Tenants in the US are planning the largest rent strike in decades as the coronavirus cuts off more than 30 million people from their incomes - Action Center on Race and the Economy
Graffiti painted on a wall at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, California, on April 10, 2020. 
Julie Jammot/AFP via Getty Images

“Before the COVID-19 virus, 70% of our income went toward rent,” said Vanessa Bulnes, 61, her voice crackling over a Zoom call with housing organizers and media on Thursday. 

Like tens of millions of tenants around the country, Bulnes and her 71-year-old husband, who live in Oakland, California, are out of work.

Even before the crisis, housing was not affordable, she said. Her husband suffered a stroke just before the 2009 financial crisis, and she’s been the sole breadwinner ever since.

“We’ve always been on the edge of homelessness,” Bulnes, an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said.

On Friday, May 1, Bulnes will join the legion of tenants unable to pay rent. It’s not clear exactly how many renters will go on strike, but organized efforts in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Colorado, California, Washington state, and elsewhere point to the largest rent strike in decades.

“We need our rent canceled,” Bulnes said. “We need forgiveness. We need it gone.”

Millions of Americans face ‘economically devastating’ bills and costs

This week, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) announced that although some 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the crisis began — a number that rose to 30 million since its study was published — that number drastically understates the economic devastation in the US.

In a survey published on Tuesday, the think tank found that up to 13.9 million other Americans were eligible for the benefits. A portion of those people applied but never had their documents processed. Others “did not try to apply because it was too difficult to do so.” 

In other words, only around half of Americans who are eligible for benefits actually received them. EPI’s research signals looming economic pain for millions, according to Elise Gould, an EPI economist who co-wrote the study.

“People are going to have to pay their rent and their mortgage and all of their other bills,” Gould told Business Insider. “And these weights are economically devastating for them.”

Already, an enormous number of people haven’t paid rent on time. Nearly one-in-three tenants did not pay April rent in the first week of the month.

Tenants end a three-day hunger strike outside City Hall, New York City, New York, on June 1, 2018. 
Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Landlords, however, say that a rent strike would just worsen economic conditions. A nationwide rent strike is “counterproductive,” Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, told NBC News.

“There’s definitely growing concerns,” he said. “Everyone anticipates that there’s going to be distress, and it’s going to be more pronounced than April.”

Doug Bibby, head of the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents apartment owners and managers, called a rent strike “reckless.”

“These people don’t think through who they’re hurting, and they’re disrupting the entire financial ecosystem in doing this,” Bibby told NBC News. “They think they’re hurting the big, bad landlord, and what they’re really hurting are all kinds of people just like themselves, and they are spreading the economic malaise more broadly in the economy.”

Advocates and tenants say they have no choice

But advocates and tenants disagree. They don’t have a choice of whether to pay rent, said Winsome Pendegrass, a housing organizer with New York Communities for Change.

“Since the 18th of March, I am not working,” Pendegrass said on the Zoom call, organized by a group of grassroots organizations representing working-class people, led by the Action Center for Race and the Economy.

Pendegrass said she managed to pay her landlord that month. But “in May, they’re not going to get it – not because I don’t want to pay, but because I can’t pay,” she said.

Policymakers need to help tenants, J.W. Mason, an economist at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Business Insider.

“Otherwise we’re looking at a huge wave of evictions coming down the road,” Mason said, praising Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent rent cancellation bill proposal. “And that’s an incredibly socially disruptive process.”

A person walks past the words “Rent Strike” written in large letters on the side of the Compton Hill Reservoir wall Thursday, April 2, 2020, in St. Louis. With millions of people suddenly out of work some are advocating going on a rent strike until the new coronavirus pandemic subsides. 
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

The economic devastation will be most acute for black and brown communities, the ACLU has warned.

“Evictions and utility shut-offs will disproportionately harm communities of color, and particularly, women of color. All residents — regardless of their circumstances or background — should have access to safe and stable housing throughout the course of this ongoing public health crisis,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney at the ACLU.

Seventeen states, plus Washington, D.C., Guam, and the Virgin Islands, have fully suspended eviction cases and enforcement, according to researchers at Columbia University Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Organizers and tenants praise the moratoria. And they also fear the day they’re gone. 

“My landlord may not be able to evict my right now,” Tiana Caldwell, a KC Tenants Union organizer in Kansas City, Missouri, said on the media call. “But what’s stopping him from evicting us as soon as the moratorium lifts?”

“I can’t pay rent and it’s not my fault,” she added. “I need my governor and my federal government to use their extended power in this crisis to do their job: Protect tenants and cancel rent.”

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