Metropolis

“We Didn’t Really Have a Choice”

When COVID struck, a group of tenants in the South Bronx went on rent strike. Will it work?

Nathaniel Jones and Marisol Morales
Nathaniel Jones and Marisol Morales, tenants on rent strike at 1050 Carroll Pl. in the South Bronx. Joseph Rodriguez

As the first of April approached, Marisol Morales faced a terrible decision. COVID had shut down New York, dislodging the 54-year-old Bronx resident from her job at a Brooklyn restaurant where she cooked meals from her native Panama.

“It was like a bucket of cold water,” Morales, a mother of three adult children who’s lived in the U.S. since the early ’90s, says of becoming unemployed. She paused all plans to pay off debt and, fearing the disease, stopped going out except for basic necessities.

Morales shares a two-bedroom apartment at 1050 Carroll Pl., a large brick 1920s building on a dead-end block within walking distance of Yankee Stadium, with her daughter; her two sons are in the U.S. armed forces. Every year for the past decade, she’s seen her rent inch up despite various maintenance issues, including ceiling leaks, unreliable elevator service, and messy common areas. Today it’s $1,623 a month, most of which is covered by a Section 8 housing voucher. Normally, she pays more than $400 out of pocket toward the full cost, but her job loss and her daughter’s own unemployment made this expense onerous.

With April 1 looming, Morales realized she had two options: pay her portion of the rent or spend that money on food and electricity. She chose food. But she wasn’t alone. Several of her neighbors also withheld their payments, initiating a rent strike that’s now lasted for months. Roughly 40 households at her building, as well as an adjacent one with the same owner, have joined in.

Their reasons for withholding rent vary. Many lost their jobs and can no longer afford to pay, even though their apartments are rent-stabilized. Some who are employed, have savings, or receive welfare want to show solidarity with their fellow tenants. Others were already waging a legal battle with the landlord before the pandemic hit, and see this moment as a chance to win better living conditions.

By striking, the tenants are also making an argument rooted in empathy. No one, they insist, should lose their home in the midst of a public health emergency.

They’re among thousands of tenants across New York City and other U.S. metropolitan areas who’ve pursued rent strikes, an age-old bargaining tactic, during the pandemic. But because of their unity, they may end up as some of the first to score a tangible victory in the form of rent forgiveness.

 “When I Returned Home, I Was Extremely Shocked”

Back in January, more than two dozen Carroll Place residents sued their landlord over mold, broken locks, and other problems with help from TakeRoot Justice, a legal services and advocacy organization, and the grassroots group Community Action for Safe Apartments. At the first hearing, in February at Bronx Housing Court, the parties discussed potential fixes, and some work began to get done.

Then the coronavirus struck, freezing the proceedings and repairs, and making it impossible for the tenant association to meet safely in person.

An apartment building is seen with cars parked in front of it.
1050 Carroll Pl., a rent-stabilized 1920s building near Yankee Stadium, is one of two buildings on the block owned by Carroll Place Associates LLC. Joseph Rodriguez

As the city ground to a halt, Gavino Lopez’s whole household lost employment—he as a line cook at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, his wife as a domestic worker for a cleaning cooperative, his sister as a domestic worker, and his brother-in-law as a restaurant worker. Each couple has two children, and the eight of them share a three-bedroom apartment for $1,800 a month.

They were among the first tenants to withhold rent. “We didn’t really have a choice,” says Lopez, who’s 39 and has lived in the building for 15 years. “We didn’t have the money to pay the landlord.”

The association learned to navigate Zoom (“The first few meetings, everybody was talking over each other and not understanding why they can’t hear each other,” a member recalls) but still had to figure out how to address the sudden economic calamity. At the beginning, not all the tenants wanted to share what they were going through, making this task difficult. Some were hesitant to request rent relief from the landlord, thinking they’d owe however much they withheld. Others thought they should pay what they could.

For those whose wages had disappeared, though, forgoing rent seemed utterly logical. “If we don’t have any money for food, we need to focus on that before we can even think about rent,” Lopez says.

They took some comfort in New York state’s temporary ban on residential evictions, implemented in March. But it didn’t prevent the accumulation of rent debt, causing tenants like 37-year-old Ana Mejia to fret about their long-term prospects. “We have very, very little money,” says Mejia, a mother of three who along with her husband stopped paying the $2,024 monthly rent for their three-bedroom apartment after they were laid off as line cooks.

All the while, the virus was tearing through the South Bronx and menacing the Carroll Place tenants, especially older adults and those with disabilities.

Longtime resident Guadalupe Diaz feared for her 18-year-old son, who takes medication to treat a blood condition that causes him seizures. They live in a two-bedroom apartment with all but $100 of their $1,600 rent covered by a Section 8 voucher.

A single mother, Diaz lost her jobs as a domestic worker and cashier. She was grateful to have food stamps and receive disability benefits for her son. But she owed rent from before the crisis and worried about eviction. As the pandemic worsened, she also bore immense grief.

