TenantPower Journal 3: Tenant Rights Under Quarantine

I’m entering my second week of quarantine, how about you? I hope you are safe and doing your best to “flatten the curve.”

As I’m self-quarantining, venturing out only for occasional groceries, I’ve been experimenting with ways to keep pursuing tenant rights while at home. Here are a few things I’ve found which I thought I’d share.

Strengthen your internal support structure

Since many of us are either at home or remote working, it is a good opportunity to update the resources used by the tenant association for contacting residents, saving information, and communication between leadership.

One tenant association is going through its email list to check in on residents wellbeing and reminders of the Association contact information. Another association is refreshing their list of informal tenant leaders; some members who haven’t participated in a while are getting an email updating them on recent events and asking whether they will continue participating.

Now is a good time to make sure tenant association meeting sign-in sheets are typed and saved in the appropriate place. If emails have bounced back, check them against saved hardcopies of sign-ins to identify if there’s been a misinterpretation.

If you haven’t been organizing renters and gotten contact lists and conversation platforms, you’ll obviously be starting from a more difficult position. Existing tenant groups or nonprofits may have email or phone lists they’re willing to share. Other social spaces like churches, neighborhood listservs, Facebook groups, or school networks may have contacts as well. Start by volunteering to reach tenants in need and connect them with resources, from there you can explore relationships between existing groups and renters.

Experiment with ways to be social while social distancing

Current conditions basically make door to door canvassing and face to face meetings impossible. But don’t let that hold you back.

A number of tenant associations have turned to Zoom conference calls for holding both leadership discussions and general meetings. Online meetings require all the preparation and roles as an in-person meeting with the added challenge of maintaining interest and participation from members. Having someone with experience with the Zoom interface and a well-thought out agenda makes the process much smoother. For instance, one association is planning on inviting a Montgomery County housing code inspector to answer resident questions about code compliance for their April meeting.

Some tenant associations have a forum for miscellaneous chatter and resident-to-resident communication. Now is a good time to both use group chats but also be wary of the information being provided. It is a good idea to have one member of the tenant association keep track of local and state government communications and share those rather than allow a proliferation of links to unverified news sources.

More than one tenant has expressed interest in social events that could take place without being in the same physical location. This tenant got the idea from playing role playing games with people across the world online but applied it to games more people are likely to be familiar with. I’ll post an update when they’ve finalized their idea for “Social Distancing Bingo Night!”

Games or activities that can be done over the phone or computer can bring together tenants at a time where we are all feeling isolated. Virtual story-time, book clubs, sewing groups, and bingo nights and more; post a comment if you have ideas!

Newslettering

A newsletter is an important and useful tool for any tenant association but especially if your tenant association has lots of names and contacts but isn’t prepared to do much besides host meetings for residents.

Newsletters can consist of no more than the most recent decisions or ideas from the steering committee, a short spotlight on tenant association successes, trusted coronavirus resources, or a note of appreciation for a particular maintenance worker.

The steering committee may want to cooperate on a newsletter in the beginning. Eventually it is better to put a person or people in charge of drafting content and then an editor to review the final copy for edits.

As above with regard to strengthening internal support, if you don’t have a list of names or your list is too small, ask around to existing tenant groups or nonprofits. They may not give you their contact lists but you can offer to draft a message to their contacts for them to send on your behalf.

Not with a tenant association but want to advocate for renter rights? Try these issues:

Rent stabilization, rent freeze, rent strike

A rent stabilization law would implement standards for increasing rent a certain amount each year.  A rent freeze would set rents in place for a defined period of time. Tenants who withhold their rent (voluntarily or by necessity) are engaged in a rent strike.

A recurring hashtag movement on twitter is #RentStrike2020, which appears to be another one of those non-profit groups that just happens to show up along with any crisis. It’s my opinion that a rent strike is a tactical move by tenants who want to draw certain demands from the landlord. Crucially, tenants couldpay the rent but refuse  until their demands are met. Using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse for a rent strike fails because the coronavirus crisis itself is eroding people’s ability to pay rent whether they want to or not. A rent strike may happen but it will be a spontaneous part of a general housing market breakdown and not an online petition campaign.

Further, while rent cap laws or rent strikes are popular representations of tenant power in action, they can be extraordinarily risky for tenants if there are no just-cause eviction laws in place.

Just Cause Eviction

In D.C. and many other jurisdictions, landlords can only use a handful of reasons (“just causes”) to evict tenants. This gives tenants better grounds to fight for better housing conditions, organize their neighbors, and refuse to pay rent if the terms of their lease are not honored.

Many places where you can observe more intense levels of tenant organizing, tenant action, and tenant power have just cause eviction laws. Maryland is not one of those places.

Montgomery County renters have fought for years to implement just cause eviction, which must be done on the state level. This year’s bill, introduced by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, is seeing extreme resistance from the House Environment and Transportation Committee head Del. Barve and the “Landlord Lobby” (groups like Apartment and Office Building Association, Southern Management, Maryland MultiFamily Housing Association). The fate of the bill is not clear.

Organizing rent strikes can be extraordinarily risky for tenants if there are no just-cause eviction laws. We can work now to contact Del. Wilkins to support the bill or future just cause eviction legislation.

Lease Extensions

Because there are no just cause eviction laws, another danger to tenants is losing their home when the term of their lease ends. In Maryland, the landlord is sole arbiter over whether a tenant has the right to remain in their home. Under current crisis conditions, landlords could easily see it as profitable to refuse to renew the leases of certain lower-income tenants (single-parent families, the elderly, “problem” tenants) in order to attract higher-paying renters.

Forcing landlords to extend expiring leases during the crisis and for a set time afterward protects those most vulnerable tenants from eviction.

Rent repayment plans

Giving tenants the power to negotiate rent repayment plans with their landlord is beneficial for at least two reasons:

– it encourages tenants to organize and collectively bargain for better payment plans.

– it puts renters closer to an equal footing with homeowners by offering a similar opportunity to “re-finance” housing costs.

Rent repayment plans in addition to lease extensions would essential operate like a homeowner extending the length of their mortgage in exchange for smaller monthly payments. Tenants organized into tenant associations could be an even stronger vehicle to make demands to both landlord and the government over when and how much rent will be paid.

If you have comments or thoughts about tenant organizing during crisis, leave a remark below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s