Over the past couple of news cycles, reports of right-wing lockdown protests have dominated headlines as these gatherings gain national attention and a fair share of criticism in the process. In fact, media coverage on these fringe, astroturf efforts have glided over the fact that a far larger people’s movement is brewing in the U.S. in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
With the impending May 1 rent payment deadline and nearly 26 million recent unemployment claims, tenants across the country are preparing for what may be the largest coordinated nationwide rent strike in nearly a century.
In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on evictions through April, with most claims likely not being processed until June when state courts finally re-open. As PA unemployment compensation claims creep up to two million, it is likely that even more Pennsylvanians will be unable to make rent this month.
Wolf’s eviction moratorium is only a temporary fix to the profound economic instability Americans are facing during this crisis. In around a month’s time, tenant unions and various organizations have partnered to collectively denounce the expectation of rent payments nationwide, beginning with a rent strike on May 1.
In Philadelphia, some of these organizing efforts have already materialized through a “Cancel the Rent” protest, organized by the Philadelphia Tenants Union and the Party of Socialism and Liberation among others. On Saturday, April 25, this event dominated the Ben Franklin Parkway as droves of cars, labeled with posters saying “cancel rent,” demanded rent payments be frozen through the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.
“People [who] have lost their jobs [and] don’t have the money now, they’re not going to have it three months worth later down the line,” commented Lia Ferrante from the Party of Socialism and Liberation in an interview with CBS Philly.
Through direct action and grassroots organizing, the PTU has additionally spearheaded other long-term efforts for citywide rent strikes. The union has been helping neighboring tenants get in contact with each other to create and organize collective demands to present to their landlord.
According to the PTU’s official statement regarding the strikes, they urge Governor Wolf and state officials to “cancel rent and mortgage payments for six months, with no debt accrued and no back pay required,” as well as “enforce rent and mortgage forgiveness for missed payments starting from March.”
The more specific demands for Mayor Kenney and City Council include:
- Make all eviction filing, evictions, and foreclosures illegal for at least six months.
- Freeze rent rates at the current level for a year beyond the end of the crisis.
- Enforce comprehensive rent control.
- Take immediate action to provide housing for the houseless people of Philadelphia.
- Build city-funded public housing that will meet the city’s needs.
The PTU implores tenants who have not been able to successfully negotiate a deal with their landlords to withhold payments, a pressure tactic against the city and state government for not properly handling the housing crisis. They additionally encourage even tenants who can afford to pay rent to strike in solidarity with their fellow neighbors.
One Drexel student organization has long been partnered with the tenants union to mobilize Drexel students and is now assisting with the citywide organizing efforts. “As Drexel Socialists/Student Tenant Union is a child organization of Philly Socialists and a sister organization of the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU), we stand in solidarity with their vote to call for a citywide rent strike,” stated Drexel Socialists representative Noah Cote.
The student organization denounces the eviction moratorium, stating it is not enough to protect the millions of people out of work at the moment.
Fully embracing PTU’s call to action, Drexel Socialists are imploring local, state and national legislatures to provide relief to tenants. “Drexel Socialists/Student Tenants Union will be working with the PTU to provide organizing support, fundraising efforts for the Rent Strike Fund, and will be participating in the Emergency Anti-Eviction Task Force,” Cote said regarding the organization’s future plans.
The aftermath of the nationwide rent strike, organized by groups like the Philly Tenants Union, will largely determine the legislative steps in the months to follow. Progressive politicians, such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), have already introduced legislation to combat the rent crisis through the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act. The RMC Act would effectively cancel rent and mortgage payments for the entire country throughout the duration of the crisis.
However, given the nature of the previous federal relief packages, it is unlikely that the federal government will follow suit with a rent bailout anytime soon.
Nevertheless, the May 1 strike is ultimately only the beginning of a growing movement to not only win rent cancellation now but also to help tenants defend themselves from future evictions in the late summer and fall.