Rent strike idea gaining steam during coronavirus crisis

With millions of people suddenly out of work and rent due at the first of the month, some tenants are vowing to go on a rent strike until the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

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New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis are among many cities that have temporarily banned evictions, but advocates for the strike are demanding that rent payments be waived, not delayed, for those in need during the crisis. The rent strike idea has taken root in parts of North America and as far away as London.

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White sheets are being hung in apartment windows to show solidarity with the movement that is gaining steam on Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites. Fliers urging people to participate are being posted in several cities, including bus stops in St. Louis, where 27-year-old Kyle Kofron still has his job at an ice cream factory, but his three roommates have suddenly found themselves unemployed. Their property manager so far hasn’t agreed to a payment plan, Kofron said.

“For me personally, with everyone losing their jobs and unable to pay, it’s really the only thing we can do,” Kofron said of the strike. “It’s just like we the people have to do something. We just can’t stand idly by while the system takes us for a ride.”

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Stay-at-home orders and strict limits on gathering sizes have forced shops, restaurants and bars to shut down indefinitely. Many service industry workers thrust into unemployment are living paycheck-to-paycheck in the best of times. Now, many say they don’t have the money to pay rent.

Some politicians have expressed support, if not directly for a strike, then for a temporary rent moratorium, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

In New York, the state hit hardest so far by the pandemic, Democratic state Sen. Mike Gianaris of Queens introduced a bill that would forgive rent and mortgage payments for 90 days for people and small businesses struggling because of the coronavirus. It has 21 co-sponsors.

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“Tenants can’t pay rent if they can’t earn a living. Let’s #CancelRent for 90 days to keep people in their homes during the #coronavirus crisis," Gianaris said on Twitter.

Strike advocates aren't waiting for legislative approval. Activist organizations in many places are leading the push for a strike. A group called Rent Strike 2020 is organizing on the national level.

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Jessie Morancy uses her computer to fill out an application for unemployment benefits after being laid off from her job at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport on March 27, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Our demands to every Governor, in every state, are extremely simple: freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for 2 months, or face a rent strike,” Rent Strike 2020's website states.

Advocates in St. Louis are encouraging those who can afford rent to join the movement in solidarity with those who can’t. Without a large number of participants, landlords will simply evict strikers, said Chris Winston, of For the People STL.

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Others say a rent strike could further worsen the economy if landlords and property managers themselves are forced to default on loans. Some strike advocates have urged banks to suspend requiring payments from landlords and property management companies so that those groups can better absorb their own financial losses from a rent strike or moratorium.

Matthew Chase, an eviction attorney in St. Louis County, said property management companies and landlords have employees to pay, utility bills and other costs. A widespread rent strike could force them to lay off their own workers, cut back on property maintenance or even close apartment complexes.

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Chase cited one client who relies on income from renting a couple of homes.

“She’s the big, bad landlord to these rent strike folks,” Chase said.

Nick Kasoff, who lives in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, calls himself a “small-time landlord.” He had words of warning for anyone refusing to pay their rent.

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“Courts are closed, but they won't be closed forever,” Kasoff wrote on Facebook. “If you choose not to pay rent when you are able, your landlord will be down there filing an eviction the day they open back up. You will lose your home, ruin your credit, and make it difficult to get any sort of decent housing in the future. A ‘rent strike’ isn't going to liquidate capitalism and make you a homeowner, it's going to demolish your credit and make you homeless.”