Many of her loved ones in the U.S. and Mexico died from COVID. “The immediate people at first, here in the Bronx, they weren’t family, but they were very close to me—friends of 10, 15, 20 years,” says Diaz. “It was really hard because I didn’t go out for an entire month. Everything was closed.”

The first time she went out after the shutdown, she spoke with acquaintances on the street and discovered that more than a dozen people she knew had died. “When I returned home, I was extremely shocked,” Diaz recounts, fighting back tears.

Later on, she got phone calls from family informing her that people from her hometown and some of her cousins had succumbed to the virus. “It’s something I feel extremely sad about,” she says, “and it’s also something that’s been confusing.”

“We Are the Ones Who Are Keeping This City Running”

The tenant association soon allied with a broader movement urging politicians to protect renters from displacement and homelessness. Coordinated by the statewide Housing Justice for All campaign and the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, the movement called for rents to be canceled and evictions banned for the course of the crisis, not just the immediate future.

New York lawmakers proposed legislation to do this, but the bills have lingered in committee. One measure would suspend tenants’ rent obligations and small landlords’ mortgage obligations until 90 days after the state’s COVID emergency ends; another would stop evictions and foreclosures for a year following the emergency.

In the meantime, New York landlords can still sue tenants for missed rent, which could lead to money judgments, garnished wages, and reduced credit scores. That’s in spite of the state’s now-expired ban on evictions and a new federal ban lasting through 2020.

While the federal ban, imposed by the CDC, would seem to shield most renters, it may not be as beneficial as people hope (and early reports suggest it could prove hard to administer locally). It doesn’t apply to common eviction triggers like lease expirations and nuisance claims, and it puts the burden on renters to submit paperwork, signed under penalty of perjury, to their landlords. Even a recently enacted New York state “safe harbor” law, which offers tenants a legal defense against eviction and was separate from the state’s eviction ban, requires those with rent arrears to prove they suffered economic hardship from the pandemic. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has just expanded that law to cover tenants subject to pre-pandemic eviction warrants, but only until January.

Ronald Whitaker, wearing a hat and a face mask
Ronald Whitaker, one of the tenants who sued the landlord for repairs and has participated in the rent strike. Joseph Rodriguez

It’s unclear what exactly will happen after both eviction moratoria have lapsed. Housing activists say that if people are on the hook for rents they can’t pay, a tsunami of new eviction filings will roll in, and these could harm tenants for life. “It’s unjust that we could be facing an eviction case or be put out on the street in this moment, because the whole world, all of us are in this,” says Diaz. “Our elected officials need to have consciousness. They need to treat us like humans and recognize our humanity in their hearts.”

Since 2017, marshals have executed seven evictions at Carroll Place, according to the New York City Department of Investigation. The Bronx had the highest rate of evictions among the city’s five boroughs in 2018, with more than 6,800 carried out, or 34 percent of the citywide total. Research by Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond has shown low-income Black and Latino people, particularly women with children, confront eviction at disproportionate rates.

Nathaniel Jones, 51, began withholding rent for similar reasons as Diaz. A native New Yorker, he’s lived at Carroll Place since 1978. Although he lost his job with a messenger company in March, he had some money tucked away—a cushion he attributes to his grandmother, who always told him to save for a rainy day.

“Certain tenants were talking about it, and I said, ‘Let me just hold mine and let’s see what agreement we would come up with,’ ” Jones says. His rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $950 a month, and he became active in the tenant association last year over concerns about water damage and mold.

“That’s why I’m in the rent strike with my fellow tenants,” he adds, “because I know I’m not the only person going through problems in this building.” (Jones’ apartment eventually received repairs with which he was satisfied.)

As their financial situations became increasingly desperate, the idea of collectively withholding rent began to crystallize. People felt they could support their worse-off neighbors by acting together, and perhaps even benefit themselves by winning concessions from the property management.

At a tenant association meeting in May, a large majority of members voted to endorse a formal rent strike beginning June 1. That prompted the landlord, a Brooklyn-based limited liability company called Carroll Place Associates LLC, and its managing member, Yechiel Weinberger, to engage in negotiations.

The company offered to halve rents for the initial few months of the crisis—but only for residents who didn’t owe prior rent, according to the tenants. It also stipulated the tenants couldn’t seek damages and that those who’d sued over living conditions drop their lawsuit. (Repairs resumed in units where workers were granted access.) The association rejected the offer.

Carroll Place Associates LLC bought the two buildings for more than $6.3 million in 2003. In recent years, the company has been controlled by Weinberger, a noted player in the city’s residential market.

In 2015, he ranked third on then–New York City Public Advocate Letitia James’ “worst landlords” list, which was based on building violations and tenant complaints. (He avoided the list the next year.) Weinberger has primarily dealt with the Carroll Place tenants on behalf of the property’s ownership, introducing himself as “John.”

