- Interview by
- Ben Koditschek
The rising cost of housing has been a dire issue for working people in the United States for decades. But the arrival of COVID-19 has brought this crisis to a head, throwing millions out of work and leaving them unable to afford rent.
The call for some kind of rent forgiveness legislation is growing; politicians like Ilhan Omar have introduced legislation to forgive rent and mortgages, while state representatives such as New York state senator Julia Salazar have brought similar measures to state bodies. But none of these laws have yet been enacted. While New York has passed a temporary eviction moratorium and a temporary suspension of some mortgages, no action on suspending rent has occurred. In the meantime, renters are taking matters into their own hands.
Residents of a four-story, thirty-unit apartment complex on Goodwin Pl., at the southern edge of the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, have done just that. The residents there have formed a tenants’ union and gone on rent strike since April, while they try to negotiate their demands with Dome Property Management, which also owns close to forty other buildings across Brooklyn.
On May 1, Jacobin designer Benjamin Koditschek, who also lives in the building, spoke with two of its lead organizers, Fox Rinne and Lucy Piccochi, about the evolution of their local rent strike, and how it connects to activism around New York City.
What led you to decide a rent strike was necessary for April, and how did you organize the building?
I was a preschool teacher, but when the schools were shut down, I lost work, because they were not doing preschool over Zoom. My employers told me to apply for unemployment, and that’s what I did. But after two months, I haven’t received any unemployment, and I’m not eligible for a stimulus check. So I’ve been without any income since the beginning of the pandemic. And I saw that many other people across the city had also lost access to stable income.
So I went into organizing mode. My housemates and I put up a sign in the hallways of our building, asking if any of our neighbors needed help or access to food, or if anyone got sick to let people know. And that led to the start of a group chat.
One of the first things mentioned in the chat was, “Hey, how are people actually paying rent this month? Can people do that?” And the wide consensus was no.
I’ve done a lot of activism in my life before this crisis. Also, I was a tour guide at the Tenement Museum and am really interested in the history of social movements. I also give walking tours with a collective called Social Justice Tours about the history of activism in New York City. The Tenement Museum had to temporarily close down, and I was furloughed. I was also told to get unemployment insurance, which I did. It was originally not a lot of money, but then I have the additional $600 a week that the federal government has been issuing. A lot of my coworkers are having extreme difficulty in obtaining it. I was one of the lucky ones.
Through my past experiences with activism and knowing about the history of social movements, I thought that rent striking and tenant organizing are the right things to do in a situation like this, coming together to support each other and create networks of mutual aid and solidarity.
Even though I’m not in a very financially bad position, I’m doing this to stand in solidarity with my neighbors, my housemates, the people in the building who are having trouble, who aren’t making any money right now or getting any type of relief or unemployment.
How did things develop after that?
After we started talking to people in the building over the group chat, the conversation led some of us to go door to door in a safe and social distancing way. We had recently moved into the building, so we were meeting most people for the first time. We asked if people had lost work, how they were doing, whether or not they were able to pay for April, and whether they’re willing to strike in solidarity in order to protect those of us who couldn’t pay from having to deal with the landlords alone.
I was talking to one of our neighbors about sending the landlord a letter, which became us collaboratively writing a letter. It started off explaining the situation — that a lot of people in the building are out of work and are going to not be able to pay rent. We mentioned legislation that was being proposed to aid people who can’t pay rent and encouraged the landlord to put pressure on the government to pass this legislation. And we told them that unless the government passes legislation, we were not going to pay April rent, and we asked the landlord to negotiate with us.
We got signatures on it, we did a lot of Zoom meetings, WhatsApp chatting, and making sure that everyone was on board. Especially because we are new tenants, we didn’t want to just push anything on people. We wanted to make sure that everyone was consenting and agreeing. And we wanted to hear what people’s past experiences were living here with the landlord and their issues and how best to communicate with management.
