‘Our state leaders were handed an incredible opportunity to confront an unprecedented global health crisis that has hit New Yorkers hard. We are calling on them not to squander it but to help us all return to a new New York. They can use the federal funds to cancel rent. They can house all our homeless neighbors.’
On April 1, 2020 millions of tenants like us went on strike. Not because we wanted to be, but because less than a month without work was all it took for us to be unable to afford the rent.
During March and April, as the pandemic raged, we quarantined in our apartments filled with mold and insufficient heat. We set up days to sanitize and clean our buildings because we knew the landlord would not. We checked in to make sure our neighbors had access to groceries and their medications. And we got organized, because after decades of patchwork, harassment, and raising rents we say no more.
I am on rent strike with my neighbors in East Brooklyn. I am not on strike because I want to be, but because I have to be. I went from working 50 hours a week as a childcare worker, to nothing, and I am back to just 15 hours a week. Like my neighbors, I paid rent all these years, but when the pandemic hit, my landlord and our politicians turned their backs on us. So we got organized.
On May 1, over 60 buildings across New York State announced building-wide rent strikes. Uniting tenants who could no longer afford rent and with neighbors striking in solidarity, we began our strike to protect one another from eviction and demand the cancellation of rent for all tenants. We also went on strike to end the business model used by corporate landlords like ours. An end to the model of increasing rents, dangerous conditions, and harassment all in the name of profit.
Now our elected leaders up in Albany want to use the billions of dollars in pandemic aid from the federal government as yet another failed bailout to corporate slumlords like ours. We can’t let this happen. Not only is it unjust, it doesn’t work. Through our citywide organizing I met tenants like Saleha Sattar, a rent stabilized tenant in Jamaica, Queens. She applied for the State Rent relief program twice and both times, Saleha did not receive any communication from the State about her application. The level of means testing in this program was intentionally created to limit relief to those most in need, and the results of the program clearly shows the state’s failure to understand the magnitude of this crisis. Only $40 million of the $100 million allocated in Rent Relief was distributed in the first round. The second round of applications consisted of the same scrutiny, tenants have to prove that they are poor and we have to fight for crumbs. The state has to acknowledge that they have failed to run an adequate program and with $2.3 billion to distribute, we demand that advocates and tenants are a crucial part of the implementation of the next Rent Relief program.
No one is asking my millionaire landlord to prove he needs my rent money. No one is asking my landlord to prove he follows the law to keep his building safe and habitable. It has been decades of Jason Korn, and so many other millionaire landlords getting away with these business practices for so long. And now, in the middle of a pandemic, the New York State budget put forward by our elected leaders asks tenants to prove they are deserving of further enriching their landlords; it’s pathetic.
Our state leaders were handed an incredible opportunity to confront an unprecedented global health crisis that has hit New Yorkers hard. We are calling on them not to squander it but to help us all return to a new New York. They can use the federal funds to cancel rent. They can house all our homeless neighbors. They can help small landlords, homeowners and nonprofit landlords who need it the most. If they don’t, we know whose side they’re on. And one thing is clear, New Yorkers organized like never before and we won’t stop until we are treated with the dignity we deserve.
Vincia Barber is a tenant leader in East Brooklyn with H.O.P.E. (Housing Organizers for People Empowerment).