Coronavirus Rent Strike in the Bay Area: Tenants ‘Giving the Governor Notice’

Terra Thomas poses for a portrait with a 'Rent Strike' banner hanging at her apartment building in Oakland on April 1, 2020. Thomas is withholding her rent this month because she doesn't think it's fair to have to decide between rent and food. "That’s a choice that a lot of people are having to make this month,” she said. She isn't able to work right now and said, "I love my job. I would really love to be working." (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

April 1 is the day rent is due for many around the Bay Area, but in the midst of a statewide shelter-in-place order, many are hard pressed to pay. Instead of suffering silently, however, some Bay Area tenants are launching a campaign to withhold rent.

A group of at least 20 calling themselves rent strikers are issuing Gov. Gavin Newsom their own 30-day notice to cancel all rent and mortgage payments during the current public health crisis. If he fails to act, renters across the state are planning to withhold rent payments beginning on May 1.

“Today we are giving the governor notice,” said Terra Thomas, a florist in Oakland who is now without work.

At the beginning of the year, Thomas was fully booked with floral work until December, but now all of her events have been canceled through June.

“I have essentially lost my job because of the COVID-19 crisis. ... This is a matter of survival. Either we eat or we pay rent,” Thomas said. “No one should have to choose between food and housing. ... I'm striking for my neighbors, and I'm striking for our community, and I'm striking because I can't pay.”

According to Anya Svanoe, communications director with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) at least 20 tenants in Oakland are striking today by refusing to pay April rent, but they expect many more by the end of the month.

Carroll Fife, the director of ACCE, said, “It's really a signal to other people that they're not alone. It's a symbol of resistance.” ACCE is working with a coalition of people and organizations to “shift this whole housing paradigm,” Fife added.

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Ricky Zepeda, 44, lives in Richmond with his spouse and adult children. Most of his family members have been laid off or had their hours reduced. He said he will most likely strike on May 1.

“Before it wasn’t a struggle, but now it is either spend the money you do have saved up on rent or keep saving it and see how long it will last. Now it is survival mode,” Zepeda said. “If there’s no money coming in, how are you gonna do it?”

Unemployment insurance claims soared in March and during the week ending March 21. A total of 187,000 people in California filed for unemployment according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and some expect unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic to be higher than during the Great Depression.

“If we look at 2008 and how much money the banks got bailed out, like entire industries were built out while people languished,” Fife said. “We're saying no, we're not going to let that happen again, we will stop this entire economy.”

“It's up to the people to decide what kind of society that we want to live in. ... The people that are reaching out to us want something drastically and dramatically different,” Fife added.

Fife said ACCE has been using rent strikes as a tactic for a long time – most recently to exert pressure on the landlord of a building on 29th Avenue in Oakland. After months of striking, the landlord agreed to negotiate a sale price with the Oakland Community Land Trust, an organization that acquires and maintains affordable housing.

Fife hopes the current rent strike can further the movement for housing as a human right that Moms 4 Housing recently helped energize.

She said many of the people she’s talked to have limited options. Some are waiting for a bailout check, and others won't benefit from the recently enacted Federal Stimulus bill, either because they are undocumented, college students or didn’t make enough money to qualify.

An 'Oakland Rent Strike' banner on an apartment building Oakland on April 1, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“There's a host of individuals that this [stimulus bill] won't cover and won't protect. What happens to them?” Fife asked. “There are very few options that we have to respond to this pandemic and people are choosing to feed their family.”

Though many of those who are striking are renters, Fife and ACCE have organized with a group of landlords who call themselves “property owners for fair and affordable housing.”

She said a few landlords have asked her, “Where do we get our moratorium? Because no one's going to freeze our mortgage, and no one's going to freeze our sewer payments and our garbage pickup and all of the things that go along with mortgage payments?”

FIfe is looking to explore that, too. “Mom-and-pop landlords should also be bailed out in the same way that banks were bailed out [in the past],” she said.

Oakland florist Thomas warned that “some of us are striking today, but millions more will be forced to strike on May 1 if the government doesn’t step up.”

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