire. He goes by the Americanized Steve. He owns Alma Realty. They own over two hundred properties. I think it’s somewhere like twenty thousand tenants occupy all their spaces. And so the five buildings on my block there’s a total of three hundred thirty or three hundred fifteen and we have about two hundred plus of those within our association. And so it really started just out of a kind of void that a lot of folks are feeling. Like they can have a great relationship with our landlord to begin with. He’s like pretty much a slumlord. Rent hikes just kind of randomly, kind of retaliates against a lot of tenants and the pays a ton of money in court just like fuck them over. So it was pretty easy to get people on board with the tenants association. Since we started a lot of people who were normally not engaging kind of organizing or any sort of grassroots you know democratized movement work, they found themselves in a position to kind of activate that part of themselves. You know we’ve seen folks kind of sprout up organically in leadership positions. We’ve seen folks share their experiences and then use those experiences to inform the organizing work they’ve been doing. And like it’s totally not just like a few folks just kind of leading everyone around, because it’s just too much work to do that. We’re really really well organized. We have like four captains, building captains for every building. Our organizational committee is super dedicated, super intelligent. We have a consulting attorney from Right to Counsel NYC.
Because they’re so well organized, the association has been able to respond quickly when building management uses confusing legal language and intimidation tactics.
Nicolás: We’re in conversation with our landlord right now. We’re taking steps to reach a negotiation. They’ve been very responsive to us because they know how powerful we are and how much we can affect their bottom line and their profits. They’ve been trying to like individualize us. They’ve been advocating that we reach out to them individually which is a huge huge huge no no because what that does is allows them to demarcate tenants. They put you on a list of who can pay, who can’t pay, who’s working, who’s not working, which is basically a bad tenant good tenant list in terms of profit. And so it’s just very easy for them to retaliate against you or make you sign a non disclosure agreement if they are going to give you some aid, which usually you probably have to pay back. We’re keeping at it and telling them we’re gonna talk as a collective. Our buildings are shit and so there’s a lot of repairs they haven’t done. We have like over like three hundred 311 calls in like less than a week. The building management sent out a letter that was signed by the Greek billionaire, our landlord. It was a notice of nonpayment but it was completely legally insignificant because it really was absent of the pay period that the landlord can issue for you to pay it back before they can start a case against you in housing court. But if you if that’s absent and it’s not it’s not a legal notice. It’s just like a reminder to pay it, but doesn’t have any legal significance. And also like housing courts are closed. So either he’s, either they’re just really stupid or it was just an intimidation tactic. But regardless because we have such a powerful structure that we instantly got to our lawyer. We instantly sent out an email that said do not respond to this. This is clearly a tactic for them to get folks to reach out to them so they can get you on this list that they’re trying to make, they can you make you sign a non disclosure agreement. We had solidarity throughout. Not a single person responds to it. What it shows is that they’re pretty incompetent, that they’re scared that they’re trying to get folks to reach out to them, and not to reach out to us. And so were door knocking every day, we’re keeping engaged with every single tenant in the union. We’re doing weekly calls, weekly email blasts. Like we’re super solid, and we’re super activated. It’s going great.
Nicolás and Charlie shared some thoughts on what’s happening now, and what the next steps might look like. First, the goal of the rent strike movement should be creating a united front, even when each of our cases are different. Landlords, courts, and lawmakers will try to break us apart and make this case by case or by category. As you heard from Nicolás, that was the first thing their landlord turned to. We must find a way to collectively organize, even when we have different buildings or different landlords.
Charlie: In the buildings I’m organizing, mostly in Brownsville in East York and and and my co-workers and other organizers I know. That has been like uniformly the first step of landlords, whether you’re talking about a rent strike or anything where you’re dealing collectively. Their first move was always to say, “Do not deal with this as a group, it doesn’t make sense, like it makes a lot more sense to talk one on one.” And it’s sometimes tenants get scooped or there some people who were on the fence to come over by that. And it’s just like really important, to have a strong infrastructure of leaning on tenants. And I also want to add that I think data is really interesting right now. The landlords are really looking for like, “Okay who are the tenants they can pay, who are the ones that can’t.” And meanwhile we have none of that information about any of the landlords. So they’re out here in media saying “We can’t cancel rent, we can’t get rid of, you know whether it’s in a building or or or broadly across the state, we can’t do that our our bottom line would suffer.” It’s like well we don’t show us your bottom lines, like let’s see. because we know there are these major you know landlords, your Blackstone, A&E related, Zara, all these huge groups that I would love to look at their books and have them prove that they haven’t been making money during the last twenty years, which is like one of the biggest real estate booms and and you know residential real estate booms in this history of the city. And I think it’s really important for us to identify that data is important and withhold it as much as possible.
