Tenant Organizing in the Time of COVID-19
In the midst of a looming recession, renters are getting organized. In Seattle, Sean Case has been organizing with his fellow tenants in their building. Their struggle has been covered by The Seattle Times and KOMO TV and attracted the support of Kshama Sawant, a city councilmember.
About a month ago, I found a handwritten note on my door from a neighbor I’d never met. The note invited me to join a Telegram chat with my fellow tenants. We got to talking and found all of us were scared, and many were out of work. Some didn’t have the cash on hand to pay the looming April rent. Over the next several days, one of my neighbors made a mutual-aid spreadsheet for the building, where people could ask for things they need or offer things to others. Another started an economic impact survey to find out who was out of work and who had drastically reduced hours. I drafted a letter to our landlord, then shared it with the group for feedback.
As a collective, we developed these demands to our landlord:
• A ban on evictions until 6 months after the stay-at-home order is lifted
• Suspension and forgiveness of rent and utility payments for tenants who are out of work
• A 50% reduction in rent and forgiveness of utility payments for tenants whose hours have been cut
• A 2-year rent freeze in the building
• All negotiations to be run through a council of tenants, not on an individual, case-by-case basis
• Disable the coin-operated laundry system and make laundry free during the crisis
We mailed that letter to our landlord with 35 signatures (it now has 38, a majority of the building), and we asked for a response by April 15th. The 15th arrived with no direct response from the landlord. But we were greeted that afternoon with a letter from the large management company that runs our building—Cornell & Associates. Instead of responding directly to our demands, their letter offered a list of suggestions for how to pay rent despite being out of work during a pandemic. Among those suggestions were offensive ideas such as asking our parents for money, going into credit card debt, and draining whatever savings or “investment accounts” we might have.
I’m not sure what effect Cornell & Associates thought their letter would have. Perhaps they thought these suggestions—which they dubbed “obvious”—hadn’t occurred to us. We were angry before those letters were slipped under our doors; now we’re angrier.
We emailed Cornell & Associates immediately, letting them know we received their letter and demanding they respond to our letter and begin a dialogue. Instead, they went silent.
Since then, we’ve talked to the Seattle Times and KOMO TV about our struggle and the letter we received. Our local city councilmember—the socialist Kshama Sawant—has coordinated with us on an email campaign to publicly pressure Cornell & Associates to address our demands.
This campaign is an example of how local organizing can coalesce with wider demands for statewide rent suspension. We need state and national rent suspension—and rent control—now, and our building is only one arena for that fight.
Our core demands aren’t radical, and they’re not specific to any one building. Tenants throughout the city, the state, and the country are worried about making rent. They’re scared of sickness and eviction. They’re angry that they’re being expected to navigate underfunded and overburdened government agencies and charities while big landlords collect full rents. To demand that unemployed and underemployed people continue to pay rent during a global pandemic is to live in denial of the magnitude of that pandemic.
My fellow tenants and I—and all tenant organizers—are merely asking for compassion and seriousness from our landlord and from Cornell & Associates. So far we’ve been offered neither. The central question during this pandemic is: who will pay for this crisis? The ruling class clearly expects working and poor people to foot the bill. We say: hell no, it’s your turn.
I encourage anyone thinking about organizing their neighbors right now to take that leap. Talk to your neighbors, and you’ll find many are ready to fight. Reach out to local tenant unions. Join the nearest DSA chapter. You can take a small step of solidarity now, by joining the email campaign organized by my building. Click here to tell Cornell & Associates—and all big landlords and management companies—that they need to pay up.
Sean Case is a renter and indefinitely laid off line cook living in Seattle, WA. He’s also a member of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and its Reform & Revolution caucus. In his free time, Sean enjoys baking and drawing. Feel free to reach out to him: firstname.lastname@example.org