Strike Back!
Tenants Plan to Fight Landlords' Money with Money

Village Voice, May 28, 1997

The landlords have the money and the tenants have the votes, right? That's the wisdom that has so far guided the months-long battle over rent laws. But now, some tenants are challenging that equation, devising two independent strategies intended to fight money with money. One--considered drastic and possibly treacherous even by some tenant advocates--calls for a June rent slowdown, and maybe even a citywide rent strike. The second aims to start a tenants' Political Action Committee, mimicking the PACs that landlords have used so well to set politicians on a crusade to end rent laws.

Both tactics reflect the economics of the tenants backing them: the PAC is being spearheaded by uptown residents who can devote as much as one month's rent to the PAC. The rent slowdown, on the other hand, is being pushed by a loosely organized group of downtown tenants known for defending squatters and agitating against kicking the homeless out of Tompkins Square Park.

Beginning June 1, the Housing Solidarity Network (HSN) is urging tenants to slow down rent payments until landlords demand them. That could cause a financial ripple as landlords find their cash flow disrupted, reasons Fran Luck of the HSN.

Also next week, organizers expect to announce the PAC, beginning with pledges primarily from tenants on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side. The goal is to raise at least $1 million. While too late to influence the current rent war, the PAC is intended as a long-term tool to leverage legislators into supporting rent regulation.

Much more controversial is HSN's call for a "rent resistance,'' which relies on the fact that tenants are a huge economic force. In 1996, for instance, regulated tenants paid $7.96 billion to landlords--as much as the city's budget for police and social services combined.

"The billions of dollars that tenants pay is a very important part of investment capital used by banks,'' says Luck. "If it slowed down, it ultimately would have an effect on Wall Street. Maybe the banks would put pressure on the legislature to pull back.''

But Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition (NYSTNC), who is perhaps the most prominent tenant representative in the rent battle, laughed out loud at that prospect. "It's bullshit, the height of absurdity,'' said McKee, clearly more agitated than amused by the prospect of a rent action. "These are people who have never organized a rent strike in one building, let alone citywide. The major organizations are not considering any such tactic. It's the wrong target. The landlords are not the target; the targets are the governor and the legislators who can renew the laws.''

McKee says a successful rent action requires immense organization. Luck herself describes HSN as "a real small, unfunded grassroots organization from the Lower East Side'' that began in 1991 and that intentionally shuns formal structure, like having officers or memberships. At its core, says Luck, are 10 people. HSN holds housing organizing classes around the city, and in 1993 won a $2000 grant to teach Mott Haven tenants about lead poisoning. Luck says HSN has assisted tenants in rent strikes.

So far, HSN's rent slowdown strategy includes a tape-recorded hotline, four forums, regular Monday night meetings at a Methodist church in Greenwich Village, and distribution of 15,000 fliers. HSN has been encouraging a slowdown since April, but Luck could not say how many people might be participating.

HSN is not part of Showdown 97, the coalition of tenant groups devoted to preserving the rent laws. So far, Showdown 97 has relied on traditional means to keep the state laws governing rent from expiring on June 15: lobbying, phone banks, protesting, targeting swing senate votes, and threatening to oust disloyal pols. With less than three weeks before the laws expire, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who is championing the end of rent laws, and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver remain in a stalemate.

Since Governor George Pataki announced, on May 12, his plan for vacancy decontrol, he has become Showdown 97's target. "Our job now is to turn the heat up on George Pataki,'' says McKee. "What is he going to care if tenants start slowing down payments?''

But Luck says pressuring politicians is not enough. "We need a threat, and it's got to be bigger than ëIf you don't support us, we won't vote for you,' says Luck. "So far, all the strategy boils down to telling politicians they'll be voted out of office, or pressuring swing-vote senators to switch their votes. Those strategies are bound to fail. Those senators might not have enough rent-regulated tenants to worry about this, and even those who do have to worry about the things Bruno controls, like committee assignments and getting bills passed....With rent resistance, we don't have to beg, plead, or pressure politicians who have many other factors to consider besides our needs. For tenants, having electoral strategies as the only trick in your deck of cards is a very, very bad idea.''

McKee, on the other hand, can't think of a worse plan than messing with rent payments. "It is irresponsible to tell people to go out on a rent strike,'' he says. "Even a rent slowdown is dangerous: if you pay after the landlord sends a three-day notice [demanding rent], by the time you write the check and mail it, you could end up in court and get evicted.''

Luck insists a slowdown need not put people at risk. "We simply want people not to pay rent on June 1, but to put it aside and pay when a landlord makes the demand. But we are totally warning people that they must put the money aside. All of this holds up only if people can pay the rent on demand.''

Landlords cannot lawfully begin an eviction proceeding until tenants have been notified, in writing or orally, that they must pay rent in full within three days. But even tenants who pay upon three-day demand must be willing to risk court proceedings, late fees, and even possibly paying their landlord's legal costs, says Bob Grimble, a private attorney who has been informally advising HSN.

Grimble explained that when some landlords give a three-day notice, they simultaneously file papers, called dispossess petitions, that can lead to eviction. "I've seen instances where the tenant has paid, but the dispossess notice comes along anyway,'' says Grimble. Tenants must then appear in court or face a default judgment and possible eviction. Grimble argues that eviction is virtually impossible if the rent has been paid. Even so, tenants who intended merely to slow down rent payments may find being in such a position far more than they bargained for.

Luck stresses that tenants "must play exactly by the rules: you have to pay the rent when demanded, get a return receipt, and make sure you go to court if you're summoned. But this is not a reason not to do this.''

Even tenants who want to go to court will be hard-pressed to defend withholding rent as a political protest. HSN and Grimble are advising such tenants to argue that they are withholding rent because of violations in their apartments--"most apartments have some form of violation,'' an HSN flier says. That, too, is dicey, says Sam Himmelstein, a private attorney who represents tenants in housing court.

"While I love the idea of tenants using economic clout as a bargaining chip, being on a citywide rent strike is not a legal defense for not paying your rent,'' says Himmelstein. "When a landlord brings a nonpayment case against you, if you're a group of 50 or 100 tenants and you go to court and say, ëI'm on a citywide rent strike to protest for rent laws,' the judge is likely to say, "That's nice, but now you have to pay your rent and legal fees because you have no legal basis for withholding rent.' I'm afraid people will jump on the bandwagon and fall through the cracks.''

May 28, 1997