Another idea for short term damage control, is rapid response teams. Ali, from the beginning of this episode, thinks that highly localized tenants unions would be well suited for responding quickly to eviction threats.
Ali: So with the numbers that we’ve mobilized we can mobilize rapid response teams that will respond to evictions for instance if things ever got that far. And that actually can provide a lot of hope to those people right now who are really wondering if they’ll be able to stay in their apartment. You know these are the people who have to rent strike because they just can’t make ends meet that’s going to be huge for those people and so if we’re building those coalitions and we’re you know crossing the divide up all the different tenants councils spread across you know even just within a neighborhood and another adjacent neighborhood for instance, you’ll be able to mobilize people really quickly to respond to things but also you will be able to mobilize numbers in a highly localized fashion for demonstrations. You know this would be an opening for doing really really targeted demonstrations against specific landlords in specific neighborhoods that are not you know necessarily beholden to some sort of a larger group that’s an umbrella group for the whole city, but saying like telling the neighborhoods to organize themselves and so up already starting to talk about that with on various groups in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick which is very exciting with more numbers were going to be able to make a lot more noise and put a lot more pressure and signal boost each other throughout these coming months as we’re pushing for a cancellation of rent.
While the threat of eviction is most pressing, there are other challenges to consider. An eviction on a tenants’ record was dubbed by WNYC’s On the Media as the “Scarlet E.” It can follow a tenant for up to 7 years, damaging credit scores and rental applications. Even without an eviction, if your landlord files a civil suit for unpaid rent, that too can show up on your credit score. The goal of our movement should not just be rent relief and indefinite evictions stays. We also need to look at how to help everyone get out of this unscathed.
To do this, we’ll need to extend our organizing and our demands beyond the here and now. May 1st has come and gone. As we gear up for June 1st and the post-pandemic fights, everyone, participants, organizers, and journalists, should be looking toward this longer time frame or we risk exposing many tenants to life-altering effects. Here’s Charlie on that point.
Charlie: We’re still in the early stages of planning a lot of that out because there is so much happening that has a deadline in three days that even if even if the deadline for that stuff is in five days I think it’s still in the process of being figured out and I would be lying if I said oh yeah we have every single thing you know all figured out. The fact of the matter is that going on rent strike is a risk. Organizing your building is a risk. It would be great to say that these are activities that are fool proof and you can defend against every last option. At a certain point, it is about doing the most you can possibly do to keep tenants protected, but there is not a fool proof protection. I think for something like the tenant blacklist, it has been a tricky question. Certainly that was one of things was changed in the rent laws last year that was marked as like okay we need to do more on this in terms of actual enforcement. Again I’m probably not the most immediate, but nonprofit lawyers that are all around the city and will take those cases. That’s not immediate but that’s one thing that could happen if you feel like you’ve been placed on a blacklist which many tenants do. I know tenants who have preemptively you know sued because they felt like they were being treated differently for organizing. In terms of credit scores, that will only happen if there is a judgment passed after the end of the eviction process. So again there are points to intervene both legally but also like pooling funds for people to be able to pay back rent if that becomes ultimately one hundred percent necessary. And I also think you know we are a little bit in a moment of limbo and we have to be preparing for you know mass evictions and for landlords be ramming thousands of tenants through housing court and eviction processes. But I also think that we can look at this moment and be thinking of ways to advocate. And just like we’re advocating for for canceling rent and utilities, having other political pushes right now, to say you know pass laws or pass certain protections that like the state housing department, would like or or you know who who creates rules for court would like for example like not, if you have a COVID related eviction, you won’t get a judgment on your credit score after it. People have proposed tweaks to the eviction process and stuff. And I think proactively advocating for it right now is one thing we can do as well.
