Inside Stories

I'm organizing my neighbors and negotiating with our landlord to pay half our rent

By Alanna Schubach  | April 1, 2020 - 3:00PM

Many New Yorkers have lost income because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here's how one group of tenants is taking action.

Austin Havens-Bowen for Brick Underground/Flickr

April rent payments are due today, a serious burden for the many New Yorkers who have been laid off or lost work as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a 90-day moratorium on evictions, and mortgage payments have been waived for 90 days, but there has been no legislation passed yet to address the growing crisis of tenants who can no longer afford rent, despite an increasing number of elected officials and tenant advocates calling for a rent freeze. Tony, a Brooklyn renter with political organizing experience, decided to take matters into his own hands. He's speaking to his neighbors and negotiating a rent reduction with his landlord for this month. He lives in a small, rent-stabilized building owned by a landlord who also owns a number of other rental properties. Here's how he worked with his neighbors to get a break on the rent.

I've lived here for five years now, and throughout that time I've gotten to know some of the people in the building. Three of the six units have families that have been here 40 to 50 years, and the other three are more recent transplants. 

There have been issues with the building even before this. The landlord owns 10 buildings with dozens of outstanding violations; there are 27 in mine. There are issues with the front door, with fire extinguishers, with break-ins. There's a set of stairs that is really old and dangerous.

I have lost income [as a result of the coronavirus pandemic], and I know other people in the building have, too. At first, I thought about leaving a note to get everyone's attention, but instead I just decided to go door to door. I had been talking to my roommate about what to do, and we decided to try to cut our rent in half. I took that around to the other people in the building. Some of them were nervous about it. The issue is complicated because there are three units with people paying considerably more in rent than the other three. For one family, they're paying a pretty low amount, and the landlord knows they receive government checks.

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One neighbor I spoke to said at first that she works for the government and is working from home, and paying rent isn't really an issue for her. I explained that we won't be able to get any concessions from the landlord unless we’re all together in this. Other people have lost income, and we have to stand together in solidarity. When I explained it that way, she got on board. Then it turned out she lost overtime hours and got enthusiastic about working together as a building. 

Once I got everyone in the building on board, I called the landlord and explained the situation. On the one hand, he says he's your best friend, on your side, and we're all in this together, but then he says he's really suffering and he has to put food on the table. He was also upset with me for having talked to the people in the building. 

When I made our terms clear to him, first he said, "Don't worry about it, if you can't pay your full rent this month, I understand, this is a crisis, I won't be seeking retribution." But when I brought up forgiving back rent, he got slippery. He said, "If the government decides to freeze mortgages on residential and commercial properties, then yeah. If they freeze the rent, I'll return any money you give me."

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But I'm not expecting this bill to get passed. Cuomo’s not going to do anything for us. I was nervous, because the landlord was saying yes, but he would change the subject any time I asked about forgiving back rent. I sent a text to the whole building and said if you've been affected by this crisis, you should only pay half your rent, but in terms of forgiving back rent, I prefer to have this in writing but I don't yet. I don't have the guarantee that I'd like there. 

I talked to him again and he was still very slippery on the issue of back rent. It sounded like he was saying for this month everything will be forgiven, and then we’ll go month by month. What I’ve discussed with people in the building is writing something up and having everyone sign it. Without the assurance in writing, I don't want them to be subject to any retribution. 

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If everything remains the same and we’re unable to return to work next month, we’ll continue to pay half and deal with the whole thing again. The only power that we have is collective power. We have nothing else. We’re not the ones with assets. The landlords have all the leverage if we remain isolated, not talking to neighbors or working together. That's exactly what he wants from me and other tenants: to remain separate and not communicate with each other. 

But when you're talking to other people in the building and they realize that we’re sharing the same difficulties, very quickly you can form strong bonds that are helpful not only with this, but going forward in case anything else goes wrong. It's a matter of getting over that hump of talking to your neighbors and getting to know them, but it’s worth it. 


Alanna Schubach

Contributing writer

Contributing editor Alanna Schubach has over a decade of experience as a New York City-based freelance journalist.

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