NY Tenant Groups Call For Mass COVID-19 Rent Strike In May

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (April 16, 2020, 10:45 AM EDT) -- Tenants across New York state will withhold rent on May 1 if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo doesn't cancel rent for at least four months in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the statewide tenant coalition Housing Justice for All said.

The pledge came Thursday after the passage of a state budget that lacks short-term rent relief for tenants. Cuomo ordered a 90-day moratorium on evictions in March, but has not acted on proposals from Democratic legislators to temporarily cancel or reduce rents.

"On May 1, unless our demands are met, many of us can't pay, and so we won't," the coalition wrote in a petition launched Thursday, a move landlords predict would only add to the chaos of the health crisis. 

Housing Justice for All hopes to mobilize at least a million New Yorkers with the #CantPayMay campaign, according to a press release.

Close to half of New York state residents rent across 3 million households, according to a report the group issued in 2018.

Organizer Cea Weaver stressed that withholding rent is a risk. While the coalition has produced a tool kit for tenants to organize rent strikes in their buildings, they are not in a position to provide legal support on a mass scale.

The value of collective action, she said, is sending a strong message to the governor.

Additional demands include guaranteed lease renewals without an increase during the pandemic, and permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers.

"The risk is coming at you," Weaver told Law360 Wednesday. "You can't pay. It's headed down the pike. You're still at risk when you come with us, but it's less risk."

About 1.1 million New Yorkers statewide claimed unemployment insurance during the week ending April 4, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's up from 712,544 the prior week.

In New York City, the Independent Budget Office issued estimates this week that the city's retail industry will shed 100,000 jobs between now and the first quarter of 2021, along with 86,000 jobs in hotels and restaurants and 26,000 in the arts and entertainment.

"IBO projects the most severe job losses will be disproportionately concentrated in sectors with low- and moderate-paying jobs," the office said. "The only major sector of the city economy likely to avoid job losses over the next year will be health care."

Tenant leaders are hosting a Zoom call Thursday to discuss their plan to drastically scale their rent strike efforts from the first half of April.

Statewide since April 1, Weaver says tenant groups in the coalition have self-reported rent strikes in 1,600 apartments across 32 buildings. At least 750 people have accessed Housing Justice for All's rent strike tool kit via text message.

Stella Becerril, 33, helped launch a rent strike in her Pacific Street apartment building in Brooklyn in April.

"Our strike is specific to our building and our landlord who can afford to take the hit, but it expands broader," Becerril told Law360. "Definitely if you are in a position where you can put away your rent and save it, in the event you are taken to court, definitely do that. If you're not in a position, I think that's precisely why we need to ramp up our efforts to cancel or suspend the rent."

Landlords have expressed concern about rent cancellation without equivalent relief. Attorneys have also raised possible legal defenses for — and challenges to — rent cancellation.

"This is a chaotic time and the last thing we need is more chaos, which is what will happen with a massive rent strike," Jay Martin, director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents New York City landlords, said in a statement. "Many renters have already been able to pay their rent. Those who can't have worked with our members to get help."

CHIP cited a report from the National Multifamily Housing Council, a real estate industry group, which found that 84% of 11.5 million households made a "full or partial" rent payment by April 12, compared to 90% by April 12 last year.

A spokesperson for Cuomo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another new bill introduced April 7 by New York state Sens. Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz would prohibit evictions for rent unpaid during the COVID-19 crisis and six months after. A court could still hold tenants liable to pay back the rent, however.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who sponsors legislation that would waive rent payments for 90 days in New York along with mortgage relief for landlords, urged Cuomo to invoke his executive powers in a statement Wednesday.

"It has been clear for weeks now that rents cannot be paid with money that doesn't exist and therefore, rent will be canceled whether or not we authorize it by law," he said. "I urge Governor Cuomo to implement an executive order to cancel rent obligations ... before it devolves into a full-blown crisis."

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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