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Activists Refuse To Pay Rent As New York Struggles With The Coronavirus Outbreak


Rent is due tomorrow, and many people across the country are going to have trouble paying it. Housing activists are calling for a nationwide rent strike, saying tenants should stop paying their rent beginning tomorrow. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When the coronavirus hit, a Brooklyn woman named Donette (ph) lost her business cleaning houses. Donette, who doesn't want her last name used because she's undocumented, has a bit of savings, but she says it won't last long. So she's planning on joining a citywide rent strike tomorrow.

DONETTE: Am I going to use my savings to pay rent when I have a 14-year-old daughter who might not know what it feels like to go to bed hungry?

ZARROLI: Donette says her landlord wants her to pay anyway. New York City is the epicenter of both the coronavirus and the housing crisis. Even in good times, a lot of people have problems paying rent. Now the problems are turning into a crisis. Nationwide, nearly a third of renters didn't pay their April rent on time. And those numbers are likely to go up again in May and June. In New York, there's not a lot landlords can do about it right now. Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for a three-month moratorium on evictions.


ANDREW CUOMO: And that, to me, is the fundamental answer. If you pay the security deposit, you don't pay the security deposit, you pay part of the rent, none of the rent, you can't be evicted for three months - period.

ZARROLI: The moratorium may be more symbolic than anything else. Housing courts are closed until late June, so no one's getting evicted anyway. Meanwhile, some officials are arguing that the state needs to do more, even if it means forcing landlords to suspend rent payments for a few months.

Michael Gianaris, a state senator from Queens, spoke on WNYC last week. He says the government has barred people from going to work, so they shouldn't have to worry about paying rent.


MICHAEL GIANARIS: We pulled people's ability to have income from them, and yet they continue to have financial obligations accruing. The biggest one for most people is the rent payment.

ZARROLI: Some housing activists want to go further with tomorrow's call for a citywide rent strike. Cea Weaver is coordinating the effort.

CEA WEAVER: If you can't pay in May, join us. Let's not pay together.

ZARROLI: And it's not just happening in New York, she says.

WEAVER: This is happening, really, across the country. It's from Kansas City to Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit. This is not just, like, a coastal problem. This is very much happening in every part of the country.

ZARROLI: It's not clear how much support there is for a rent strike. The idea is opposed by New York City's liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio, among others. He says if people stop paying rent, a lot of small landlords won't be able to keep their buildings going.

Jay Martin heads an industry group called the Community Housing Improvement Program. He says a rent strike could force some small landlords into bankruptcy.

JAY MARTIN: There will be a detrimental effect to tenants themselves if the buildings become financially insolvent. It's in no one's best interests if banks become the largest landlords in New York City.

ZARROLI: With or without a rent strike, Martin says, landlords are going to be facing real financial pressures over the next few months. He says there's been a big drop-off in applications for new apartments. More and more people are losing their jobs, and an even bigger number than normal are going to have trouble paying their rent. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.

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