Alina Tenser and her son drape a #CancelRent banner from their balcony, an ubiquitous symbol of the movement (photo by Gabo Camnitzer)

As May approached and the government showed no signs of easing rent requirements, Brooklyn-based artists Alina Tenser and Gabo Camnitzer grew worried about the tenants in their Bushwick building. Some of them are low-income renters who, like them, secured a unit through the city’s affordable housing lottery. Would they be able to pay their rent during the pandemic? What would happen if they didn’t?

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Camnitzer had been doing graphic work for Housing Justice for All, the group coordinating rent strikes in New York along with Right to Counsel. He and Tenser quickly organized a tenants’ association for their building, now at over 60 members, and collectively drafted a letter to their landlord asking for a 50% rent reduction as well as waived rent for those who could not pay it.

“While we wait for the state to intervene, many of us do not know how we will pay for groceries, family care, medical care, or other needs, let alone rent,” read the letter. “We hope you will recognize the unprecedented nature of this emergency and act with compassion and grace.”

When the answer was a definitive “no,” Camnizter, Tenser, and 34 other tenants in the association joined the thousands currently striking to #CancelRent, a cry resounding nationwide.

“We can’t afford to pay $2,400 for rent at this time,” said Lafleur Duncan, one of the building’s tenants who was approved for affordable housing. Duncan lost her job nannying in Brooklyn Heights in mid-March and has still not received an unemployment check; her husband is also out of work.

“If we use our stimulus check to pay the rent, we won’t have food. We have a son we have to feed as well,” she told Hyperallergic.

While New York has imposed a moratorium on evictions for both residential and commercial tenants, in place until June 20, it has not yet announced rent freezes or forgiveness. Coinciding with May Day, as essential workers from grocery store employees to mail delivery drivers stage walkouts protesting unsafe labor conditions, tenants across America are withholding rent, some in solidarity with those who have lost their jobs.

The five-story, 177-unit, brand-new development owned by Bushwick Realty Holdings is what’s colloquially known as a “421-a,” after the section of New York’s Real Property Tax Law that outlines tax exemptions for certain properties. Because some of its units operate as affordable housing, says Tenser, the building is rent-stabilized, meaning rents cannot be raised past a certain threshold each year.

In response to the tenants’ association’s initial letter asking for rent reductions and waivers, management sent what Camnitzer described as a “boilerplate” email that did not pointedly address their requests for relief.

“We are not willing to deal with any association,” concluded the building’s response. “However, any tenant that lost his or her job can sign a pre-negotiation agreement with the management company and only after such time, management will reach out to those specific tenants.”

Five days later, on April 27, the association sent management another letter, this time giving formal notice of a rent strike effective May 1. The building has yet to respond.

Tenser says management’s ensuing silence and lack of empathy toward tenants has exacerbated anger over their initial handling of the crisis.

The landlord’s disregard in responding to us and our neighbors really
pushed all of us over the edge,” said Tenser. “I was surprised to see that people who initially showed some compassion for the landlord really got fired up after receiving the correspondence.”

Another tenant and member of the association, Eric Oliver Jr., was furloughed from his job at a clothing boutique on March 16. He immediately reached out to the landlord to alert them of his financial situation.

“I was not met with any kind words. Just a blanket statement of ‘figure it out,’” he told Hyperallergic. “I was willing to pay partial rent or work something out. I don’t appreciate that even after I told them that, they did nothing,” he said.

Oliver has been striking since April. Over the past weeks, he says he has received multiple calls from the building’s management inquiring about the status of his unemployment application.

Camnitzer points out that a luxury building containing affordable housing units is inherently contradictory. The oceans that already separated the lives of lower- and middle-class tenants seem to have widened during the crisis.

“There’s a chasm that exists within this building, and between this building and the surrounding community, that is representative of how this crisis is impacting people differentially based on racial and socio-economic factors,” he said.

Sumathy Kumar is a tenant organizer and co-chair of New York City Democratic Socialists of America, one of the 70 organizations that make up the Housing Justice for All coalition.

“Today, thousands of tenants are going on rent strike to demand universal rent cancellation and the immediate rehousing of the 92,000 homeless people in NY,” she said in a message to Hyperallergic. “We’re witnessing the largest rent strike in NY in 100 years and it’s exciting to see renters turning their individual housing issues into an act of collective power and mass noncompliance.”

Camnitzer teaches at Columbia University, and Tenser teaches at Pratt and Parsons; the two say they feel fortunate to be currently employed and able to meet financial responsibilities such as rent, but they know that is not the case for others. Further, neither will be receiving a paycheck past the end of the current academic semester, and the possibility of working again in the fall is increasingly uncertain.

Most of the association’s striking members, they said, are acting in support of tenants who are have lost their income and are simply unable to pay their rent.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of solidarity that people
in this building who can pay rent are showing with those who can’t,” said Camnitzer.

Artists and arts businesses, among them small- and mid-sized galleries facing plummeting revenue and unchanging overhead costs, have been rallying for housing protections since the global health crisis began. In March, the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) released a petition calling on the local government to implement relief measures, including rent and utilities forgiveness and a freeze on mortgage payments. The activist collective The Illuminator beamed a guerrilla projection that read “CANCEL THE RENT” onto a Manhattan skyscraper. 

Camnitzer believes the housing crisis long predates COVID-19. “The Housing Justice For All coalition unifies the marginalized voices of tenants and people experiencing homelessness. These are families who are on the frontlines of this epidemic and who are disproportionately affected by it,” he told Hyperallergic.

“Our building has joined the state-wide rent strike to demand Governor Cuomo cancel rent, house all New Yorkers immediately and permanently, and reinvest in public housing.”

Bushwick Realty Holdings has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.