The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. tenants plan rent strikes, hoping for city’s help as coronavirus shutdown continues

Protesters calling for rent payments to be canceled drive in downtown Washington on April 25 amid the outbreak of the coronavirus. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

The rent is due again. So, too, are mortgage payments, utility payments, phone bills.

In a nation where an unprecedented number of Americans are applying for unemployment assistance — 30.3 million in the past six weeks — paying the bills has become a daunting task for many.

With evictions banned during the coronavirus pandemic in the nation’s capital, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) advised tenants this week to “stay current” on rental payments “to the best of your ability.”

But the D.C. Tenants Union is offering renters different advice: to strike.

Tenant organizations in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago to Philadelphia have prodded renters to withhold rent payments come Friday. The strikes are unlike buildingwide ones that traditionally have been used to force the hand of property owners and management companies on issues such as maintenance, safety and rent prices. These citywide strikes, organizers said, are meant to push lawmakers to enact more robust renter relief through the pandemic.

“People are scared to tell management what’s really going on,” said Larissa Abrego, 19, an out-of-work restaurant server who helped write a letter to her apartment building owner asking for rent forgiveness. “If they don’t want to help us, we’re going to strike.”

About one-third of U.S. renters did not pay rent in the first week of April, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

Normally, about 20 percent of renters don’t pay on time, the organization said, a number that grew to about 31 percent in April. Experts expect May’s numbers to look even worse.

Without rent payments, landlords say, they cannot afford to pay their mortgages, their taxes and the maintenance costs needed to keep up properties and respond to issues that arise.

The D.C. Landlords Association, which represents property owners, said it is advising members “to be very understanding” of tenants who cannot pay rent during the pandemic and to work with tenants to resolve issues.

Many of its members have been able to defer their mortgage payments until July 1, the group said in a statement, allowing wiggle room if tenants aren’t able to pay their bills.

The D.C. Tenants Union, formed last year to increase the political capital of D.C. renters, has been inundated for weeks with calls from tenants panicked about May’s rent payment, organizers said. The group has sent about a dozen letters to landlords asking that all or part of their tenants’ rents be waived.

Rents are rising, and neighborhoods are changing. Renters mobilized to form a tenants union.

“We, the tenants, are exhausted, we are out of work, we are attempting to survive, and we are fearful about securing the future of our own basic needs regardless of our rent responsibilities,” reads a letter sent to the owners of an apartment building in Northwest Washington. “We are in need of your help as owners, and you are in an ideal position to provide us that help immediately.”

As of Thursday, more than 3,300 renters had signed on to a tenant association petition to “cancel rents and mortgages” in the District.

The situations of tenants seeking relief vary, organizers said. Some live in rent-controlled buildings, others in luxury apartments. Tenants paying some of the highest rents in the city along the Southwest Waterfront have recently sought help.

“The truth is, all of these tenants want to negotiate in good faith with their landlords. ” said Stephanie Bastek, an organizer with the D.C. Tenants Union. “They’re just in a position right now where they’re making decisions like, ‘Do I pay my rent or feed my family?’ ”

On Tuesday, tenants organizations and social justice groups led a Districtwide phone blitz that encouraged residents to call their D.C. Council representative while seeking support for positions such as canceling rent and mortgage payments through the pandemic, plus one additional month; imposing a two-year rent freeze; providing the right to an attorney in all eviction cases; and increasing funding and eligibility for the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

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Before the pandemic, tenant advocates in the District were sounding the alarm over a lack of affordable housing and the rising cost of living. The D.C. Tenants Union had spearheaded a campaign to demand the D.C. Council expand rent control laws to encompass more buildings, respond to changes and include renters in single-family homes.

Housing is considered affordable if a resident is able to pay no more than 30 percent of income toward housing costs, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But nearly half of all U.S. renter households were paying more than that on rent and utilities before the pandemic hit, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

People who are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered by the federal government to be “cost-burdened.” At a time when more than 80,000 Washingtonians have recently filed for unemployment — a number that rises to 647,000 in the past six weeks when including Maryland and Virginia — the number of cost-burdened households is skyrocketing, tenant advocates say.

Evictions and rent increases in the District — like those in many cities around the country — have been paused by lawmakers during the pandemic.

But even with the eviction ban, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said this week his office has encountered nearly two dozen instances in which landlords have sought to evict tenants or raise their rent.

Bowser has urged residents to pay what rent they can and negotiate with their landlords.

“We want to remind everybody that no one can be evicted or late fees charged during this time,” she said. “But we continue to encourage you to the best of your ability to stay current with your rent.”

Canceling rent is not the only relief lawmakers can provide tenants, said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, director of nonprofit legal firm Tzedek DC, which helps low-income residents with debt issues. In a proposal to the D.C. Council, Levinson outlined other alternatives, including deferring rent payments, forgiving debt and creating a coronavirus alert on people’s credit reports that would temper the impact of missed payments on credit scores.

“We need to make sure people don’t lose their homes in a pandemic,” he said. “People who have lost their income through no fault of their own, it’s crazy to set them up to lose their house for missing a payment in March, April, May, anytime during the pandemic period.”

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