Through an attorney, he declined to talk but issued a statement saying his company has worked “diligently to inspect and repair conditions alleged by tenants” and substantially renovated some apartments. He also said the company intends to improve the lines of communication with the tenants and has provided “rent relief” to an unspecified number of people “on a case by case basis.” (An advocate who works with the tenant association said she was unaware of any tenants who’ve received such relief.)

Tenant Gavino Lopez says the rent strike is about more than the clash with the management. “The landlord is also a victim of COVID,” unable to profit as usual owing to the crisis, he points out. The deeper fight, in Lopez’s view, is with Cuomo, who along with other public leaders can change the laws to further aid working people.

Dulce Infante stands in front of a fence with her arms crossed. Her shirt reads CASA.
“If not everyone participates, it’s harder for those who are participating,” says Dulce Infante, a public school secretary who’s lived at Carroll Place for 19 years. Joseph Rodriguez

“We are the ones who are keeping this city running,” he says. “We are the city.”

“It’s an Intimidation Tactic”

Over the summer, as New York’s COVID caseload slowed and the city began to reopen, the tenants’ rent strike kept going. Many were still out of work, and some weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits or other public assistance due to their immigration status.

When the social safety net failed these tenants, they and their neighbors looked out for each other. “One of our [association] meetings, it wasn’t just about the repairs and the landlord, it was more of ‘how can we help each other during the pandemic?’ ” says Dulce Infante, a 37-year-old resident who’s lived at Carroll Place since 2001.

Although she’s reserved by nature, Infante felt comfortable enough to run errands for older tenants and apartment-sit for a neighbor who left town for a few weeks, feeding the neighbor’s pet fish and birds. Before departing, that neighbor delivered cereal for Infante’s two children. Such altruism was rare at the building until recently, she says, “and I’ve been here for 19 years.” (Her father used to be the super.)

She started completely withholding rent in August after initially opting to delay her payments of $1,338 a month for her two-bedroom apartment. Infante considered herself fortunate; neither she nor her husband lost employment because of the pandemic. She’s the secretary for a public school principal and was able to work from home, while he works in the pharmacy of a hospital in the Bronx.

Andrés Vargas stands in front of a building wearing a beanie, a face mask, and a T-shirt reading CASA.
Andrés Vargas and his wife have not been able to pay their rent since April. Joseph Rodriguez

But she was determined to strike nonetheless. “If not everyone participates, it’s harder for those who are participating,” Infante says, noting that her family’s food and electricity costs have risen during the pandemic. Her mother-in-law, who lives next door, has also withheld rent.

Even as the tenants pulled together, they feared the management was trying to divide them by targeting certain people. Some alleged harassment.

Andrés Vargas says he got a call from the property manager in late July. The 36-year-old construction worker and his wife, who cleans banks, hadn’t been able to pay the $1,400 monthly rent for their two-bedroom apartment since he was laid off in April, and the manager was asking when they would pay up.

“We came to your apartment and did a good job repairing it, so why aren’t you paying?” the manager said, in Vargas’ telling. “It’s an intimidation tactic to say he came and did repairs and this is why I need to pay.” With a hearing in the tenants’ housing case approaching in early August, some reported receiving door knocks about rent. (Reached by phone, the manager said he was on vacation and hung up; he didn’t respond to follow-up messages. An attorney for the landlord denies that any harassment occurred.)

On Aug. 13, in a highly anticipated faceoff, dozens of tenants and the landlord, Yechiel Weinberger, met via videoconference. This was the first time the tenants voiced their demands about rent relief and the management directly to Weinberger.

He committed to making additional repairs but disputed allegations that tenants were harassed by the management, and stuck to his earlier offer of a 50 percent discount on owed rents, according to an advocate for the tenants. (The attorney for Weinberger declined to discuss the meeting, other than to say the issue of rent debt went unresolved.)

Without a resolution in sight, the tenants extended their rent strike to September. Some started receiving 14-day rent demands—also called “pay or quit” notices—from the landlord, which often portend eviction cases. At least four households were subsequently served papers for nonpayment and are awaiting court dates, the advocate says. (The attorney confirms that the landlord filed some nonpayment actions.) The current backlog of eviction cases in the city makes it unlikely that these new cases will move forward anytime soon.

Still, the tenant association plans to stay on strike in October and push for a better deal. The members are feeling relatively confident about their position, given that they’ve already gotten their landlord to make needed repairs, offer some rent forgiveness, and come to the bargaining table.

Nathaniel Jones, who learned long ago to save for a rainy day, lately has been reflecting on a different financial strategy for handling tough times, one reinforced by his neighbors: the act of holding back together. “I notice that when you talk about withholding money [from] a business, they listen more than when you’re just giving them money and talking,” he says. “No matter what business it is.”

This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.