Although there’s no clear data tracking the number of rent strikes taking place across the city, the advocacy coalition Housing Justice for All says they’ve become more common during the COVID-19 crisis. An informal count by the group estimated 100 tenant groups or associations in New York participated in the nationwide rent strike action earlier this spring.

Sadef Kully

Tenants in Harlem, some in costume, protested the week of Halloween to demand their landlord make repairs to their buildings. About 30 tenants in the properties on West 141st Street are engaged in a rent strike.

Days before Halloween, dozens of tenants and housing advocates gathered outside an apartment building in Harlem to rally against debilitating conditions there. About 30 of the tenants, residing across three buildings on West 141st Street, have been withholding their rent for months in an effort to get the landlords to address things like mold, pest infestations and an unworking elevator. 

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures,” said Lisa Macauley, one of the tenants. “Cuomo was lauded for all the work he has done to bring down COVID-19 [infections]. But he has not done anything for those who live paycheck to paycheck, dollar to dollar.”  

The Harlem tenants are among dozens of tenant groups across the city who’ve engaged in a rent strike at some point over the course of the pandemic, as housing advocates call for the city to pass “cancel rent” legislation and while a statewide eviction moratorium is in place.

Although there’s no clear data tracking the number of rent strikes taking place across the city, the advocacy coalition Housing Justice for All says they’ve become more common during the COVID-19 crisis. An informal count by the group estimated 100 tenant groups or associations in New York participated in the May 1st nationwide rent strike action; some groups had been on strike prior to that. One such group was in Albany, 17 were in Manhattan, four in the Bronx, 50 in Brooklyn and 14 in Queens.

The national group We Strike Together, which aggregates rent and mortgage strikes across the country, estimates 750,000 rent and mortgage strikes have occurred across the nation since March.

What’s a rent strike?

Typically a rent strike—withholding the payment of rent—occurs between a group of tenants and their landlord when repairs or critical maintenance conditions have not been addressed, like heat or hot water issues and mold or rodent infestations. It is critical for tenants to approach a rent strike as a group in order for it to prove effective, experts say: The more tenants withholding rent, the quicker the repairs are made.

A rent strike does not mean not paying rent. Tenants must continue holding the rent they would pay normally, either in a shared bank account with other tenants (which requires some level of organization, such as a tenant association) or with a lawyer in an escrow account. Ideally, a rent strike is a last resort for tenants, coming after several (and preferably documented) communications over maintenance conditions with the landlord or property manager go unaddressed. Some landlords may come to a resolution quickly before a rent strike could occur, while others may want to resolve the rent strike through housing court. 

In housing court, attorneys for the tenants and landlord, along with the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), will try to come to an agreement on a timeframe for the landlord to repair the issues raised by the tenants. Once a proceeding begins, tenant evictions are on hold until a judgement by court has been ordered. 

Landlord advocacy groups, such as the Rent Stabilized Association (RSA), argue there is an independent system in place that addresses disrepair in buildings that tenants can pursue instead of striking. Frank Ricci, the director of government affairs at RSA, says tenants can start what’s called an HP (Housing Part) action in court, through which HPD will send inspectors to the properties. 

“It is an independent third party to verify as to what the tenants are saying this isn’t working right. They will figure out if it’s really a violation or if it’s not a violation,” says Ricci. Sometimes tenant complaints may not rise to the level of an HPD violation, or is something that’s outside the  landlord’s control, such as neighboring building’s construction.

“A responsible landlord, if they hear a complaint from a tenant, they’re first going to call the super, ‘Hey, I just got these complaints, or I became aware of these. Will you please go check it out?’ And if there’s a problem, they will call their elevator company or they’ll call their plumber, you know, or electric, whatever the issue is,” said Ricci. “That’s what the owners that I deal with do daily.”

Back in Harlem

Tenants from the three buildings on West 141 Street shared stories and photos of conditions there with reporters: Problems included lack of heat or hot water, a bathroom ceiling falling apart, pest infestations, mold, broken pipes and an out-of-order elevator for over 90 days. HPD’s website lists complaints lodged with the properties dating back to November of last year.

“They do just enough to pass the inspection. For example, they brought in a repairman who was watching YouTube videos to do a plumbing repair job, or they have done patchwork repair to leaks where mold is present. The bare minimum,” said Macauley, tenant at one of the buildings. 

At the rally held the week of Halloween, tenants dressed up in costumes: some came as witches, one showed up in a Whoopie cushion costume, and another was dressed up as Death. 

