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Rent strikes: if thousands couldn’t pay in April, millions won’t pay in May

Coronavirus has disrupted New York City in innumerable ways, as life has been upended by the pandemic. Commercial activity and cultural events have all but stopped, and the cabs that are usually a mainstay of the city’s streets have been replaced by an endless stream of ambulances, sirens blazing. MD Asaduzzaman Khan drives one of those cabs, and has been effectively out of work since March 12. With so many people at home, no one is hailing cabs, and it’s putting a huge financial strain on himself, his family, and his neighbors, making it impossible to pay his $1,175 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Queens.

Khan is one of millions of renters across the country facing financial strain due to coronavirus, whose collective struggle is hurtling the nation toward a housing crisis. With rising unemployment, widespread economic uncertainty, and stay-at-home orders with no end date in sight, the act of paying—or not paying—rent has become front and center as both tenants and property owners argue that they’re not getting enough emergency support and can’t weather months of missed income. This morning, the National Multifamily Housing Council released a report that found 69 percent of Americans paid rent by April 5 this year, a drop from 81 percent last month and 82 percent in April 2019.

Lagging stimulus payments and more expected job losses suggest the problems of April 1 will be that much worse on May 1. Many tenants like Khan might not be able to pay rent, and others are considering broad rent-strike actions pushing for rent forgiveness for the duration of the crisis.

Susanna Blankley, campaign coordinator with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, says over the last decade, she’s worked maybe three or four rent strikes total, actions considered dramatic escalations reserved for only the worst landlords. At the moment, she’s working on four, and believes we’ll see “dozens, if not hundreds, of building go on rent strikes by May 1 in New York City alone.” COVID-19 is exposing an existing affordable-housing crisis, she says.