California Tenants Will Go on a Rent Strike if the State Falls Short of Cancelling Rent

Laid-off workers say they face insurmountable debt and homelessness if they have to pay back months of rent after the pandemic.

California Tenants Will Go on a Rent Strike if the State Falls Short of Cancelling Rent

Laid-off workers say they face insurmountable debt and homelessness if they have to pay back months of rent after the pandemic.

Tenants across California are poised to launch a rent and mortgage strike on May 1 if state leaders fail to provide immediate rent relief to residents who have lost their income due to COVID-19.

California Governor Gavin Newsom handed down an executive order one month ago banning the enforcement of evictions until May 31, after stay-at-home orders shut down businesses and unemployment claims surged. But renters, activists, and legal advocates were quick to point out that the measure doesn’t provide rent relief—residents will still owe back rent after stay-at-home orders are lifted. Over the past month, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment has been organizing a movement of both tenants and landlords who are seeking lasting rent relief from the state government.

“It’s only a matter of time before—at least in California—[state leaders] are forced to reconcile with the fact that people cannot pay, and will not be able to pay, and they can’t be putting people in excruciating debt that they’ll never be able to come out of,” said Anya Svanoe, communications director for the ACCE Institute. Thousands of people have joined the movement through digital advertisements, mass email, and text campaigns from ACCE in the last month, according to Svanoe. 

Before the pandemic, California already had a dire housing crisis. The state is home to the largest number of unsheltered residents in the entire country, exacerbated by an increasing income gap where the 90th percentile of earners make $262,000 annually, compared to $21,000 for the bottom 10 percent. More than 1 in 5 households in the state spend more than half their income on housing, and are considered “severely rent burdened” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Over half of low-income households are severely rent-burdened. 

Patricia Mendoza, who lives in Imperial Beach, San Diego, with her two children, is among this group. She is a single mother and regularly makes just enough in a month to pay for rent, utilities, and groceries, and provide bare necessities for her 17-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.

Mendoza worked as a nonemergency medical transporter for three years—taking mostly elderly citizens to cancer treatments, dialysis appointments, and physical checkups—when appointments began to dry up in late March following the shelter-in-place order. She was fired in April after the transports dwindled to virtually zero, and is yet to receive unemployment benefits or a stimulus check through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“My kids don’t ask me for more than they know I have, they know the struggle,” said Mendoza, who has been grappling with anxiety and depression as she figures out how to access resources for her family. “They know that we get what we get and they don’t throw a fit. As long as they don’t go hungry, I’m good.”

Mendoza was able to push back against her landlord’s demands for a payment plan with ACCE. She wasn’t able to pay rent in April, and will continue the strike in May. 

Terra Thomas, an Oakland resident of seven years, also began her strike one month ago after losing her entire income. She’s a florist at weddings and regularly prepares for the offseason in the first months of the year so she can afford rent, but now doesn’t know when she’ll ever get work again. She’s technically a freelancer, and hasn’t received unemployment or stimulus benefits either. 

“Even if I was able to get a wedding every day, and work for every day the moment the crisis was over—even if that were possible, which it’s 100 percent not—I still wouldn’t be able to afford the missed months of rent,” said Thomas, who was born and raised in the Bay Area, and spent years building up her business and clientele locally. She doesn’t know where else she could go, and worries she’ll be “penniless” by the time the pandemic is over. 

The tenants in her building were already organized before COVID-19, and Thomas said nearly 50 percent of the units are now striking with ACCE. Their large corporate landlord has had to lay off maintenance and support staff since the pandemic began, and Thomas said the company has sent “manipulative and cruel” letters suggesting the tenants are to blame. She stressed that the strike isn’t “vindictive,” and it’s unproductive to demonize low-wage workers, instead of focusing on structural change and the actions of billion-dollar corporations.

Along with activists in California, New York, and Philadelphia, politicians nationwide have joined the fight for rent cancellation. In late March, the Seattle City Council called on the state to cancel rent. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced legislation on April 17 to cancel rent and mortgage payments nationwide during the pandemic. San Francisco Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney, along with city leaders across the state, have pushed for Newsom to enact the change statewide through an executive order. He hasn’t responded publicly to their demands, and his office didn’t return a request for comment.

