New York, NY – Tenants and housing advocates announced on Thursday, April16, that they will no longer wait on Governor Andrew Cuomo to move past his 90-day rent freeze initiative, but will organize a one million-strong rent strike on May 1 to #CancelRent from April through the end of June.
Despite the federal government’s attempts to provide relief to those that are struggling across the country through stimulus checks, some of the renters that were on a Zoom videoconference this week, said that they don’t qualify because their cost of living exceeds those of people in other states.
Unlike their wealthy counterparts who can slink away to their vacation homes, NYC tenants maintain that they are being taxed to death.
Tenant activists like Winsome Pendergrass point out that even if the coronavirus pandemic does come to an end, the economic instability that it wrought will not, and it would probably take more than three months — if not more — for the country to be on equal footing. So, a rent freeze would only leave those who most likely won’t get their jobs back playing catch up with $6,000 to $8,000 in rent debt and possibly exacerbate the homeless crisis.
“Over the years we [rent activists] have been saying that we are only one paycheck [away from] the sidewalk and they thought we were joking or making it up. Now, it has really happened,” said Pendergrass. “Some of us haven’t worked for the past five to six weeks. We are here to let everybody know that we can’t pay rent in May!”
Pendergrass, a home health aid from Brownville is inviting all renters in New York who saw the conference, which was streamed on FacebookLive, to sign up for their cause in order to get Cuomo on board.
“We know the powers that be, the ones that we put in Albany, they can speak up for us,” said Pendergrass. “We don’t want tenants to go into a depression, we don’t want tenants to take their lives, we don’t want anyone to think they are going on the street corner so we are fighting and pushing [for this movement].”
One of tenant on the conference was Lena Melendez, a Housing Justice for All tenant activist and Uber driver.
“This pandemic has uncovered the issues that we have been talking about and the issues that we have been fighting for,” the Washington Heights resident said. “It’s come to the surface and it is undeniable that the rents have increased so much that because of gentrification and just one month’s rent could be too much under the market rate, which is unsustainable. Even with the $600 unemployment and $1,200 stimulus checks it won’t be enough.”
Melendez knows some tenants that have seen studio apartments go for $1,500 to $2,000/month. Many of her neighbors are undocumented workers, therefore they won’t get a stimulus check, unemployment relief or Social Security benefits as they lose work.
“There is nobody there to buy their goods and services,” said Melendez. “Many of us feel like Cuomo and de Blasio have only looked out for the millionaires, many of whom are landlords with a portfolio of 100, 200 or 300 buildings. They are being looked after. They have deferments on their mortgages and tenants have a pause on the evictions, so everybody is at home waiting for the day.”
Donnette, an undocumented immigrant that cleaned nursing homes and apartments through her small business, is a married mother of three from Flatbush. She earns $408 a week and used to pay $1,300 a month in rent, but was forced to move to a $1,700 a month apartment.
Donnette’s boss died from the virus, so she was forced into quarantine. She also is imunocompromised.
“My blood count is very low. Medication is important to me, food is important to me and rent is important,” Donnette said. “I’m doing the math and there is no way I can pay rent going forward from here when I am presently unemployed.”
Donnette wouldn’t be able to go back to work anytime soon because of the fear brought on by the pandemic, according to the entrepreneur.
“No one is going to allow you to clean if you had COVID-19,” said Donnette. “Where do we go from here?”
Melendez’s husband, Amado Melendez, a diner worker and Uber driver is afraid to go back to work.
“I work in a diner in Long Island and they want us to do deliveries, but it is a hotspot now for [COVID-19],” said Mr. Melendez. “All they care about is money, money and that is it.”
Mr. Melendez is only paid a little over $200 a week, but had stayed at the diner because his tips were four to five times above that. But without customers, he not sure if risking his health is worth it. One of his co-workers got sick last week and others are handing off food to Uber drivers that have no personal protective equipment when they pick up food for UberEats.
“I picked up a woman from Queens who was coughing, so I opened a window and she complained so I cancelled the ride, because I don’t want to get sick,” said Mr. Melendez. “Uber sent me a message saying that ‘I have to be nice,’ but I don’t want to be nice. Uber doesn’t care about the drivers!”