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Cancel Rent and End Evictions! Tenants Unions Across NYC Fight Against Landlords

Tenants unions across New York City are fighting against the racist housing policies of Governor Coumo and Mayor De Blasio through rent strikes and direct actions.

Kimberly Ann

July 8, 2020
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On July 5th, three more buildings went on rent strike in the Crown Heights neighborhood. On Sunday evening, the Crown Heights Tenants Union marched to all three addresses, making speeches to the crowds gathered outside and passing out rent strike information to curious neighbors. 

One building on Prospect Place, is on strike against infamous landlord Zalmen Biederman. Biederman has a history of illegally turning rent stabilized apartments into “market value” housing, creating housing that in some cases quadruples the cost of its original rent. The massive spike in rent is imposed without making any much-needed improvements to the homes themselves; some apartments come with infestations and utility problems that make the apartment uninhabitable. Calls from tenants to address the issues are often ignored and unresolved. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, a quarter of New Yorkers have been unable to pay rent in May alone, even after the  $1200 stimulus check and boosted unemployment benefits. It must be said that these benefits were not accessible to undocumented immigrants or those that work in “off-the-books” industries such as sex work. And by the end of this month, the unemployment bump will be taken away from the majority of the unemployed workforce who have very few options of work in this depressed economy. By the beginning of August, evictions will resume as normal, forcing a massive portion of New Yorkers onto the streets during a still raging pandemic. These evictions will disproportionately affect the Black and Brown community, hastening the already rapid gentrification of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods. 

Tenant unions around Brooklyn have already brought 50 buildings into the massive rent strike movement. Rent Strike tactics have been an uphill battle to organize. Going on strike means a lot of discussion with neighbors and members of the community at large. Many tenants unions and housing justice organizations across the boroughs of New York City have created How-To guides on rent striking. The main goal is to talk to all the occupants of buildings and get a dialogue going. Once in conversation, a quick look at landlord’s and management’s rental history often shows a long list of violations and abuse practices geared towards gentrification. Landlords make a profit by commodifying basic human rights, and New York City has gleefully been handing out tax breaks to these slumlords for years in hopes of turning every neighborhood into a gentrified and sanitized version of its former self, more palatable for wealthy, white newcomers.

Many hope these rent strikes will pressure on these large management companies to force the New York State legislature to provide protections for tenants. Currently, Coumo has created protections from the economic insecurity brought on by the pandemic for everyone but the tenants. Home-owners and large building management firms are not forced to make any housing related payments and in some cases are given massive tax breaks. Renters, a population more likely to be working class and BIPOC, are given nothing but the promise that they will not be evicted for a few months. However, the eviction moratorium is up in only a few weeks, and without any cancellation of rent, many landlords have already begun to jam the housing courts with a massive onslaught of eviction notices. 

Currently, evictions will not begin until early August. However, the neoliberal government with far reaching ties to the Real Estate industry granted an insidious loophole. Evictions may proceed if the tenant has “not been affected by COVID-19.” The burden of proof falls hardest on those that live under the government’s radar, those that are undocumented or rely on off-the-books income. 

Another “relief” option for tenants is a law that allows them to pay back the rent, in full, once employed. This disastrous relief bill allows debt collectors to garnish wages and put tenants in massive debt. Tenants in working class neighborhoods already spend 50% of their income on housing, living paycheck to paycheck. This is an unsustainable form of economic violence, hidden behind the facade of “pandemic relief.” 

On July 7th, Housing Justice advocates, led by the tenants unions held actions outside of various Housing Courts across the city, protesting these egregious inequalities. Tenants spoke out against their landlords, their rent strikes, and against the capitalist system as a whole that upholds commodification of basic human needs. Over 100 people came out, along with Scabby the Rat, to condemn evictions and demand rent cancellation.

In addition to these actions, as well as rent strikes, it is essential to mobilize unions and workers organized in workplaces against evictions and for rent cancellation. Organizing work stoppages and walkouts demanding an end to austerity, uniting the fight against layoffs, cuts, evictions and police violence will be essential to the success of the movement. As a first step, unions should put out statements demanding rent cancellation and an end to all evictions. 

The paltry economic cushions the government has given people are ending very soon. The impending housing crisis is only a few months away. In a failing economy, there are more empty luxury condos than homeless people. And yet, the Real Estate industry is planning on evicting tenants onto the streets during a pandemic, only adding to the housing crisis. Just last night, a landlord illegally evicted tenants from their home, locking them out. In a show of solidarity, hundreds of people have come to fight against the eviction, gathering in shifts, unwilling to let a greedy capitalist force tenants into homelessness. 

June saw the largest mass mobilization of protests in American history. People took to the streets against police brutality, in solidarity with the Black and Brown community that are targeted at higher rates by the racist systemic violence of the police. Housing justice is another form of police state brutality. Evictions are enforced by the police in protection of “assets” and in defiance of basic human rights. These evictions will also disproportionately affect the Black and Brown community, already hit hardest by COVID-19. 

Evictions have only just begun.  Communities are coming together, willing to barricade landlords and police officers from forcing homelessness onto our neighbors. Entire buildings are coming together to withhold rent from slumlords. The economic downfall from the pandemic has exacerbated the housing crisis that exists for the profit of landlords. It’s a system that the neoliberal, Democrat-dominated government of New York hold up. Take up the fight and join your local tenants union. If you are in a labor union, demand that your union call for rent cancellation and an end to evictions. Join the growing housing mobilizations. A capitalist system that puts profit over human need is a system that must be fought and crushed. 

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Kimberly Ann

Kimberly is an educator and writer for Left Voice

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