One note of the blacklist which Charlie mentioned. In New York, it’s technically illegal to deny someone housing because of an eviction on their record. However, since housing court records are public, it’s difficult if not impossible to enforce.
Building a tenants union is not just for the early phases of making demands and defending against eviction. These groups will be on the front lines of the fight even as these challenges extend into the future.
Charlie: A rent strike is not just this tool we’re using to go on offense and demand things. It’s actually probably the best way to play defense, too. And being organized with your tenants is going to give you the defense of being like “oh so you’re going to evict everyone in this building and then go into whatever shit housing market or rental market is going to be awaiting us after this and still like and to try and fill up the building.” By being really united with the other tenants in your building, you are protecting yourself. Even if it means feels like you’re opening yourself up to going to housing court, to other things, which you are, it’s actually a really important way to play defense as well. We need to be forming a broader constellation of these individual building or individual landlord portfolio tenancies for a lot of reasons. One, it’s a way to most efficiently organize how to get you resources like legal help. Two, it’s a way that you know we feel more powerful. Tenants within a building who feel not powerful and not connected to the tenants union are the ones who are going to get picked off by the landlord and convinced to pay their rent and scab by anyone else. And the same applies at a broader scale. The tenants associations in a neighborhood which are not strong are the ones that will get picked off and lose to their landlord and that will be can you know the rest of the tenant organizing going on in the neighborhood. And you know up to scale to the state, up to scale to to the country. When we have tenants from Brownsville talking to tenants from Syracuse and we have NYCHA tenants talking about organizing against the government in the same way we have you know Jared Kushner’s tenants talking about targeting him, tenants are like learning practical skills for each other and also feeling powerful. One of the most important tools that landlords have over us is that they control everything and can black how you know your whole life and make it seem like you are powerless and can’t do anything. And when we have you know thousands of tenants sharing our stories like we had on May Day on social media, saying on refusing to pay rent, I think that is an immeasurable benefit to our organizing. That creates so much power for us and it’s a reason why we need to be making sure that everyone who’s organizing in one place is connected with everyone else organizing through one means or another.
Nicolás notes there are a slew of ways that these groups can support their fellow participants, no matter what the outcome of their fight is.
Nicolás: So practically it looks like every single union member packing court every single day. It looks like us coming together and pitching funds to get the best lawyer possible or finding a lawyer that will do pro bono work for us. It looks like showing up outside of our management office’s buildings every day, protesting. It looks like getting politicians on our side. It looks like getting the press on our side. It looks like creating a narrative that just looks like you know this huge landlord is coming after this poor vulnerable person and trying to make them homeless. It looks like making it impossible for this landlord to fill the vacancies that they have because folks will see how retaliatory and antagonistic they are towards people who ask for the bare minimum of help. It looks like us continuing to grow and show solidarity with each other. It looks like us if we have to if it comes to a point where they’re about to make a decision against us, then we all pool money together and we pay their back rent. It looks like a lot of things and those things are only possible if you have a very very strong, very very committed union base that is dedicated to solidarity.
If your neighbors have your back not just in the next month or two while you fear eviction or retaliation but also during a long court battle, these rent strikes can be safe and sustainable. But does that make this movement successful? What does success actually mean for such a challenging and fundamental struggle?
The ultimate goal is for housing to be treated unequivocally as a human right. That means you don’t earn it, you deserve it. You don’t have to pay for it. You don’t have to fear losing it. But How do we fight the complex system that’s in our way? How do we move toward a better system? That’s difficult to understand. And difficult to fight for.
As always, we won’t jump from here to utopia. And there’s a danger in snubbing the good in pursuit of the perfect. So, while it’s not the ultimate solution to our society’s housing problem or capitalism’s commodification of the housing market, a practical first step is looking for legislation that takes us in a better direction.
