ActivismHousing

What I Learned from Organizing a Rent Strike

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Wish we had someone to credit this lovely art from but Getty images didn’t tell us the artist’s name

It’s no secret that the Pandemic has had a devastating toll on New York City. Homelessness is at all time highs, COVID cases are surging, and record numbers of people are leaving the city. The only good thing to come of it is that for the first time since the 70’s, there has been a significant reduction in housing costs across the city.  Because of this rent strikes are becoming more common

I found myself living in Brooklyn with my Partner, our dog, and my best friend from high school in an apartment in Crown Heights. My partner and I had moved from a cramped studio in the Lower East Side, and our roommate from a shared 3 bedroom in Bushwick. Our two bedroom apartment was maybe 500 square feet. It had two bathrooms technically. The bathroom in the master (?) bedroom, which did not have a closet, was the size of a closet, with a standing shower and a toilet. No sink. No towel racks. No toilet paper holder. Just a toilet and a shower. These apartments are labeled as “luxury apartments” in Brooklyn. $2500 a month.

When we moved in we took literally hundreds of photos of the terrible condition this recently renovated apartment was in. Obvious patch work on the walls, garbage from the previous tenants everywhere, scratches on the floor, backwards faucets, the building’s yard was full of trash and debris, holes in the halls, and the sense that no one regularly cleaned anything. For the first week we didn’t have keys to the front door, so someone had to always be home. It was only when I threatened legal action did we get our locks changed, within the hour, which means it could have been done at any point, but the landlords were just being lazy. 

Photo of a beautiful island city

Apartments here cost half of what my apartment in Brooklyn cost

By November of last year we started noticing that prices were dropping, especially in Manhattan. I started asking some of the other tenants I had gotten to know from our dogs being friends, and we started to realize that depending when someone had moved in, there were different rates for the exact same apartments. The largest apartments in the buildings were actually the cheapest, because they were the last rented. There was as much as a $500 a month difference between identical apartments. No reduction of rates had been applied for anyone else in the building, despite multiple tenants asking for a possible reduction due to hardships from the pandemic. Several people in the building were on unemployment.

After some discussion between neighbors in three different units, I was asked to organize a rent strike because of my work for non-profit organizations. In total we were 6 units in a 10 unit building, 3 of which were already empty. Here’s what I learned:

Communication Goes a Long Way

First thing you’re going to want to do before any official action is to talk to your landlord directly. Because of the pandemic many landlords are open to negotiations when they wouldn’t have been pre-COVID. You may be able to work something out without having to organize. We had only decided to do the rent strike because tenants had recently tried to get reductions matching what the landlords were listing empty apartments online, to better reflect market prices. 

Communication is also important between you and your neighbors. We had a text thread, and whenever one person would have an interaction with the landlord we would immediately contact the others. Be vigilant, and have each other’s backs.

Contact a Lawyer that Specializes in Rent Strikes

There are many pro-bono services like Probono.net or for New York City residents New York City Bar,  now specifically set up to help regular people make sure they aren’t being taken advantage of during these trying times. We were lucky that one my neighbors had a friend that had also been active in a rent strike, and we were able to get advice from the lawyer they used.

Preparation is Key

Before contacting your landlord, make sure you have all your ducks in a row. Research local tenants rights laws. For example, in 2019 sweeping tenants rights laws were passed in the state of New York. Statutes that give tenants more power, and better odds for dealing with aggressive landlords. 

There are also services online that can tell you information about the building you live in. This website is useful for example. It shows who owns what buildings in NYC, what code violations are open, when the building was purchased, and the building registration. We learned that our building had lapsed registration for over a year and a half, and that it was currently illegal for the landlords to ask for back rent, which was currently banned during COVID anyway, so multiple violations were documented for every instance our landlord threatened retaliation for lack of rent. Which brings me to my next point.

Document EVERYTHING

If your landlord stops by, have your phone recording the second you open the door. Try to communicate as much through text or email. If they insist on speaking on the phone, put it on speaker, and screen record the conversation. Practice it first to make sure you’re ready when it’s go time.

Many states have passed new legislation that makes old intimidation tactics landlords have been using for years illegal. In New York for example, all requests for rent must be made in writing, landlords can’t show up at your door asking for rent (which ours did several times), they can’t threaten to ruin your credit before it goes to court (which ours did several times), and they can’t show up on rent day under sum poorly thought ruse (also did). If your landlord does these things, and the case goes to court, you can show a pattern of illegal business practices, and it could win the case.

Make It About Finances

From the get go, you should frame your strike as an opportunity for your landlord to come out with as little loss of revenue as possible. When we contacted our landlords we made it clear that:

  1. Courts are backed up across the country, so your rent strike could drag out for a long time before any eviction process can begin
  2. They are responsible for all of those court fees in the meantime
  3. They have to pay for their lawyers for that time
  4. It is unlikely that even if they do win, that they will see anywhere close to the amount owed
  5. It is unlikely they will win
  6. Half the building had been empty for over a year, and not many people were lined up to fill the rooms
  7. Half of who was left were planning on leaving on top of that

Never Show Your Entire Hand

We waited to talk about code violations or illegal requests for rent until they started behaving aggressively. Even when talking about it, we made no threats. We would simply cite NYC and NY State laws and codes explaining why what they were doing was illegal. If you do end up going to court, you will be able to show that you were behaving in the reasonable manner, and that it was the landlord who was being vulgar and uncouth. 

There Could Be Consequences

Let’s say things don’t go your way. Maybe everyone bails on the strike, or you take it to court but there wasn’t enough there to justify your strike, you and everyone involved could be responsible for all back rent, and have a damaging effect on your credit. But rent strikes, especially in New York, have become much more common. The pandemic has changed a lot of things, and everyone is starting to see how absurd the landlord/tenant dynamic has been. 

Or let’s say things do go as planned, everyone in your building is on board and cooperates. Some landlords are multi-millionaires, or full on real estate companies that can wait out on months without income. It could last for months, so be ready to incur that debt. 

We got lucky because our landlords were so inept/corrupt, that they did not want to go to court, and most of us got to just walk away from the apartment. Now we can find something larger, cheaper, and in a more fun neighborhood. The landlords have an empty building in a city full of empty buildings. Some of us had talked about staying, and that we were ready to continue until at least our leases were up, and we had planned to reach out and get other properties owned by the same real estate company to strike as well. Eventually though, as we continued to see nicer apartments for even less than what we were asking for our rents, we all decided it was better to leave. We did not have to pay for our last month there, and walked away without having to owe. 

The tide is turning in cities like NYC. Hopefully this trend of the disenfranchised stepping up and claiming “No More” continues. Until then, enjoy this sweet little baby.

 

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Sonny Curtin

Sonny Curtin

Sonny Curtin is an absurdist, and not particularly tall. Their hair color changes frequently to avoid paternity suits.

Once Sonny watched a sea catch on fire. The reflections of the embers beamed off the Red Sea in the Saharan night, as they tried to remember a past long forgotten. They felt the heat from the flames as the wind swirled around them, thrusted up sand and seemed to reshape the dunes in front of their eyes. It was then that they knew. It was time to move on.

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