Graffiti at Ocean Beach calls for a rent strike. (Sara Gaiser/S.F. Examiner)

As May bills come due, calls for rent and mortgage forgiveness increase

Rent strikes planned across The City in response to high unemployment rates

Calls for rent cancellation are growing as May rent comes due for many tenants with little to no income.

At least 21 rent strikes are planned for Friday in San Francisco and 38 in the East Bay, according to a tracker by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and contributors worldwide. With more than three million unemployment filings in California alone, many tenants lack the income needed for essential supplies and rent.

Hundreds will gather in a car caravan to amplify those strikes on Friday, May 1, when rent and mortgage payments will be due for many, to demand the cancellation of housing-related debts. The date also happens to coincides with May Day, a key organizing day for labor groups.

Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney, and Dean Preston backed similar calls with a resolution in March.

“Rents were largely unpayable for working-class folks before coronavirus hit,” said Erin McElroy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. “It’s important to think about how after [the shelter-in-place], people will be slammed with unpaid rents during the time they couldn’t pay them.”

Evictions are prohibited during the shelter in place, and San Francisco tenants are able to defer rent by sending written notice and documentation of lost income to their landlords. However navigating the patchwork of protections has caused confusion and numerous calls to tenant counselors at the San Francisco Tenants Union.

Counselor Jeff Haas works largely with Spanish speakers and said a lot of workers in informal economies are having trouble proving they lost work to landlords, either because they weren’t informed by employers at all or they only received a text. He’s sent many clients without internet or a printer a text of the official form needed from the San Francisco Rent Board, with no choice but to write it down on a blank piece of paper.

“These are people who are the nannies, cooks, janitors, and day laborers, who work so hard to pay the crazy high rent here relative to their income, and now they’re just treated as disposable,” Haas said. “I understand it’s a whole system but I think without some type of rent forgiveness, there’s going to be this whole class of people that’s going to be left homeless.”

Landlord Veritas Investments deferred rent payments to June, which helps Jenny Ramirez’s household for the moment. Ramirez’s mother is still working at a Mexican grocery store but she, her uncle, and father are all out of work during the shelter-in-place and beyond.

But her family signed papers they don’t completely understand, and are bracing for a large bill after shelter restrictions are lifted.

“I still don’t get how they expect us to pay rent when so many families aren’t working,” said Ramirez, who will be protesting on Friday. “It’s just a really hard situation for everyone right now.”

Organizers build support for a May Day protest for rent and mortgage cancellation. (Art courtesy Leslie Dryer and David Solnit)

A survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association found that just 6 percent of residential renters at more than 10,000 units were unable to pay rent as of April 9, but 16 percent of housing providers had tenants unexpectedly break leases or give a 30-day notice to vacate. Five percent of housing providers were able to negotiate mortgage forbearances, and 17 percent plan to delay paying their property taxes.

Half of the commercial tenants surveyed were unable to pay all or a portion of their April rent.

“With a substantial number of residents out of work for the full month of April, however, we expect May to be a very difficult month with more renters unable to pay their rent, resulting in housing providers being unable to pay their mortgage,” said Charley Goss of SFAA in an email. “We are hoping and advocating for rental assistance to be included in any federal or state relief packages that may come forward, which would allow renters to continue to pay rent and maintain their housing without accumulating debt.”

Some landlords are proactively eliminating or reducing rent. Tom Burtch, who lives in San Francisco and has property in Washington, D.C., preemptively canceled rent for April and halved May rent while offering repayment plans for the 13 units largely occupied by longtime working-class tenants.

“They’re good people with not-good paying jobs,” Burtch said. “They’re loyal tenants. It’s about time I gave back.”

Burtch said the other landlords he mentioned the idea to in March also seriously considered doing the same. The allowed annual rent-control increases in D.C. will likely not occur for his tenants, he added.

State Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Phil Ting, who represent San Francisco, co-authored Assembly Bill 828 that prohibits evictions and foreclosures until 15 days after the state of emergency is lifted. It also tasks courts to set up repayment plans that would reduce rent by a quarter of its usual cost while the tenant, who must prove economic hardship, adds a twelfth of back rent over the next year before the full rent cost is restored.

However the bill has not been able to move through the California State Legislature during its recess, which ends on May 4.

Caravan protesters will meet at Pier 50 at 10 a.m. and are expected to drive by the California State Building at 350 McAlister St. and some buildings in the Tenderloin.

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