Two weeks after the coronavirus closed the Seattle restaurant where Sean Case works as a cook, his rent was due. More than a month later, the 30-year-old is receiving unemployment assistance but still has no job, and rent is about to be due again.

Some other tenants in his Capitol Hill building also are service workers whose incomes have been hit. Dozens recently signed a letter asking their landlord for relief and are now contemplating actions such as a “rent strike” to show solidarity with each other and tenants elsewhere by jointly withholding rent.

As May rent deadlines approach, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and some other activists have added their voices to nationwide calls urging tenants to use tactics like rent strikes to push landlords and the government to cancel rent payments and provide other help.

Yet missed payments could yield dire consequences for tenants when Washington’s emergency moratorium on evictions ends, some tenant advocates have warned, with no guarantee the gambit will succeed.

Even some tenants who believe in the concept are scared. So are small-time landlords, who are worried about their own bills during the pandemic and say most tenants should be able to pay. Among potential strikers, those in apartment buildings can organize in ways that those in houses cannot.

Case said he and his neighbors are hoping their landlord negotiates soon. “People are making a choice between rent and food, and that’s not a choice they should have to make,” he said last week. “No one wants to do a rent strike.”

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Weighing risks

Politicians have acknowledged that the coronavirus, which led Gov. Jay Inslee to shutter most businesses last month, has put huge numbers of tenants in jeopardy.

Inslee has banned landlords until June 4 from evicting tenants for unpaid rent and recently added a provision requiring landlords to offer “reasonable” repayment plans, though that clause could be shaky. Many tenants have received stimulus checks. Some who’ve lost their jobs are collecting unemployment assistance.

United Way of King County and various partners this month launched a $5 million program to help 2,000 households hurt by the crisis pay rent. Landlords lauded that.

Yet some tenants and activists say bolder interventions are needed. The United Way program received 7,000 applications in 48 hours, so Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed allocating an additional $5 million for rental assistance. Tenants may be safe from eviction now, but they’re incurring debt that will eventually come due. Not all tenants have their stimulus checks, not all tenants out of work have been able to obtain unemployment assistance, and their benefits may not cover all their bills.

For those reasons, the Seattle City Council last month asked Inslee and Congress to cancel rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic, and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, has taken up the cause, introducing a bill. The Metropolitan King County Council narrowly declined to support cancellations, which skeptics have said wouldn’t pass constitutional muster.

Wiping out rent obligations could violate contract and property rights, though the issues are “really complicated,” University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer said.

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Meanwhile, Sawant has seized on the idea to push for cancellations. “To win this, we will need a fighting movement, and a May 1 rent strike will help to build momentum,” she said in an April 16 online town hall.

Ubah Warsame-Aden knows medical interpreters and Uber drivers who have run out of cash, the community leader said during the town hall. “We need to make sure our families are taken care of,” she said, noting some large corporations have received bailouts.

Rent-strike posters have been pasted along Seattle streets, and the Tenants Union of Washington State has noticed an unprecedented “wave” of organizing, board member Jon Mannella said.

Tenants are using various strategies, including online demonstrations and “phone zaps,” peppering elected leaders with calls, Mannella said. “You can call it a rent strike. You can call it whatever you want,” but some tenants won’t pay, he said, arguing the onus should be on landlords to seek relief, because they have more money and clout.

Jasper Rose, a yoga instructor and outreach coordinator who rents in Columbia City, said she started a “Seattle Rent Strike” Facebook page to spread the word. Though her landlord actually excused her April rent, Rose believes a mass strike could shield those who can’t pay.

But tenants eyeing rent strikes should exercise serious caution, because they could easily end up evicted, with marred records, said Xochitl Maykovich, political director at Washington Community Action Network. State laws meant to prevent evictions aren’t designed for people who withhold rent, she said.

There also aren’t enough eviction-defense attorneys to help everyone, added Maykovich, who doubts many strikes will occur because they typically require “deep organizing,” beyond social media posts. “People need to know the risk,” she said. “Don’t put rose-colored glasses on this.”

Edmund Witter, managing attorney with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, said strikes work only when committed tenants make precise demands, and he worries about the repayment-plan requirement in Inslee’s order.

How the requirement will actually work, particularly for people without jobs, is unclear, Witter said. The vague language in the order may not hold up in court after June 4, he added. “You really need to be acting in good faith with your landlord right now,” he said.

