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May New York Rent Strike Made Noise But Fell Far Short Of Participation Goal

As landlords caught first glimpses of what May rent collections will look like Friday, tenant activist groups in New York followed through on their promise of a rent strike to pressure lawmakers to cancel rent amid the statewide shutdown, but they fell far short of their participation goal.

A #CancelRent protester in Albany on May 1.

The strike, organized by New York Communities For Change and the Upstate-Downstate Alliance campaign New York Housing Justice for All, brought together a few thousands renters withholding monthly payments after an initial goal of organizing a million strikers by May Day.

Statewide, 50 buildings had between 30% and 70% of tenants participating in the strikes, and roughly half of the tenants occupying 2,000 units across those buildings didn’t pay rent, Housing Justice For All Campaign Coordinator Cea Weaver said. Smaller groups of renters from an additional 45 buildings also went on rent strike.

The relatively low number of participants still made an impact on the public debate. Tenants across the state sent letters to their landlords stating they wouldn't pay rent. Some draped large sheets with signs that read “Cancel Rent” out their apartment windows in Queens and the Bronx. In Albany, protesters stood outside the doors of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing in the New York State Capitol with posters and blowhorns, urging him to take action to cancel rent statewide.

Data and most anecdotal evidence for May rent collection have yet to come in, but the strike in New York City disproportionately impacted small-property owners, Community Housing Improvement Program Executive Director Jay Martin said Monday. The two CHIP member landlords that have notified the landlord lobbying group that their rent collection had been impacted by the site were two smaller-property owners, he said. 

“A rent strike is not a solution we need,” Martin said. “It gives it a lot less flexibility to those in need. You’re actually hurting your fellow tenants that can’t pay.” 

The rent strike will make it more difficult for landlords to help those who need it, he added, by reducing their ability to pay for expenses like property taxes, building supervisors and emergency repairs.

But Weaver said the majority of people who participated in the strike said they couldn't make the rent anyway.

“You can’t pay rent with money that you don’t have,” she said. “It’s going to take months, years for the economy to recover. … People don’t have the money.” 

Rent strikes are a rare step for an activism campaign to take, Weaver said, but the situation has gotten so dire that the campaign made the decision to encourage the drastic action. 

Meanwhile, property owners are facing a dire situation of their own, they say. In April, there was a 10% to 20% drop in collection rates in New York, according to a CHIP survey. Small-property owners have said they are at risk of losing their properties to their lenders if their tenants refuse to pay rent.

In fear of losing their buildings, landlords in New York City have started their own protest group: Some 1,500 have signed a petition that calls on Mayor Bill de Blasio to enact property tax relief or the landlords will boycott the tax, the petition states. 

In Queens, some of the tenants who participated in the strike live in apartments owned by Zara Realty Holding Co., according to Housing Justice For All. 

“As property managers, we have been working day and night to ensure that our tenants are kept safe,” Zara Realty said in a statement to Bisnow. “As such, we need to pay utility bills to keep the lights on, pay staff to continue cleaning our buildings and make necessary safety repairs, as well as pay our mortgage and property tax obligations so that we can continue to provide safe, quality affordable housing for tenants.”

Legislators have been sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, Weaver said, but Cuomo hasn't budged. Weaver told The Real Deal in April that the strikers were targeting buildings whose landlords allegedly have ties to Cuomo to put added pressure on him to act. She declined to say which buildings.

With protesters audibly disrupting his briefing Friday, Cuomo was asked by a reporter to respond to the protest, which she said continued out the building and down the street. He said he understood where the protesters were coming from, but he had no plans to reconsider his policy.

“What we’re doing is, no one can be evicted for nonpayment of rent between now and June," he said. "If a person can’t pay their rent because of the situation, that is the law until June, and between now and June, we’ll figure it out in June.”