Waves of rent strikes have washed over America since March when the coronavirus pandemic began, with hundreds of thousands of tenants demanding that rent be cancelled during the pandemic. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to see tenants fighting against landlord demands for rent payments during a financial crisis that has the city at its epicenter. On Friday, renters across the state have organized a national day of action calling on leaders to cancel rent, taking both to the streets and to social media using the hashtag #CancelRent to draw attention to the crises that people around the country are facing.
According to Rebecca Garrard, a campaigns manager for HJ4A with Citizen Action of New York who was at Cuomo's residence this morning, the group's intention was to "highlight Cuomo's inaction on protecting tenants and coming up with a plan for already houseless people," she told Refinery29. "It was important to have a banner drop at his residence so that he couldn't ignore the message. He needs to stop prioritizing billionaires and start prioritizing the most affected people, because it's right at his doorstep."
The organizers specifically called out the governor for living in a home with 40 rooms and two swimming pools on six acres of land and still not assisting in the rent crisis that is spanning the state. According to them, Cuomo's actions have forced New Yorkers facing unprecedented financial burdens to strike in a place that boasts one of the highest renting markets.
“What we’re trying to do today is call attention to the fact that we’re approaching June 1 and this is going to be the third month that rent is due since the economy is shut down and Cuomo has failed to provide any real solutions for renters and for New Yorkers who don’t have housing,” Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, tells Refinery29.
Moratoriums on rent have been put in place across New York, meaning that there will be no evictions allowed through August 20, as enacted by Cuomo. The rent requirement still stands, though, and those that refuse or aren't able to pay rent may be the subject of legal actions from landlords in August — or even sooner. With no overall rent cancelations issued, rent payment becomes more of a wide-scale issue with more people losing income each day due to the pandemic.
A survey from Make the Road that was first put out in April and then again in May found that five out of ten people who participated were not able to pay rent in April and nine out of ten people were not able to pay rent in May.
“People in our communities were already working paycheck to paycheck and so all people are doing at this point is accumulating rent. We don’t know if people are going to be able to get their jobs back, and people are not going to be able to pay that debt," says Jennifer Hernández, the lead organizer with Make the Road. “We have over 60 members who have died due to COVID, and a lot of our folks have been laid off, have no jobs or income and because they’re undocumented, they haven’t been able to tap into the stimulus."
Housing Justice for All — which is a statewide coalition with over 70 groups from all over New York — seeks to strengthen tenants’ rights. In addition to trying to get Cuomo’s attention, organizers are also seeking to get the attention of the New York state legislature, which is currently in session for two more weeks and is negotiating plans for renters.
“We hope that we can count on the legislature to stand up for rent because we don’t feel we can count on Cuomo. There are three branches of government here and they all matter, but the governor has been ignoring us, and the state legislature can step up and do the right thing,” Weaver says. HJ4A is calling out Blackstone, one of the billion dollar corporations that owns one of the largest portions of rental units in New York including Stuyvesant Town, for its “greed” as well, according to Weaver.
As people working in New York are facing lay-offs at alarming rates, signs have appeared across the state as a unified call to action — including in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, upstate in Albany, in Westchester County, and in Corona Plaza. HJ4A explains that forgiving rent and mortgage debt that’s accumulating during the pandemic is the only way to “keep New Yorkers in their homes and stabilize our economy and our state.”
Refinery29 reached out to Gov. Cuomo's office for comment. We will update this story as we know more.