First, it was an unfamiliar dry cough. Then a fever, body aches, unimaginable fatigue. Carter Pugh couldn’t go to work for three weeks because of the illness she still hasn’t identified.

She’s mostly recovered now. But the 22-year-old who lives in Germantown faces another problem: She lost wages while out of work. Now, one of her two workplaces is shut down. The other cut her hours. So she’s a couple of hundred short of her monthly rent of about $500, due Wednesday.

Pugh plans to pay half and cross her fingers she avoids the late fee. She’ll pay the rest after her next paycheck.

“I don’t really have another option," she said.

Wednesday marks the first time the rent is due for so many since the region shut down as it bowed to the coronavirus, creating a domino effect of social distancing tactics that has led to mass layoffs, pay cuts, and financial desperation.

The toll is felt deeply in Pennsylvania — where more than a half million people have applied for unemployment benefits in a rate that ranks among the highest in the country — and especially in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in America, where hundreds of thousands of people are employed in a service sector that has been decimated by stay-at-home orders and gathering size limits.

Local and state governments have rushed to institute moratoriums on evictions, and utilities have suspended shutoffs.

But still, as landlords are hoping for the best, renters are taking steps to hold off on payments, ranging from organizing their fellow tenants to negotiate a rent reduction to calling for a mass rent strike. Some are taking cues from companies like Subway and the Cheesecake Factory and alerting landlords they can’t pay, at least until federal relief checks land. Others are crowdfunding to pay their bills or using social media to beg celebrities for cash.

And many are concerned about losing the roof over their head, maybe not right away, but perhaps come summertime when they could owe thousands in back rent if the financial picture doesn’t improve.

Carter Pugh typically works two jobs to make her rent, but won't be able to pay in full as a result of coronavirus-related financial hardship. She is among hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians feeling the squeeze.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Carter Pugh typically works two jobs to make her rent, but won't be able to pay in full as a result of coronavirus-related financial hardship. She is among hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians feeling the squeeze.

Pugh is asking other tenants about a collective effort and feels lucky to have a network. But she feels overwhelmed. Her life’s been upended by a pandemic — something that always felt as if it happened only in faraway places.

“It’s kind of sobering,” she said, “that I could go my whole life not paying enough attention to what’s happening everywhere else, and now what’s happening everywhere else is happening here.”

The state of evictions

In Pennsylvania, renters are protected from eviction through at least April 30 while courts statewide are shut down, except for emergencies. In New Jersey, evictions are on hold through most of May.

And the federal relief package included an eviction moratorium through July for renters who either live in federally subsidized housing or whose owners have a federally backed mortgage, which applies to about 40% of renters.

Any eviction or lockout while courts are closed is illegal and the tenant should call 911 and file a police report, said Kadeem Morris, a staff attorney in the housing unit at Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services.

Morris said people served an eviction notice because they fell behind on payments during the coronavirus crisis could be subject to eviction court once it reopens. But there’s still a minimum 21-day waiting period, meaning newly delinquent renters won’t be immediately evicted once courts reopen.

Efforts are underway to extend protections for renters. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has asked a consortium of property owners, landlords, and lenders to extend the suspension of eviction proceedings after courts reopen.

Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia's Navy Yard. The company announced it plans to furlough workers in the face of the coronavirus crisis.
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia's Navy Yard. The company announced it plans to furlough workers in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

Some Pennsylvania lawmakers have proposed a state-ordered rent and mortgage freeze, including Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym. She said there needs to be additional assistance beyond the federal relief package, and expects Council to consider measures addressing housing.

“The most important thing is time,” she said. “Time for people to get back on their feet again. Time for people to get back at their job or find new employment, but not lose a house in between.”

Tenant organization and rent strikes

While some renters are paying what they can, others are organizing fellow tenants to collectively ask for a rent reduction or promising a “rent strike” until the pandemic fades.

In cities across the world, the idea of a mass rent strike, or the withholding of rent entirely regardless of ability to pay, is gaining traction, organized largely through social media.

A loosely connected group of organizers in Philadelphia is advocating for a rent strike as part of a broader package of citywide reforms, including the release of prisoners, and hazard pay for workers. The group contends a temporary eviction moratorium isn’t enough, saying some “will be looking at massive back payments."

The Philadelphia Tenants Union is cautioning against a mass strike, saying not paying rent because of a lack of income isn’t necessarily a rent strike, which is typically organized among tenants of the same landlord who have an agreed-upon set of demands.

Judith Jones, the group’s vice president, said they fear individuals who withhold rent without enough collective support could face fees or eviction. She recommended renters first communicate with landlords and negotiate an extension or rent reduction. The group also has a guide for organizing collective negotiations.

And if all that doesn’t work, Barry Thompson, president of the union, said they would still support a group of tenants who decide to strike.

“This is destroying people,” he said. “A lot of frustration has kicked in, a lot of agitation has kicked in, and people are running for their lives.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.