The properties—117, 127, and 137 West 141 St.— are owned by Chaim Simkowitz, the CEO and founder of Guardian Realty. The buildings are listed as having some rent-controlled units with the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal (rent control applies to residential buildings constructed before Feb. 1, 1947, where unit rent increases are limited and set by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board, and services and evictions are regulated.)

According to a Sept. 18th letter addressed to the tenants’ attorney, the landlord’s attorney said the property owner had “gone above and beyond” his normal duties to respond to tenant needs during the pandemic. The letter said the elevators were not in service because they were waiting for approval from the Department of Buildings, but did not address in detail the other issues raised by tenants during the rally. City Limits reached out to Simkowitz’s attorney and  Guardian Realty but have not received a direct response to interview requests. 

The tenants are now exploring legal options within housing court to have the repairs addressed before the weather gets colder, according to Ben Rosenfield, tenant organizer with Metropolitan Council on Housing. 

More help needed

While some tenants withhold rent in order to get repairs addressed, others may do so out of necessity because they don’t have the money. Those who cannot pay rent may get some relief under the statewide eviction moratorium in place though Jan. 1, 2021, which covers non-payment cases or eviction warrants filed before March 7th for tenants who can prove pandemic-related financial hardships. 

However, housing advocates say the current moratorium is limited, leaving out New York’s most vulnerable tenants such as those who are undocumented, those who work in informal economies, like jobs which pay cash only, or tenants involved in holdover cases, meaning they’re being evicted for reasons other than nonpayment. 

Housing advocates say rent strikes will continue until stronger legislation is passed.  Organizations like Met Council for Housing and the Housing Justice for All coalition, of which Met Council is a member, support three pieces of legislation they say would better help tenants during the pandemic.

The first is the Emergency Housing Stability and Displacement Prevention Act, introduced by state Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Karines Reyes, which would protect residential and commercial tenants from filings and evictions throughout the crisis, plus an additional year after. The second bill, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020, introduced by Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, would cancel rents and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis, with some relief for landlords who demonstrate financial hardship due to the pandemic. 

Lastly, the Housing Access Voucher Program, introduced by Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, would provide housing vouchers for eligible individuals and families who are homeless, or who face an imminent loss of housing. The Housing Trust Fund Corporation would oversee the program, and state and local public housing agencies would administer it.

Housing bailout?

Jay Martin, executive director of the landlord group Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), which has 4,000 members with an estimated 400,000 rent-stabilized units in the city, says action is needed beyond these bills. He and other landlords want the government to protect renters and owners with a bailout package similar to the one given to corporations during the 2008 foreclosure crisis

“We’ve been calling for a bailout of renters, essentially,” he says. “The government can bail out corporations and Fortune 500 companies, why doesn’t it bail out renters? Why doesn’t it pay for the rent arrears that have been accumulated during the crisis?”  

Martin said that there is no genuine legislation on the books so far which he thinks could truly resolve the tenant and landlord crisis which has stemmed from the pandemic—not from progressive or more conservative groups. Even cancelling rent, he says, “is a temporary fix.”

He estimates that across the 400,000 units owned by the landlords’ in his group alone, there’s been about $800 million in arrears that have accumulated over the past year. 

“That is a lot of money, but proportionally speaking, that’s certainly less money than the billions of dollars that has gone to large corporations over the course of the different relief packages that have been passed by the federal government,” Martin said. “So that is a real way that the government could actually help tenants, could help property owners, not pit them against each other.” 

In informal surveys CHIP has been conducting throughout the pandemic with its members, reports of rent strikes and nonpayments were rare,  Martin said. Those not paying rent during the pandemic typically had trouble doing so before the crisis, too. Martin said CHIP landlord members are not corporate real estate investors, but mom-and pop-landlords with large and small properties.

“Our members are worried just as much as their tenants,” he said. 

Martin argues that a moratorium on mortgages and foreclosures would not work either, since for many landlords, their mortgages are tied up in their property taxes. For these owners, their largest bill is not the mortgage but those taxes, which will be due as soon as on Jan. 1st, 2021 for many, he said.

“You’re always going to have a natural resentment with whoever takes a part of your paycheck at the end of the day. I get it. But I think most people understand that especially in New York, the cost to provide housing is extremely high and costly,” he said. “I’m hoping that through this crisis, we can come out of it with a better understanding of the kind of economic impacts on both sides of the equation.”