We interviewed Elin Miller, a tenants rights activist in New York City with the FullTime Tenants’ Union and member of Socialist Alternative.
What is it like to be a renter in NYC during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Being a working-class renter in New York City during COVID-19 is a really mixed experience. Some of us face unrelenting landlord harassment for nonpayment, while others face radio silence. Some have been able to tap into government aid or use our stimulus checks for rent, but others haven’t seen a dime of unemployment. Some are leaving NYC for cheaper markets, while others hold onto our homes whether we can pay or not. Despite our different experiences, tenants here and nationally are uniting to fight back against a system that has overwhelmingly failed us.
What protections do renters have under the pandemic?
New York has relatively strong renter protections in comparison to other states thanks to our long tenant organizing history, yet the complex patchwork of eviction moratoriums and meager rent relief packages haven’t solved the looming debt and eviction crises. And despite the protections, tenants are being evicted anyway, illegally and informally. Money-hungry corporate landlords are stopping at nothing to get tenants out of their homes, sending henchmen to break into apartments and intimidate tenants into leaving, drilling tenants’ locks, and using their wealth to lobby politicians in their interests. Tenants are also being threatened with insurmountable back-rent. My landlord used this tactic to pressure one former tenant into a predatory deal that left her homeless and still in debt, allowing her to break her lease for a small reduction in rent owed.
What is the FullTime Tenant Union, and how did you get involved with them?
FullTime Tenant Union is a group of tenant associations and individuals who rent from FullTime Management, which operates hundreds of apartments across NYC. FTTU formed in March, around the same time I began organizing a rent strike in my building with my neighbors. We connected with FTTU coincidentally, because one of the founding organizers lived next door.
We’ve been involved with a lot of initiatives over the months, primarily organizing renters around common issues like neglected maintenance, landlord harassment, and inability to afford rent. We’re empowering tenants to organize within their buildings. We distribute legal information, mobilize for protests, and organize eviction defense.
Ultimately, our work demonstrates that renters need to build collective power and fight on all fronts. We need to address the immediate crises we face in order to build a movement that is ready to fight for long-term change.
What do you think it will take to guarantee no one faces eviction, or insurmountable rent debt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Tenants nationwide have already been evicted legally, illegally, and informally during COVID-19, and many more face devastating debt that could lead to an eviction down the road. Historic numbers of young people are moving back in with their parents. Rent paid with credit cards has increased 43%; one in ten renters have withdrawn money from retirement accounts for rent. Only one solution will ensure no one else is evicted during COVID-19: universal rent cancellation, funded by taxing the rich and letting corporate landlords take the hit they can afford. We must also address the housing crisis that existed before COVID-19, by urgently reclaiming vacant apartments to house the homeless, implementing aggressive rent control, and massively investing in affordable social housing.
Renters need to be clear about what we’re up against. Democrats and Republicans alike are bending to pressure from corporate landlords instead of helping renters. The only way to fight back is to build a mass, organized movement that can take power back from landlords directly. From rent strikes to eviction defense, we need mass solidarity to force the establishment to capitulate.