“Thousands and thousands of people across the country did not—COULD not—pay rent or mortgage on April 1. We are about to see that happen again on May 1,” Ronen said. “Unless we cancel rent and mortgage payments now, we are going to see evictions and foreclosures and homelessness like never before. I am calling on the Governor to take action now.”

Newsom’s existing order gives tenants 60 days to respond to an eviction filing and defers to the state court system on when eviction orders can be processed, such as in cases of public safety.  Activists’ next step could be advocating for a federally supported rental assistance program based on need, or “emergency vouchers” sent directly to landlords, as proposed in New York City by New York state Senator Brian Kavanagh. 

According to a report from the Justice Collaborative Institute, 80 percent of voters across the board would support a sliding-scale rental assistance program as long as the state of emergency continues. (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.) This could ultimately be paid for with a “mansion-tax,” a kind of “transfer tax” already in effect in New York City, according to the report. The tax can be levied on existing single-family, owner-occupied homes; in New York City, it starts at 1 percent for those worth between $1 million and $1.9 million, and goes up to 3.9 percent on those worth $25 million or more. This would support renters and small landlords while accounting for the fact that the top 5 percent of earners in the United States own two-thirds of the country’s wealth, the report says. 

While the strike is a last-resort measure for many, others have been in negotiations with property owners long before the virus came to the United States. 

After months of mounting issues with exorbitant rent increases, neglected maintenance, and intimidation, 22 units in South Central Los Angeles began a rent strike in May 2019. Elizabeth Hernandez has lived in the complex for the last 10 years, and watched her friends in the two buildings dwindle down to only eight units. Several moved out due to harassment by the landlord, fears of deportation if they were to fight the evictions in court, and intractable living conditions. Only two are supported by Section 8 vouchers, a federal housing assistance program for lowest-income residents that was bolstered with the CARES Act.

“Every single person was crying [when they moved out],” said Hernandez, who is continuing her strike with ACCE. “It was heartbreaking to see everybody leaving.”

A legal battle with her landlord is on hold while Los Angeles County courts are closed for nonessential functions. When the region opens back up, Hernandez might receive an eviction notice. Her family of six would be split up between different relatives’ houses, and she wouldn’t be able to live two blocks from her mother, who’s currently on dialysis.

Olga Ford also lives in South Los Angeles, and, at 78 years old, is finally reaching her limit in a drawn-out battle with a landlord who sued his tenants before the court closure. Her rent jumped from $1,337 to $2,350 in four years at the property despite city restrictions, and she rallied her neighbors with support from ACCE to push back against her landlord. She found a new apartment recently and will be passing on the fight to her remaining neighbors.

“It’s too much hustling, and I cannot do it no more,” said Ford, who says she has been coping with arthritis and disabilities after a bad car crash in 2004. “I have to live contented now.”

The practices of individual landlords during the pandemic have gotten national attention, but many who are striking emphasize that they’re fighting for change on an institutional level, rather than to fuel conflict between property owners and their tenants. 

Dennis Beaver, an attorney in Bakersfield, was among the first wave of property owners nationwide to completely cancel rent for his tenants beginning in April. He inherited several properties from his parents, and acknowledged he has significantly more freedom than many who pay regular mortgages, but pointed to predatory landlords as a crucial factor in the homelessness crisis.

“I think it’s heartless of a landlord—who’s aware his tenants are not employed—to serve a three day notice on them, or to harass them in any way for what money they can pay,” said Beaver, who will be assessing his tenants on a case-by-case basis in the months to come. “It’s grossly unfair, it only damages any future relationship.”

Beaver doesn’t necessarily support the rent strike, and believes “it amounts to theft” if tenants  strike in solidarity when they are able to afford rent. He said, however, that it’s imperative “creative legislators” find an equitable way of supporting renters and landlords with federal assistance—especially to avoid the “snowball effect” of deferred mortgage payments offered by the CARES Act.

Whether or not Newsom responds with an immediate plan to support renters, housing precarity will continue to be an issue for the state’s residents well into the future. 

“Housing is a human right and should be treated as such,” Thomas said. “That’s what this strike is about. 

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