As unemployment soars across the country, tenants rights groups and community nonprofits have rallied around an audacious goal: to persuade the government to halt rent and mortgage payments — without back payments accruing — for as long as the economy is battered by the coronavirus.
The effort has been brewing on social media, with the hashtag #CancelRent and online video rallies, as well as a smattering of in-person protests, frequently held in cars to maintain social distancing.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, offered a fervent endorsement of the campaign, encouraging her progressive base to embrace a movement to upend the housing market.
“It’s not that it’s impossible to do and it’s not that we can’t do it,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in a live video on her Facebook page on Monday. “We lack enough politicians with political will to actually help people who are tenants and actually help people who are mom-and-pop landlords.”
But in New York and other cities, landlords say they too are struggling to pay their bills since many tenants have already been unable to pay rent. They call the advocates’ efforts reckless and say that withholding rent would create cascading consequences, including leaving property owners without the means to pay mortgages and property taxes or to maintain buildings.
Still, from New York to Kansas City to Los Angeles, groups are encouraging tenants to withhold payments on Friday, the due date for May rent, aiming to create pressure for an expansion of affordable housing and tenant-friendly legislation.
To cancel rent and mortgage payments, the federal government would have to take sweeping and possibly unconstitutional intervention in the housing and financial markets, interceding in private contracts and ordering banks and landlords not to collect money.
While the prospect of this happening is low, the campaigns are less about pushing a particular piece of legislation and more about kindling a mass movement akin to the Occupy Wall Street protests that followed the 2008 financial crisis.
“Rent is not being paid, and the organizing strategy is figuring out how we rally around that and politicize it for our benefit,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of the Homes Guarantee campaign of People’s Action, a national network of local advocacy organizations.
Groups from California to New York have amassed a sizable following of renters who say they will skip May rent. They have also received a boost from progressive members of Congress, who introduced a cancel rent bill.
“It’s a moment that people are literally rising up for real transformation in the housing market,” said Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All, a New York group.
Though nascent, the movement has alarmed landlords, especially smaller property owners who say that they, like many of their tenants, also survive month to month.
“When government officials say, ‘Cancel rent,’” said Jay Martin, the executive director of Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents 4,000 New York City landlords, “they are essentially saying that we are canceling the ability for you to pay the bills we are putting on you.”
Mr. Martin said that if tenants’ rights organizers wanted to target a main driver of high housing costs, they should encourage elected officials to cut property taxes. A recent report by the New York City’s Rent Guidelines Board said that about 30 percent of a landlord’s expenses for rent-regulated apartments go toward property taxes.
New York, which has more housing units than any place in the United States, is a city of renters: There are nearly 2.2 million rental units in the city. Mr. Martin said that no landlord he knows would want to evict a tenant in this economy.
“Landlords are being made the scapegoat for all the problems,” he said.
Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 landlords in New York City, warned that a rent strike would “create an economic and housing pandemic.”
“The city and its residential housing landscape will crumble into an economic abyss worse than the 1970s, when New York was the national poster child for urban blight,” Mr. Strasburg said.
As bad as the economy is, rental payments in April were better than many landlords expected.
As businesses laid off employees, property owners reported a steep drop in rent collections, with close to a third of tenants behind as of the first week of April, according to a survey by the National Multifamily Housing Council, a trade group for big apartment owners.
But by month’s end, after stimulus payments and unemployment checks started flowing, the nationwide nonpayment rate was only three percentage points below where it was a year ago.
Still, those numbers probably understate the stress, as various surveys show that landlords have deferred rent, offered concessions or used security deposits to cover missed payments. And tenants have increasingly used credit cards to cover their bills.
Vinicia Barber, 39, who lost her nanny job for a family in New York City that decided to move to California during the pandemic, said that she has decided to join the rent strike.
She pays $1,877 for a rent-stabilized apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that she shares with her 14-year-old daughter. There is mold growing on the bathroom walls, and they cannot open windows because of the stench of garbage behind the building, she said.
“Something needs to change,” Ms. Barber said. “If it’s not now during the Covid-19 epidemic, then I don’t know what it’s going to take for the governor and mayor to do something.”
Rent strike or not, tens of millions of people will be under severe rent stress in May.
Looking to rally people digitally, on Thursday, the Action Center on Race & the Economy, which acts as a campaign hub for advocacy organizations, unveiled WeStrikeTogether.org, a website that will accumulate the various May rent strikes into a nationwide heat map.
People who sign up will be directed to a list of resources and be routed to local housing organizations to try and build more support for the #CancelRent campaign.
“The traditional definition of a rent strike is someone who is choosing not to pay for whatever reason, and we’re defining it more broadly here to help people see that it’s a political choice not to help folks who can’t pay rent,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of the action center.
It’s not as if tenants have lacked support: The $2 trillion CARES Act distributed expanded unemployment insurance and the stimulus payments, along with aid to public-housing providers and grants that states can use for rental assistance.
Still, tenant organizers and landlords are pushing for direct housing assistance.
Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which would relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent, transfer mortgages to the federal government and allow landlords to recoup their rent costs — but only if they agree to a vast new regulatory program that includes a rent freeze and the inability to collect back payments.