Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

It’s an issue that touches Americans all over the country.

What started as a loosely organized online community on Facebook—where tenants of Alma Realty buildings in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn traded information relevant to the buildings or bought and sold used furniture—eventually grew into a more formal organization as tenants began asking each other about possible rent relief and other coronavirus-related upsets. 

The group, now called the Taaffe Tenant Association, is trying to use its collective bargaining power to negotiate with landlords for rent relief and other considerations amid the pandemic. 

It’s an issue that touches Americans all over the country. In the past nine weeks, more than 38 million people have filed unemployment claims across the country because of the economic impact of the pandemic. According to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, almost one-quarter of respondents said they had little or no confidence that they would be able to pay their rent or mortgage in June.

“Huge numbers of people are facing issues,” Casey Berkovitz, a spokesperson for the Taaffe Tenants Association, told COURIER. “You know, losing a job, losing some income, health issues, whatever it is, and solidarity with our neighbors is the most important thing we can have right now. And so what’s driven our growth, and this push to get organized, is this idea that if we work together we can try to help each other.”

RELATED: Tens of Thousands of Tenants Are Planning the Largest Rent Strike in Decades

Tenants’ efforts to come together strike a different tone compared to that of leaders in Congress. Earlier this month, House Democrats passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill that includes money to help renters and homeowners pay mortgages, rent, and other housing costs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, refused to take up the bill before adjourning lawmakers for the Memorial Day weeklong recess. President Trump called the legislation “dead on arrival.”

Meanwhile, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, alongside Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and others, introduced legislation in April that would cancel all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic. The bill, which currently sits in a House committee, would also set up a relief fund for landlords, with restrictions, including a five-year moratorium on rent increases. 

Supporters say that in light of the historic rise in unemployment, such legislation is necessary to prevent a homelessness crisis. Particularly in cities like New York, where housing costs are high and more than half of residents are renters, the increased financial insecurity could eventually lead to mass evictions.

“When this pandemic ends, so will eviction moratoriums — and families with overdue rent and mortgage payments will lose their homes,” Omar tweeted. “We must act now to #CancelRent and mortgage payments so we don’t have to face even more economic fallout later.”

On Friday, organizers with Housing Justice for All in New York and other protesters gathered in front of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mansion to demand the governor and other leaders cancel rent. 

As one of the organizers told Refinery29, their goal was to “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.” 

Similar #CancelRent demonstrations took place in Washington, D.C., the Bay Area, and Jersey City.

While housing advocates all over the country are calling for leaders to cancel rent, others are trying to work with the tools they have. 

“We’re not requiring tenants and association members to withhold rent,” said Berkowitz of the Taaffe Tenants Association. “We’re asking them to. But if you live in one of these buildings, we see you as a member regardless of what your particular economic situation is.” He said the organization is not formally rent striking, but is instead withholding rent as economic leverage to force the landlords to the bargaining table. 

Berkowitz estimated that the association had actively made contact with at least two-thirds of renters in Alma Realty’s 325 units across five buildings, and getting a sense of how many renters are committed to withholding rent “until we find a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Recently, Gov. Cuomo extended an eviction moratorium through Aug. 20 (with some exceptions). Rent freeze advocates have criticized the move as an inefficient stopgap measure that only delays the inevitable. But Berkowitz said the lengthened eviction suspension is actually a major help to the association’s negotiations.

“We think it’s a huge boost for us, particularly for tenants. It gives us a lot more time to try to find a solution with Alma that works for everybody,” Berkowitz said. “Advocates across the city and the state are saying that they need to go further, and that some sort of actual financial release from the state is still missing, which is 100 percent true,” he said. But as far as the association’s goals go, he explained, the lengthened eviction freeze provides some much-needed additional time and security. 

Taaffe Tenants Association is negotiating with Alma Realty for a set of specific demands, he explained. “We asked for three months’ rent credit, which at the time aligned with the eviction moratorium, a guarantee of no rent increases, and automatic renewals on expiring leases,” Berkowitz said. He also noted that they asked for no late fees, as well as general maintenance and cleanliness, in response to the pandemic.

The only demand Alma Realty has acquiesced to so far is to eliminate late fees. While the landlords at least responded to the organization’s emails, Berkowitz said negotiations have stalled. “They’ve said thanks for reaching out. But thus far, they have continued to insist that the tenants reach out to them individually,” he said. “And we’ve said we’re communicating as a collective, and that’s where we are at the moment.” 

By forcing tenants to negotiate for relief on an individual basis only, the landlords undercut the power of the tenant association’s efforts to work together as a unified group. 

Alma Realty has not responded to request for comment. 

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Without the support of the federal government or new legislation, tenants associations such as this one must rely on existing legal protections for tenants’ rights. Landlords are not legally able to penalize tenant association members, and the law protects associations’ right to withhold rent as a way to put pressure on landlords—but landlords still have the right to sue individual renters for nonpayment, which means there is still a risk for individuals. 

Something has to be done, Sally Richardson, a professor at Tulane Law School, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “People who have not been able to earn an income for the past two months — and potentially for the next few months, depending on how the pandemic continues — will simply not have sufficient financial resources to make up two, three, four months of lost rent or mortgage payments,” she said.

“If the housing system collapses, that will have long-term effects that will last much longer than COVID-19,” she continued. “The worst thing would be to turn what has been a major public health crisis into a major housing crisis.”