Rent strike wave makes its way to the D.C. Metro area
Ted S. Warren / AP

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Since the COVID-19 crisis has hit the United States and caused governors to place emergency “shelter-at-home” orders across their states, it has caused a dramatic disruption in the economy because little to no profits are being made for most major corporations. This has led to massive job loss, with a staggering 22 million Americans filing for unemployment in the past month, as well as to workers organizing against their employers’ poor, unsanitary working conditions in places like Amazon warehouses in New York and a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Timberville, Va. As a result of the layoffs, working-class people are not able to afford basic necessities such as food, housing, healthcare, etc., and are beginning to organize their apartment complexes to delay paying rent and to fight for forgiveness until the crisis is over.

On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) was signed into law. The law included some immediate protections for tenants and homeowners, but as it stands, it has serious flaws. One protection it provides is a federal eviction moratorium for non-payment of rent; another is a prohibition on the charging of other fees or penalties as a result of the nonpayment of rent. The problem with this is that landlords can file for eviction against their tenants immediately after the moratorium period ends. Tenants who lost their jobs cannot pay rent nor make up for rent in those months with a lack of income. This creates an extremely problematic situation where the landlords can easily evict these tenants, which could lead to a massive upsurge of homelessness.

Sami Bourma, a cafeteria cook and Uber driver, currently has no income from being furloughed from his job and, like many other Americans, is unable to afford rent. In late March, Bourma began organizing residents at his apartment complex, Southern Towers in Alexandria, Va., to not pay rent on April 1. Many residents of the complex are working-class people and had employment in the hotel, restaurant, airport, and cleaning industries. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, many lost their jobs and, like Bourma, are not able to afford their housing payments. Unite Here Local 23 and African Communities Together have organized in solidarity with Bourma to cancel rent until one month after the pandemic ends, address sanitary concerns at the apartment complex, and to also create a “sliding scale” for future rent payments based on income.

These rent strikes are not an anomaly. At least 71 different actions have broken out across the country since the beginning of April, while a New York petition to cancel rent has garnered nearly 90,000 signatures. This is part of a broader movement to put pressure on the federal government to cancel rent and forgive mortgage payments.

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, nearly a third of U.S. tenants did not pay rent in the first five days of April, and landlords across the country are bracing for a serious disruption in the system. Historically, though, rent strikes have been a response by organized tenants (in tenants unions) to protest poor living conditions. This current moment is a bit different and could bring the whole system to a halt. Tenants’ rights groups and unions around the country (Philadelphia, New York, etc.) are organizing renters to demand rent relief by collectively paying rent late, car caravan protesting around their landlord’s house, speaking to the media, leafleting, mass call-ins, etc.

The pandemic has exacerbated the ongoing housing crisis in the United States. Rising costs in major cities have disproportionately displaced Latinos and Black Americans, turning once multiracial neighborhoods into wealthy, predominately white communities. This gentrification has also led to an uptick in those without homes and has led to movements against real estate speculators, such as Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, Calif. It is also true that displacement leads to Black and brown people being pushed into poorer living conditions, which some may call environmental racism. This has led to particularly Black Americans developing poor health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, cancer, etc.

Now, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Black Americans are suffering the most from fatalities due to these underlying health conditions. Housing and public health are interlinked: Those living in poor housing conditions (including those in jails and prisons) are at high risk of death from the pandemic, which we are seeing all around the country.

It is a shameful that local politicians are not releasing prisoners who are at high risk, who are basically rodents in a cage who cannot social distance, and not housing the homeless in empty hotel rooms. For example, in Las Vegas, the homeless are sleeping six feet away from each other in large parking lots with no shelter or food provided. Fortunately, local mutual aid efforts are taking place to provide COVID-19 testing, food, and protection for those in need. But it’s not enough; public authorities have to step up.

In this time of crisis, local governments need to provide an expansion of public housing and alternative forms of shelter like housing cooperatives. Community land trusts need to be expanded as well to counter the housing crisis and to get the half million homeless off of America’s streets and to lower housing costs for all who are paying more than 50% of their incomes for rent.


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.