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By Paul Schrodt
April 30, 2020
Calum Heath for Money

Rent strikes are surging across the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

This tool of objection, which has a long history dating back to the 1800s, has found new footing as millions of Americans lose their livelihoods.

For renters in New York, San Francisco, and other cities with a particularly high cost of living, COVID-19 has turned entire apartment buildings into hubs of community organizing. In an April 27 virtual town hall, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for Governor Andrew Cuomo to cancel rent and mortgage payments across the state.

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“People aren’t striking because they don’t feel like paying rent," she said. "They’re striking because they can’t.”

It's hard to tell whether this maneuver to put pressure on landlords and local governments will work — and whether it's a smart idea for you should join in. Here are some important points to consider.

What is a rent strike, exactly?

Renters have historically wielded strikes to push authorities, including property owners and government officials, when economic hardships affect their ability to pay rent.

The coronavirus poses a unique dilemma: The stalling of business activity is a result of a national health crisis, and when it comes to public aid, different cities have used wildly different approaches.

For example, the Los Angeles City Council approved a temporary ban on evictions for renters unable to pay rent because of the virus, in addition to waiving late fees and permitting renters to make late payments for up to a year. The city’s Mayor Eric Garcetti also announced a freeze on rent prices for hundreds of thousands of apartments. Officials in other regions have passed similar measures, like New York City's Mayor Bill De Blasio, who halted evictions.

Certain Americans, however, might get little to no relief at the moment. In Ohio, where calls for rent strikes have cropped up, there's been no statewide legal halting of evictions. If you and those around you are fielding aggressive demands for rent from a landlord and can’t pay up, a collective strike is one option in pursuing aid.

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Should I join a rent strike?

“While the need for rent relief may be immediate, it's a good idea to understand the possible longer-term consequences,” says Lauren Bringle Jackson, a financial counselor at Self Financial.

One potential downside to take into account is a ding on your credit score if you skip paying rent.

“Most landlords don't report payments or delinquencies to credit bureaus, but some landlords do," Jackson says. "Future landlords [can] look into your payment histories, in particular if you get evicted or those unpaid rent payments are sent to collections.”

If you're worried about making rent, Jackson recommends discussing options with your landlord before joining a rent strike. Given the severity of the economic downturn, they may be more amenable to rent deferral.

“Ultimately, it’s your call whether you want to participate in a rent strike or not," she says. "But before you do, consider alternatives for negotiating your rent, cutting back on expenses, and prioritizing your debt payments during hard times.”

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What are my other options?

Depending on your situation, it might be worth looking to government assistance for help. In addition to direct checks sent out under the CARES Act, you should file for unemployment benefits if you apply. Unemployment offices are flooded with requests, so check your state government's website often to get the money you’re due.

You can also reach out to the dozens of professional groups raising money for workers in need, nonprofit organizations like United Way and The Salvation Army, or local groups like the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles (which is independent of the city government) to see what kind of relief is available.

Reach out to your local representatives, too, and ask what they're doing to help the people in your community.

“Keep pushing for larger systemic changes," Jackson says. "And in the meantime, protect yourself and your finances as best you can."

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