According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, a quarter of the nation’s 44 million renter households paid more than half their income in rent in 2018. Separate research from the Federal Reserve showed four in 10 Americans would have difficulty covering a sudden $400 expense, suggesting that tens of millions of tenants are just a week of missed work away from falling behind on their housing bills.
For the past four years, rent increases have helped stir a nationwide tenant uprising that led to the biggest expansion of tenants’ rights in decades. Rent control laws were enacted in New York, Oregon and California, and tenants organized mass actions, like a group of mothers in Oakland who occupied an empty house for two months to protest house flipping.
Now, after years of coordination, organizers see the coronavirus pandemic as a galvanizing force. Last week, the Right to the City Alliance, a national coalition of tenant and racial-justice organizations, held a digital #CancelRent rally to call for rents to be eliminated as long as people can’t work. Homes Guarantee, a national tenants’ campaign, has been holding weekly strategy calls.
“This is a moment of clarity about a broken system in which 11 million people were already paying over 50 percent of their income on rent,” said Tara Raghuveer, a tenant organizer in Kansas City and director of Homes Guarantee.
Ms. Thomas, the renter refusing to pay in Oakland, is a member of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an activist group associated with the house-occupying mothers. For weeks she has been trying to organize her building in a rent strike, and has gotten tenants in three other units to join her.
One is her upstairs neighbor Andrew Yen, a data scientist at an agriculture company who still has a job and isn’t worried about making his $2,500 monthly rent. He and Ms. Thomas had been discussing some sort of coordinated action, but after weeks of job losses, and walking around his neighborhood seeing “rent strike” posted on telephone poles or spray-painted on utility boxes, he decided the time was now, so he is striking in solidarity.
“I feel like rent striking is the least somebody like me can do,” he said. “I’m the tenant the landlord wants to keep, so the worst-case scenario is eviction, but I probably have a lot more wiggle room than that.”