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Mayor opposes New York rent strike

New York City tenants living pay-check to paycheck have run out of cash after five weeks in corona virus stasis.

But mayor Bill de Blasio said this morning that a rent strike isn’t the answer to their problems.

“There’s too many folks trying to keep their buildings going,” he said on WNYC’s Brian Leherer show. “A lot of smaller landlords in particular, if they don’t have any income they are not going to be able to keep their buildings going and then you have a bad situation for everyone.”

Instead, he said tenants and landlords need to strike a balance and urged the state to come up with a plan as soon as possible.

“We have been pushing the state to allow the use of security deposits that would immediately free up money tenants could use to pay rent. We’ve been pushing the state to come up with a plan that if you are unable to pay rent then you don’t have to until you have income back and then you pay on a payment play to repay over time.

“All of those changes are needed and the state needs to act.”

Tenant group calls for a city-wide rent strike are also being denounced by landlord groups as one way to make a bad situation worse.

“This is a chaotic time and the last thing we need is more chaos, which is what will happen with a massive rent strike,” said Jay Martin, executive director of Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP).

The two groups are facing down as the city grapples with the devastation being wrought by COVID-19, a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 13,000 New Yorkers and the jobs of nearly 10 percent of the workforce.

According to the New York department of Labor, 791,840 have made unemployment claims since mid-March and the projected unemployment rate is expected to hit 16.4 percent by July.

With no relief in sight, many low-income New Yorkers are appealing directly to Governor Andrew Cuomo to cancel rents for every one of the 5.4 million renters in the city, two-thirds of the population.

“Over the years, we have been saying we are one pay-check away from being on the sidewalk. Not it has really happened,” said Winsome Pendergrass, a Housing Alliance organizer and Brooklyn renter who took part in an online press conference with tenants, advocates, and housing leaders on Thursday, April 16.

Winsome Pendergrass

The groups are calling for a collective rent strike to begin May 1. They want New Yorkers who can’t – and who won’t – to join in a collective action aimed at forcing Governor Cuomo to cancel rent for the duration of the coronavirus epidemic.

Among the speakers were Donnette Leftord, an undocumented Flatbush mom of three who was running her own cleaning service until the outbreak began. She said she wouldn’t pay her $1,700 rent next month even if she could.

In quarantine since one of her cleaning clients contracted the virus, Donnette said she was making $408 a week before the outbreak.  “My rent is $1,600,” she said. “I also have lupus medication to buy and food. Rent is important to me, but there is no way I can pay rent going forward when I am unemployed.”

Although she didn’t qualify for the government’s $1,200 stimulus check, Letford noted, “In my calculation, a family in New York cannot survive on $1,200 for 10 weeks. It’s impossible.”

Queens nanny Guadalupe Perolta said she was encouraging her neighbors to join the May 1 rent strike after her landlord turned a deaf ear to letters and a petition asking him to help tenants in distress. “He sent us a response saying he understood, but the tenants still need to pay on May 1. He said he has expenses and utilities to pay.”

Calling landlords “vicious” and “wicked” Pendergrass said a moratorium on rents was an unrealistic goal given than most low-income New Yorkers would take years to pay back over $4,000 in rent.

“They [landlords] are going to come hunting for us to take us bodily out of our home,” said Pendergrass. “It’s their building, but it’s our homes and we are asking Governors Cuomo to cancel the rent.”

And Uber driver Leana Melendez predicted a wave of evictions if the governor fails to take action. “When they do life this [eviction moratorium] there will be massive evictions because there’s no way for them to get the money.

“I have a neighbor whose rent is $2,000. Where is she going to get $6,000 at the end of this? People are desperate and I stand in solidarity with people that cannot pay their rent and my building [565 West 62nd Street] is going on rent strike.”

Cea Waver of Housing Justice for All, who also took part in the video conference, said to date the groups have enlisted 2,166 renters from around 1,100 apartments for the rent strike. They groups have set up a website at bit.ly/cantpaymay

Meanwhile, the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) has called on landlords and tenants to work together during the crisis.

“While ‘rent strikes’ are getting a lot of attention among the media, online and with certain lawmakers, the on-the-ground reality is that apartment residents, in partnership with multifamily owners and operators, are meeting their rent obligations,” said Doug Bibby, President of NMHC.

DOUG BIBBY

“Despite the very real economic challenges we all are facing, we are finding that most residents are paying rent, especially when owners and operators work with them by offering payment plans, waiving late fees and other approaches to help those affected by the outbreak. In fact, just this week the NMHC Rent Payment Tracker found that 84 percent of apartment households made a full or partial rent payment by April 12.”

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