I moved up to Philly from North Carolina, just south of Charlotte, about two years ago for school. I loved it but had to drop out in 2018 because it’s hard to manage going to school and keeping up with a full-time job and paying rent. In March, when the city started shutting down because of the pandemic and around the time that I started organizing with other tenants, I had recently been furloughed from my job at a local cinema. I didn’t know what was gonna happen next. I still had insurance bills to pay, and knew a lot of people were in far worse places than I was.
I live in a building owned by New Age Realty Group, a huge management company here in West Philadelphia. They manage over 900 units, which is absurd. Before I got involved with the New Age Tenants Council, I had started posting flyers around the building and in our neighborhood, asking people what their concerns are during this time, if they are able to afford rent, and how they would feel about rent striking. After that, I started going door-to-door, trying to get people to sign petitions in advance, trying to do it in the most socially distanced, quarantine type of way. I was trying to have productive organizing conversations. Things like: How are you going to take care of your family at this time? How about in two to three months from now?
A lot of people have huge concerns about all that, but some were still very hesitant about helping organize, mostly because they feared retaliation from landlords—not being able to rent again from these people or being otherwise blacklisted. Some people wouldn’t even open the door.
But right now we have about 100 members, and it’s still growing. We’re still reaching out to new people every day, and new people are reaching out to us. Some folks are much more willing to get involved than others. And I think what a lot of it boils down to is the illusion of choice. Not everyone has a choice of whether they can participate or not. For some, it’s mandatory—they just can’t pay.
I can understand feeling scared about organizing, though. When I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, it was always very drilled into me that unions are not good. Like, “You have to pay dues, and they’re taking money away from you.” I know better now, but it was very difficult for me to overcome that. Similarly, it’s hard to be under the thumb of a landlord 24/7. It can be really hard to get people to advocate for themselves, which I know is a really weird thing to say. But people are less likely to fight for themselves than they are to fight for their community and neighborhood. What I found is, when you’re trying to explain to people why they should do this for themselves, they’re like, “Well, I don’t need this right now, I’m comfortable where I’m at.” But it’s better if you explain, “Well, your neighbors are going to need help, because striking for them is not a choice; it’s a means of survival.” Most folks are good folks. They just need a little push.
When you go to your landlord as an individual, they can just say no. And that’s the end of the story. But if you go to your landlords as 10, 15, 20, or in this case 100, they can talk to those management companies and those landlords as huge collectives, as bodies that are essentially larger than the management properties themselves.
We want full rent relief across the board. We were willing to work with New Age on how that looks. We also want them to pledge to not process evictions for the duration of the pandemic, which, the courts are closed here anyways, but what we really want is for them to not pursue evictions after the courts reopen, either. We are trying to center our demands and struggles around queer people, trans people, Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. It’s so important we protect marginalized groups during this time because not only are they the most at-risk during the pandemic, but marginalized groups are going to be the first ones to face evictions when courts reopen.
New Age has asked us to reveal private financial information to help us on an individual basis, which we are totally opposed to. And then last week, they drafted up a letter that said, “Contrary to [New Age Tenant Council’s] mantra, the pandemic has not left everyone unable to pay rent, and sadly, some see the pandemic as an opportunity for a handout.” We’re not asking for handouts. We’re asking for genuine human compassion during this time.
Some of our tenants are right now organizing collective rent payments, as well. For some buildings, they’re offering different percentages of what the building owes. One is offering 50 percent of the total rent for the building, which is fantastic. Something else we’ve done is contact local community partners with New Age. And we’ve actually gotten a local food co-op to temporarily remove New Age as a community partner.
When this is all said and done, we want people to understand that this is an ongoing struggle. And once we win these concessions from the landlords for this specific issue, we have other things to fight for, like rent control and public housing. We need things like that if we are going to continue to protect our community’s most vulnerable members. And we just can’t let people forget that when shit hit the fan, our landlords, our property managers, our governing officials just left us in the dust, or they told us to fend for ourselves. But tenant organizing says the opposite: The main point is that no one is doing this alone.
Lance Rogers, an attorney at Rogers Castor, which represents New Age, offered the following comment in response (lightly edited for length and clarity):
New Age is a management company, so they’re not the owners of these properties. They don’t have the authority to provide rent relief to a tenant absent the landlord’s permission and wouldn’t do so.
Working with the tenants and the landlords, they make the very reasonable ask that a tenant who is experiencing hardship demonstrate to them the hardship—or at least give them some idea of what the hardship is—so that they can talk to the landlord about it and secure some sort of relief. What they’re seeing is, by and large, people are paying their rent. The New Age Tenant Council’s demands are absurd, and they ignore the realities of the situation. They’ve presented an entitlement mentality.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to all the tenants. It was a small percentage of people of the 900 units that they lease that needed relief and they got it. New Age was able to negotiate between the landlord and the tenant for some sort of a program that worked, and that’s worked out for them. There is a remedy on the table for the tenant Council members but it doesn’t seem as though they really wanted to address that or take advantage of it. Instead, they’re trying to bully New Age into submission with their latest approaches to try and flood New Age with emails and telephone calls.