Charlie: Before COVID hit, what are what the Housing Justice for All was pushing for and some national coalitions and groups in other states are pushing for was a program called the Homes Guarantee, or our version the New York Homes Guarantee, that encompasses so so many things. Here in New York, it was demanding to tax the rich through, we had delineated a bunch of different taxes that could be passed that would fund the you know thirty two billion dollar backlog for NYCHA and also go towards building hundreds of thousands of units of new social housing that would be democratically controlled but publicly funded. Changing things like passing good cause eviction which means that even if you aren’t current stabilized tenant, your landlord has to give you a lease renewal at the end of your term, at the end of your lease, with you know whatever increases set by the state between zero and five percent that year. There was also provisions to immediately house New York’s homeless population. That’s something that is kind of radically shifting in people’s consciousness right now of what people’s right to housing is. So yeah, the homes guaranteed platform is something I’m hoping we will get back to pushing because it is super expansive, has a dream bucket list of everything tenants would want to push a really bold vision for getting power out of the hands of landlords and into the hands of us tenants.
Ali, from earlier this episode, agrees that looking toward legislation can be helpful. He encourages starting locally.
Ali: We should start by sending our demand letters sending our needs and concerns at this time to our local officials, right. The Julia Salazar’s or you know whoever is your local official or city council member for your neighborhood. You want to be impressing on them how serious this is and then you know I mean sure you can reach out to Cuomo but the prevailing wisdom is that he is bought and paid for by landlord lobbyist groups and so you know you’re going to have limited effect by sending him stuff but you still should right. You know you could send copies of your demand letters to Cuomo. But really I think it’s about kind of doing that bottom up. Cuomo is a piece of shit and he doesn’t really care about anyone. Not to say that the lower legislative members are better, but like you can lean on them a little bit more easily than this guy who’s kind of has all of this money flooded out him from these lobbyist groups that are just trying to keep the quote-unquote “most powerful person” in their pocket. So you know one thing that was really effective with the housing organizers and the recent gains that were won was actually shutting him out of the conversation. And instead they just put pressure on the people who are going to be voting on the measure. Basically it’s saying that if we win in the legislative house, then we’re going to win, period, because Cuomo will be able to stop us.
But seeking or endorsing legislation doesn’t mean skipping any part of movement building. It’s just one way the ever-growing rent strikes can seek protections. And any legislative gains will only come from a huge grassroots push. Charlie and Ali agree on this point.
Charlie: Whether nonprofits want to ignore you know him the more radical demands are not, like once there is a strong mobilization of tenants demanding it, they don’t really have a choice. There’s not really any other option and I think generally, in tenant organizing, there’s a pretty good history of whatever people are demanding, even the more conservative, even the more capital L libs, have to go along with the support. And I’m seeing that with rent strikes right now. I’ll divulge some of the inner politics of the Housing justice for All Coalition. There are more professionalized organizers and nonprofit people who are against rent strikes. They don’t even want us to be doing rent strikes right now let alone they’re also fucking pissed about like the cancel rent demands. But at a certain point, there were such a vast breath of tenants demanding and fighting for the already that those people really didn’t have a choice. And it was a completely unserious opinion for them to walk into you know a coalition space and be like, “Actually I think you guys should tone it down.”
Even pushing something like homes guarantee, which I do feel like it’s a really amazing program, I think you don’t get that by pushing through and advocating directly necessarily to your to your representatives, to government. Big things like that have been passed in American history when whoever’s in charge been fucking terrified of whoever’s further on the left. The means is building centralized power agreed. Organize militant tenant power and you have the ability to do anything you want really.
Ali: Organizing is really about two things. I think it’s about bringing together that kind of collective energy that’s already exists but just doesn’t have an outlet, and pushing pushing pushing for your voices to be heard for your needs to be considered and also really crucially just making things happen, right. So people couldn’t pay rent, so you know what we’re all not going to pay rent so that those people can’t pay rent, don’t have to pay rent. You know so making it happen already and then letting the legislative bodies catch up to us is one really key part of it. But then also, when you talk about legislative gains a really key part of it is what Housing Justice for All and those groups are doing, which is trying to you know in a very targeted way, put pressure and lobby the legislative bodies to enact very specific measures. But there is a lot of energy being sort of an innately quote unquote “captured” by some of those larger housing organizing groups just through like petitions and pledges and the danger of just putting your goal posts as that next legislative gain without a vision of what housing should be like and what the city should be like. I think it doesn’t have a sustaining quality to it A) and it doesn’t have like educating quality to it. We’re not politically educating people in the ways in which this system has been rigged against common sense and human decency completely. And I do think that we do need to put those things to the fore as well while also not losing sight of the very real ways in which collective action can make changes happen in neighborhoods if done on the right scale. So it’s like, fuck with the law says. This is how we’re doing it and the law can catch up now.