Some people also couldn’t actually strike because they were in the middle of legal proceedings with the landlord, or they were worried because they were renewing a lease. So they felt like they needed to pay rent, but were still supportive of us and agreed with what we were doing. But overall, we had a lot of support, and because of that, we realized that we were coming out really strong with this strike.
There were people who still had jobs but were working from home and were willing to strike in solidarity. We got forty-three signatures on the letter, and we’ve estimated fifty people total in the building, so about 80 percent of the building signed the letter.
So that was at the end of March and beginning of April. How did the landlord respond?
At first, we received almost no communication from the landlord. They refused to acknowledge our letter and just sent general emails to people reminding us to pay our rent, as if they were totally oblivious to what we were doing. So we crafted a uniform response email, which everyone used to respond with, that included the original letter with all the signatures as an attachment.
Our response asked them to refer to our tenant union Gmail address and to only communicate with us through that. Before sending it to the landlord, we posted that initial letter of demands in the hallway for other residents to see, but it got torn down almost immediately.
We don’t know who tore it down, but it was gone in all three separate entrances of our building.
And then immediately after we got phone calls from management. We were also contacted by our broker, who was told by the landlord to discourage us from organizing.
The landlord kept insisting that they only do individual negotiation. And this is why I would say they’re ignoring our tenants’ union. They kept saying they would negotiate an individual payment plan for everyone. One of our neighbors had a phone call with them where they gave them a compromise about April rent where they could choose that either the landlord would waive the minor processing fee or give him five extra days to pay rent and in full. That was their payment plan.
We knew that if we didn’t stick together, that if we each individually tried to negotiate with them, there wouldn’t really be a negotiation. And this is why we realized we have to do collective bargaining. So that was their tactic for a while, to call people up individually. Of course, it’s not written down and so they can say whatever on the phone call. There’s no written record.
They can make threats, which they’ve done.
Yeah. They can make empty promises. We’ve learned from our neighbors that there’s a history of them doing that, of forcing people to have conversations over the phone, without a written record. Another neighbor of ours was on the phone with someone from management, who told them that doing this rent strike and not paying their rent was going to hurt their rental history, was going to ruin their credit.
That it was going to give them trouble for finding another home in the future, which suggests a blacklist.
And that they were going to start getting rental applications from other people, which is a veiled way of saying, “We’re going to evict you.”
And then there was a follow-up email that was like, “Great talking to you. Can’t wait to continue our excellent tenant-landlord relationship.”
But then there was a day where multiple tenants in the building reported to each other they were smelling gas. So one tenant called the management company to say there might be a gas leak. And the only response — the first acknowledgment of our rent strike — was “Well, where’s your rent payment? The landlord is not accepting your rent strike.” And then that kind of pushed forward some actual acknowledgment that we were striking.
Eventually, a neighbor called National Grid. They came, inspected the boiler room, and confirmed there was a gas leak, which the landlords had ignored because of the strike.
How have you responded to the landlord’s efforts at evasion and intimidation?
We made a list of violations, like building code violations and things like that, so there’s a paper trail.
If we have negotiations with the landlord about repairs, we will present this list and basically say, “If you want our rent, you also have to meet these repair demands.” We’re documenting their various tactics on paper, and the hope is to keep it in reserve in case we end up going to court to show that the landlord was not acting in good faith and was refusing to negotiate with us. And we could also use it to show the landlord and say, if you want to take this to court, we will present these things to the judge, and it does not make you look good.
We’re just building up more evidence for our side and if we need to end up actually using it, we will. But hopefully, just us having it will prevent a situation from having to go as far as going to court.
That was April. What was the strategy going into May? What are your hopes for how this rent strike will turn out?
We’ve spoken with a lawyer a few times about what we should do, what our rights are, what our tactics can be. And we also recently had a conversation with our state senator, Julia Salazar, about upcoming legislation.
She said the legislature is expecting to move forward on legislation in about two weeks, once the next federal bill comes through. But she said getting it through Cuomo’s office is likely to be a bottleneck.
