A month and a half ago, Daniel O’Hearn and his housemates in West Philadelphia could see the financial crisis of the coronavirus rolling toward them like a slow-moving tsunami. They used the time to get prepared, trading phone numbers, sharing resources, and organizing for what they believed would become an inevitability: a rent strike.
“We as renters were already struggling,” he said. “When we see an impending crisis, we start thinking, ‘How is this going to affect us?’”
By April 1, all three had lost their jobs. So they joined with a dozen other households that rent from the same landlord, Constellar Corp., in demanding rent relief, at least for April if not for the duration of the unfolding financial crisis.
“We can’t pay this month, let alone May," said O’Hearn, who works in an office mail room. The rent is $1,200. “We made it clear we needed to open up a conversation about rent forgiveness. They did not respond to that request.”
The same conversation has been percolating around the country, as tenants have organized rent strikes from Oakland, Calif., to suburban Virginia. In Philadelphia, courts have been closed since March 16, and any evictions or lockouts during the shutdown would be illegal. The state Supreme Court has banned evictions through April 30.
In Philadelphia, where 48% of residents are renters, the need for relief is particularly high. More than half of renters in the city are considered “rent-burdened,” meaning that at least 30% of their incomes go to cover their rent.
Judith Johnson, vice president of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, said more people are talking about rent strikes every day as the hardships of job losses mount.
“My advice to people has been from the beginning: Talk to your landlord, and try to come to an understanding with your landlord. If that doesn’t work, put pressure on City Council, the mayor, state government. We want rent strikes to be a last resort — but it may be that we’re coming down to that last resort.”
In this case, Constellar president Guy Laren said a rent strike is not necessary.
“There have been a few tenants that called and asked for adjustments and help, and every one of those have been accommodated,” said George Bochetto, a lawyer representing Constellar.
“These people never called," he added.
He said that out of about 400 tenants, only 25 had not paid rent for April in full or on time. If they inform the landlord that they’re unemployed and genuinely unable to pay, “we’re not going to penalize them for that.”
O’Hearn declined to say whether the tenants had reached out to Constellar individually. He said they have more faith in the power of collective action.
Other tenants involved in the rent strike declined to be named, fearing retaliation or future housing discrimination. Naborly, a service that provides background checks for landlords, is asking for information about whether tenants withheld April rent in order to “retrain our AI systems,” sparking fears of a blacklist for those who participate in rent strikes.
Still, Johnson, of the Tenants Union, said she expects more to come. “These are people who just can’t pay their rent,” she said. She’s encouraging them to band together.
“If they’re going to rent strike, they’re going to need to organize and be part of a collective,” she said. “The people on their own are the people who are going to fall through the cracks when this moratorium is lifted.”