For more ideas on how to move forward, we can look to the Communist-led New York rent strikes of 1932. I read about these in the article “Fighting Evictions during the Great Depression” by Mark Naison. Much like today, the tenants that got organized were often already fearing evictions due to the economic situation. Naison writes, quote “…communists’ appeals to strike invoked… a certain desperate practicality—since people were getting evicted anyway, why not put up a fight?” end quote. These rent strikes had immense support. Eviction interventions brought a crowd of 4,000 on one occasion, 1,500 another time. It gave us some heroic headlines in the New York Times including, “RENT STRIKERS DEFY POLICE IN PROTESTS… Women Make Red Speeches From Windows While Tenants Insist on 15% Cut in Rates” and “1,500 FIGHT POLICE TO AID RENT STRIKE; 100 Men Break Through Lines and Chase Aged Landlord Through Bronx Streets.”
Here’s an account from one of those articles. Quote “For two hours…, women speakers had shouted through megaphones from second and third floor windows…. The speakers said something about the beginning of the workers’ struggle, exhorted the people to fight and declared they would show they were not afraid of the police. The crowds sang the International and shouted epithets at patrolmen who were holding them back. The women were the most militant.” end quote
Hearing accounts of hundreds or even thousands showing up to halt evictions is really inspiring and something we should aspire to. We’ll need to bring out those sorts of numbers as we push for the changes we need.
But the rent strikes were not as successful as one might hope. This was at least in part because the organizers of the strike were unable to offer meaningful steps forward. Naison writes, quote “For communists, rent strikes represented a way of arousing popular militancy and of recruiting people into the unemployed movement and the Communist Party. The party had no systematic analysis of housing issues and no legislative solution to the housing crisis; in the one theoretical article in the party press dealing with the rent strike movement, the emphasis was on “Building organizations, on getting rent strikers… to recruit them for the Party.”” end quote
After several evictions, the movement eventually led to an income strategy, with tenants being able to receive cash aid from the city. Here’s Naison’s conclusion, quote “Communist organizers did not succeed in establishing the legitimacy of the rent strike, did not leave a viable legacy of courtroom strategy, and did not develop an effective campaign for legislation aiding low-income tenants… Unable to offer “responsible solutions” to tenant problems, they helped force government into an income strategy that gave unemployed tenants a much-needed sense of security.” end quote.
We can learn a lot from what happened then. First, there was some success. An income solution isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing. But also, lots was left on the table. There wasn’t an holistic response offered, either by the organizers or the government. So, while the organizers were able to help some tenants stay in their homes, they didn’t solve housing problems for the long haul.
Radio Voiceover from 1931: That little hungrarian serenade [“Hungarian Serenade”] by Joncière, played by Musical Pastels Trio, concluding the program, under the auspices of the Unemployment Relief Committee in WNYC in New York. Remember that this unemployment relief committee is asking you to share in the great work of raising of $18 million fund for the relief of the unemployed. Governor Smith has said ‘every volunteer worker, in the block to block canvass must put forth his utmost effort to induce wage earners to share with the jobless. If the $18M fund for unemployment relief is to be reached in the coming months, do your part if you have not already done it, remembering the great human motto of the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee, “I will share”’” From WNYC in New York, John Scott will give you the correct, followed by Police Alarms and the Civic Information of the evening.
The left often experiences these moments of energy when big changes feel possible. For example, there was the occupy movement or the surge of organizing after the 2016 election. In these moments, it feels like change is inevitable, but, unfortunately, that’s never the case.
In general, I think the left is pretty decent at finding the next step, like just setting up the next demo or the next meeting or starting a new project. And we’re pretty decent at painting a picture of the far-off future like a post-scarcity utopia. But the stepping stones between that very next step and the bigger picture can get lost.