It’s nice to have politicians that feel sincerely connected to their communities and share our criticism of the current government. But she couldn’t make any promises, so we need to be prepared for the likely possibility that no legislation will pass. If it doesn’t pass this time, we will continue to push for it. But we will also continue our tenant organizing.
In April, we had hoped that through withholding rent, we were putting pressure on our landlords to put pressure on legislators. But now our demands are clearer. Whether or not legislation has passed, we want forgiveness of rent for all who are affected by COVID-19, the forgiveness of all late fees, no legal repercussions or retaliation, the completion of outstanding repairs (which are numerous), a full building cleaning, and recognition of our tenants’ union.
And management ceasing its insistence on one-on-one communication and instead communicating through our official tenants’ association.
Our hope with our strike is that because we are leveraging our power as tenants and withholding rent, and because there’s enough people who are doing that in solidarity, that our demands will be met.
But we feel that our tenants’ association isn’t just for this rent strike. It grew out of it, but it is something that we intend to keep around for a while. We all know each other now as tenants and as people who have each other’s backs.
How do you see this building-wide strike connecting to similar struggles around the city?
There was a citywide call for a rent strike in April, but now it’s bigger.
Along with other strikes, too. There are labor strikes and of course May Day being the International Workers’ Day, a day of strikes. Now it’s coalesced to a larger movement. There are a lot more organizations and politicians getting behind this. It is a wonderful thing, and it feels like it is becoming stronger. Hopefully, all this pressure, and the continuation of the strike from April to May, and saying that as long as we need to, we’re going to keep continuing the strike — hopefully this will help pass some sort of legislation, or pressure the landlords to compromise with us.
But it’s taken two months for the legislators to do nothing. We cannot keep waiting for the state to do something. What we can hope from this isn’t just state legislation, but it’s also heightened worker and tenant recognition of their own power.
Another exciting thing for me has been to see the kind of clear interconnections between movements that are happening today because of COVID-19. So we see a call for Housing for All. You see a push to abolish prisons and jails and to release people who are currently incarcerated because of the unlivable conditions and inability to socially distance. And so housing is incredibly relevant there, because people need access to safe housing when they’re released. And then you also have the connections with the workers’ movement, like if people don’t have safe access to work or are out of work when they are sick then they can’t pay the rent.
And the fact that a lot of people are putting their lives at risk, but continue to work because they need to pay rent. And the rent situation being what it has been for the last few decades in New York City, getting more and more expensive and unaffordable. This pandemic has revealed all of the injustices that have been happening with housing, with labor, in prisons, and health care. In that sense, it’s not anything really new. These are problems that have existed. They’ve just gotten worse.
Even though it feels like we’re kind of acting in crisis mode, we’re really just preparing for organizing in the future, during climate change and as crises continue to worsen.
And I hope that, no matter what, whether any legislation is passed, tenants realize their power when they come together and do direct action. This is the great lesson from study of the history of tenant activism. Early in the twentieth century, people realized that, while landlords had a lot of money, they were few in numbers. Tenants have strength in numbers. They knew they couldn’t wait for the state to pass legislation. Instead they came together and demanded affordable rent, repairs, and good leases.
All of this came out of tenants in New York City creating a mass movement of rent strikes and protests against housing injustice that eventually put enough pressure not only on landlords but the courts and the state legislature to pass rent control laws and tenant protections. If it wasn’t for thousands of people in the early part of the century doing all of these huge rent strikes and mass movements, we wouldn’t have any rent controls or any tenant protections.
One hope out of that is that neighborhood-wide tenants’ unions can be formed. Some neighborhoods already have historic tenants’ unions, like the Ridgewood tenants’ union. But there could be a whole Brooklyn tenants’ union, to really have mass tenants’ unions that are both pushing their building’s landlords and putting pressure on their management companies, and then building cross-neighborhood solidarity.
If that happens, New York could become more affordable and a tenant-friendly city. This would greatly help the larger movement to empower communities of neighbors and workers citywide.