Coronavirus Catalyzes Tenant Organizing Across California

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A 'Rent Strike!' sign in the Mission District on March 31, 2020.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It started with a message Jason Krueger taped to the laundry room wall: “Tenant mutual aid and support!”

It was late March, and Krueger, who uses they/them pronouns, was looking for ways neighbors in their eight-unit Alameda apartment building could help each other during the pandemic. California’s shelter-in-place order had been in effect for a little over a week, but Krueger was already thinking of the recession that was sure to follow.

Millions would soon be out of work, so Krueger thought the next step would be to organize a rent strike — withholding rent as a form of protest.

“Here, of all the places, it seemed like rent strikes would be a life-preserving measure,” Krueger said. “I just don’t see how else you would get property owners to respond without that large level of collective action and solidarity.”

So, to start, Krueger decided to try to form a tenants' council, an organization representing residents in a single building, or who share the same landlord, to bargain collectively.

Krueger's not alone. Tenants' rights organizers say they are seeing more tenants, like Krueger, turn to collective action. And on Friday, hundreds of protests are planned across the country to decry high rents, mounting debt due to the pandemic and growing income inequality.

Discontent over growing financial inequality had already been simmering since the Great Recession. Now activists say the pandemic could be the spark that ignites a nationwide movement for housing affordability.

Jason Krueger posted this note in late March inside the laundry room to connect to tenants. (Photo courtesy Jason Krueger)

Nick Thacker, a tenant organizer with the Bay Area Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, or Bay TANC, said his organization has grown tenfold, from 25 members to around 240, since shelter-in-place orders were issued last month.

“For many people, the housing market was already a crisis in their lives,” Thacker said. “When the pandemic came down, it just brought that crisis much closer to many more people.”

As of April 18, nearly 3.3 million Californians had filed for unemployment insurance. And close to 11% of renters in the state weren’t able to pay rent at all in April, according to a recent Apartment List survey, a figure that property managers in the Bay Area expect to double next month.

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, is one in a coalition of groups across the state organizing a campaign to withhold rent in May with the goal of getting 10,000 Californians to participate.

Vanessa Bulnes, who lives in East Oakland, is withholding her May rent as part of the strike. The early-childhood educator lost her job when the shelter-in-place order began. She and her husband rely on her income to pay their $2,600 rent.

It’s not enough to simply suspend evictions during the shelter in place, Bulnes said.

“We’re asking for rent forgiveness,” she said, adding that without it, she and her husband could end up homeless. “We want to get back to a normal life.”

Vanessa Bulnes' children's day care center, which she runs out of her East Oakland home. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Cancel Rent

The rent strike is part of the so-called “cancel rent” movement, a national call to landlords, financial institutions and legislators to forgive rental or mortgage debt, and a continuation of similar strikes that occurred on April 1.

Maria Zamudio, associate director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, said tenants shouldn’t be forced to take on a mountain of debt due to the shelter-in-place orders that are meant to keep everyone safe.

“When people get laid off, that’s 100% lost income,” Zamudio said. “It’s not deferred income.”

But any effort to cancel rent entirely could run into legal roadblocks. UCLA law professor Scott Cummings said landlords could argue rent cancellation strips them of their property rights.

“It will invite challenges around taking property that landlords believe they have a vested interest in,” Cummings said.

Cummings said it’s not clear if local, state or federal governments have the power to break contracts between renters and property owners, or between financial institutions and mortgage holders, even during times of emergency.

“I think the idea of canceling rent is appealing politically and as a matter of solidarity,” he said. “But you do run into more significant legal problems.”

Terra Thomas hangs a 'Rent Strike' banner at her apartment building in Oakland on April 1, 2020. Thomas is withholding her rent in April because she doesn't think it's fair to have to decide between rent and food. She said, "That’s a choice that a lot of people are having to make this month.” Organizers are hoping more tenants will join the strike in May. (Beth LaBerge/KQED).

Cummings and others believe a more realistic — and legally feasible — option would be for the government to set up a renter relief fund, to provide financial support for tenants unable to make payments during shelter-in-place orders.

The California Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords, is calling on the state to do just that. Landlords need rental income to pay property taxes and maintain their buildings, among other expenses, said Sid Lakireddy, the group's president.

“If we stop paying our bills, there will be huge ripple effects on the economy,” he said.

In the meantime, the association has urged landlords to work with their tenants to get through the state of emergency. Jim Siegel, a property owner and owner of Distractions, a clothing store in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, has offered his tenants who were laid off or furloughed a 25% reduction in the rent, or the opportunity to repay the full balance within a year.

“Landlords are people, too,” Siegel said, “with expenses like everyone else.”

Aid on the Way?

In California, advocates are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order to forgive rent and mortgage debts, but he’s so far shown no signs he plans to do that. And legislators say it’s unlikely there will be support for a statewide fund to pay for missed rent.

California does have a $20 billion “rainy day” fund, but state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said that money will likely be used to prop up schools, hospitals, homeless services, mental health care and other social welfare programs where residents rely on the state. Unlike the federal government, California’s constitution requires legislators to approve a balanced budget each year, meaning it can’t take on debt to provide temporary relief.

“We will have to make very, very hard choices,” Wiener said. “That’s why it’s all the more important for the federal government to step up with even more stimulus, including strong support for states that cannot deficit spend.”

An 'Oakland Rent Strike' banner hangs in the window of a home in Oakland on April 1, 2020. Tenants' rights groups are organizing a second round of protests for May 1, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Wiener and Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, have co-authored legislation that would provide renters with some relief, while still acknowledging owners’ expenses. The bill offers a 25% rent reduction and calls on judges to impose a payment plan for tenants. It would only apply in cases where tenants are facing eviction.

In late March, Congress passed historic national emergency relief packages to fund hospitals, stabilize small businesses and bailout entire industries. But the 43 million Americans who rent their houses and apartments have so far been left out of those efforts. Needless to say, the $1,200 federal stimulus checks that many tenants are eligible for don’t go very far in the Bay Area: The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco was $3,094 in April, according to Apartment List.

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Meanwhile, a report from the Urban Institute estimates that struggling U.S. households with a job loss would need a boost of at least $100 billion to continue paying their rent during the pandemic.

“And it’ll just continue to grow if we don't find a permanent way of providing rental assistance to those renters that really need the assistance most,” said Urban Institute researcher Corianne Scally.

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U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, also recently introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which would include a federally financed relief fund to compensate landlords and mortgage holders for missed rent, extending through the pandemic for up to a year. However, it’s unlikely the bill will get much traction with a Republican-controlled Senate and White House both previously been opposed to such measures.

Local Action

In the meantime, tenants are largely working building-by-building to organize and respond to the needs of their neighbors. In Alameda, Jason Krueger threatened to withhold rent in an effort to help negotiate rent forgiveness for another neighbor, a woman in her 70s whose catering business was forced to close during the shelter-in-place order. As a result, the woman didn’t have to pay rent in April and will have reduced rent payments in May and June, Krueger said.

Krueger is working to convince neighbors to enter into a formal tenants’ council and then plans to pitch the idea to renters in the landlord’s 10 other buildings. Together, they might petition the landlord to remove the rental increase that was due to take place in April, Krueger said.

“I was wanting to take giant steps and do a strike and ask for a lot. But I learned that probably wasn't the best approach,” Krueger said.

Better to start with small steps, Krueger added, and build from there.

Tenant organizer Nick Thacker thinks the pandemic could be a turning point for a more unified tenants’ rights movement both within California and across the nation. As more tenants become organized, they will demand larger concessions from landlords.

“The contradictions in society are more apparent than ever before,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”

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