Ali: So this is the big question. Can we turn this energy around, having some support for those who are going through tough times in this crisis into something that’s sustaining and has a vision that clearly moves beyond just this immediate crisis to tackle the housing crisis, right? And so concretely dealing with individuals who are in my tenants council, I know that people are feeling really hopeful about our potential power to change things and that there’s this kind of amorphous energy right now around that open potential. Now, a lot of that discussion just goes into the you know immediate, can we get our landlords to accept our demands? Okay well probably not because they’re, like all landlords, especially the big LLCs are just completely heartless, completely money driven, and so, if they’re not going to accept our demands, well then we should be pushing for something broader, right. Okay well we did though one immediate thing you can do. It’s like I’m not gonna pay you until you actually listen to us. Not gonna listen to us? Great, so now we have to ramp things up. And so I think, in that ramping up, there’s a lot of strategic opportunity to paint a vision and enact a vision of collectivity, of shared struggle, and of a shared vision to change housing in the city.
If we can build toward a more libertory future from this moment, it will take some strategizing.
This whole episode is really the search for stepping stones from continuing rent strikes to ensuring housing is a human right. Based on these interviews, my own experience as a participant, and the history I’ve read, I have a couple conclusions.
First, if you’re participating in rent strikes, the next step is to reach out to your local tenants union and connect with a wider network. To level up the struggle, we’ll need strong networks to support every tenant, from the threat of eviction through the potential long term after effects of these strikes.
Second, we’ll need to look for systematic change. This will look like a little bit of everything. We’ll need strong tenants unions and we’ll also need to push for progressive legislation to protect every tenant. Voicing support for progressive legislation might feel like a compromise, but is necessary to protect tenants. Let’s start dreaming of new ways to protect each and every tenant, through this crisis and every hardship to come, and take steps in that direction. Here’s Ali.
Ali: I’m an anarcho communist. I do believe, and I think there’s a lot of very very very compelling evidence from throughout modern history that bears this out, that you can’t really aim to change society just through fighting to have specific incremental legal wins and that’s it. There has to be a vision beyond that, more sustaining, more powerful, than just these kind of concessionary goals. The law can be super finicky and also super not responsive to sometimes very persuasive and large popular mass actions. It’s about sustaining each other, sustaining our communities. We want to keep that the fore as we organize these neighborhood tenants councils.
Lastly, this battle is in part a cultural one. This crisis has highlighted the abysmal state of housing in the US. The public is realizing how unjust it is to evict people, both now and general. So, please, add your voice! Continue writing and posting about housing. Keep putting up rent strike banners.
Ali: I do think we should push people to care more about the housing crisis in general while we have their attention and their ears. Like really impress upon them, and by them I mean the people within our own tenants council but also people who are just rent striking in general, that this is not about just canceling rent for the next few months. This is about a crisis that has resulted in not only ninety thousand people being homeless in the city while we have you know more than enough empty apartments to house them, but also caused the 2008 economic crisis that collapsed the economy. We’re really putting ourselves at the mercy of a cruel and evil system called capitalism that shouldn’t have no business being a part of housing or health care or anything that’s an essential life sustaining functions society.
These rent strike episodes have been a departure for the podcast. They cover a specific issue in the moment. They’re put together way more quickly than our other episodes. And this one is a further departure as it starts to discuss strategy and long-term vision, while most of our other episodes are grounded in first steps and action items. We’d love to hear what you think of this departure. If you have thoughts to share, please send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at us @rebelsteps.
Also, if you live in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy in New York, drop Ali a line:
Ali: I would like to put out the call speaking for myself and for a number of other tenants unions that have started recently in Bushwick and Bed Stuy. If you are organizing, if you have started to tenants council. If you even just organized your building or even just your apartment to rent strike, I want you to reach out to us. You can reach out to us at RegalTenantsCouncil@ProtonMail.com, that’s RegalTenantsCouncil@ProtonMail.com. Drop us a line and one of us will respond and get back to you and just see how we can start building together and start really really putting putting our goal posts where they need to be in terms of you know a collective power and a sustaining power that the landlords will be able to control and the state will have to inherently listen to on some level.
You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for this episode was kindly gifted to us by Ellen Siberian Tiger, Tutlie, and also includes a few songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees Ali, Charlie, and Nicolás and their organization. Also to Pearson of Coffee with Comrades for his feedback. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.
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