Making rent

Up on Capitol Hill, Case and his roommate pay $2,100 a month. He received a $1,200 stimulus check and is collecting unemployment assistance worth two-thirds his normal income; another $600 a week should be on the way, thanks to a boost authorized by Congress.

Case and his roommate could have made April rent but held their money to support neighbors who couldn’t pay, and because they don’t know whether they’ll have jobs to return to, he said. Some tenants across the city are in worse straits, he said. The state’s unemployment website has been hard to access; the assistance doesn’t account for cash tips that go unreported by most restaurant servers; and undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable, he said.

Tenants in his building started talking weeks ago and have been meeting over Zoom. Then property-management company Cornell & Associates sent a note to those who missed April rent. It suggested they consider using credit cards or investment accounts to pay, among other options. That bothered Case and his neighbors, he said.

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“We’re going to continue to reach out,” he said. “But at a time like this, to get a message like that … Working people are bearing the brunt of this crisis.”

In their letter to their landlord, the tenants asked for “compassionate, common-sense changes,” including rent cancellations for unemployed tenants and free laundry, and they garnered about three dozen signatures. They didn’t hear back and aren’t sure what they’ll do next, Case said. A rent strike may not happen but “is something we’re keeping in mind,” he said.

During another town hall Saturday, Sawant launched an email campaign to help Case and his neighbors pressure Cornell & Associates. Demands can vary by building, with strikes not always necessary, she said.

Miles outside Seattle in suburban Covington, where Jamie Leidecker rents a house, her situation is different. The 44-year-old is supporting her son, who’s in college, and her boyfriend, whose retail job evaporated.

Their rent also is $2,100 a month. For April, Leidecker emptied her savings account. For May, she plans to spend her stimulus check on rent and stop paying some other bills. For June, she has no clue. “We’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul,” the paralegal said.

Leidecker thinks rents need to be canceled. Without that, she said, mass evictions will occur when Inslee’s moratorium ends, increasing homelessness. Yet Leidecker, who has no connections to other tenants and no relatives in Washington to lean on, intends to pay what she can.

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“I read about the rent strike,” she said, “But I don’t want to risk something happening … When you’re out here in a house, you’re on your own.”

Landlord view

The pandemic has put landlords in an awkward situation, though some have more resources than others. Across 142,000 rental units surveyed by the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, about 11% missed April rent, spokesman Brett Waller said. Landlords expect that rate, already higher than normal, to climb in May, he said.

Cornell & Associates co-president Bart Flora said his company, which manages Case’s building and hundreds of other properties, is open to talking to in-trouble tenants to “work out a plan.” But Flora had little sympathy for tenants on strike.

“Why these people think landlords should subsidize their rent, I don’t get it,” he said. “They’re not having a strike on food at Safeway … I don’t see why they think we’re different than anyone else. We don’t have some magic pot of money.”

Rather than canceling payments, elected leaders should ramp up subsidies, said Kyle Woodring, spokesman at the Rental Housing Association of Washington. Landlords have mortgages, taxes, utilities and employees to pay and repairs to make, he noted. Tenants who keep paying rent can help small-time landlords cut better deals with neighbors not working, Woodring said.

Charlotte Thistle says she has a good relationship with the tenants who rent rooms in her Columbia City home. The calls for rent strikes have upset Thistle, a music teacher who is currently unemployed. “Kshama Sawant is telling everyone, ‘Don’t pay rent.’ How am I going to pay property taxes, and insurance, and utilities?” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Charlotte Thistle says she has a good relationship with the tenants who rent rooms in her Columbia City home. The calls for rent strikes have upset Thistle, a music teacher who is currently unemployed. “Kshama Sawant is telling everyone, ‘Don’t pay rent.’ How am I going to pay property taxes, and insurance, and utilities?” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Charlotte Thistle’s tenants, who rent rooms in the Columbia City house where she and her daughter also live, have been able to keep paying. Were they to need a break, she’d try to help, she said. But she’s out of work.

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The music teacher’s community-center gigs have been shut down and she’s applied for unemployment. The strike calls have upset Thistle, who recently spent $10,000 on a new roof, she said.

“I’m laid off and my tenants are still working. But Kshama Sawant is telling everyone, ‘Don’t pay rent,'” said Thistle, who is active in the Seattle Grassroots Landpeople group. “How am I going to pay property taxes, and insurance, and utilities?”

Sawant said strikers should target the “rapacious corporate landlords” who own most apartment buildings. Tenants with “working-class and middle-class” landlords should try to arrive at an understanding and then join protests, she said.