Shayla Favor

City Council member Shayla Favor 

Alek Nielsen has quietly been advocating for tenants’ rights around Central Ohio for two years – and he’s never witnessed such energy and enthusiasm for a local tenant union than now.

“Five different people from five different properties have reached out to us,” says the 28-year-old Nielsen, co-chair for the Columbus Tenants’ Union (CTU) – the only official tenant union in Central Ohio. “Two of these properties are run by big time slumlords we’ve wanted to organize against for some time.”

The Freep also heard from several groups of tenants, almost all 20-somethings, who live in half-doubles or smaller buildings. Whether some can pay rent or some cannot, they’ve banded together to tell their landlord they will need some sort of compromise.

Nielsen admits though, “it’s one thing to really want to form a tenant union, compared to forming one.”

Yet during this Columbus luxury-apartment boom, when the grip of high-end developers became tighter and tighter around the Mayor’s Office and City Council, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to finally inspire local tenants to organize. Tenant unions have been gaining momentum in New York, San Francisco and the Philadelphia area over the past decade.

“We are trying to change the balance of power between tenants and landlords in this city and show that it’s possible to have a growing city that’s not just for developers and the rich,” said Nielsen.

There’s no way to know how many in Central Ohio have yet to pay April’s rent. It could be in the thousands, if not greater. The National Multifamily Housing Council – a trade group for landlords – reported nearly a third of U.S. apartment renters did not pay rent during the first week of April.

The Free Press has spoken to both tenants and landlords during what some are calling the pandemic “rent strike.” Many tenants – after asking for anonymity – said that in mid-March their landlords began letting them know April’s rent had to be paid or they would face eviction when the courts re-open. There will be no payment plan and there will be late fees – wrote many local landlords.

We even heard how some landlords raised rents because they needed to make up for those who couldn’t pay.

Those stories kept coming into the Freep, and soon enough several landlords we spoke to said they were softening their stance by allowing payment plans, such as ERA Real Solutions Realty of Grove City and 1st Place Realty, which owns and manages hundreds of apartments in the Ohio State off-campus area.

No doubt as the pandemic rent strike gained serious traction through social media, it posed some challenging questions and the stakes are high.

Can tenants legally go on a “rent strike” because of a pandemic? And if many do, will landlords and whoever holds the mortgage be able to sustain viability for these tenants and themselves?

Rent strikes are almost always initiated after a landlord neglects to make necessary repairs on the property or threatens to sell the building. Tenants strike by putting their rent into escrow until demands are met.

The pandemic rent strike is uncharted and there’s no known legal precedent to govern it or its consequences. However, as the CTU often says: “There’s power in numbers.”

“Landlords may not take your individual concerns seriously, but they can be pressured to comply and meet your needs if it’s done collectively,” said Ariana Ybarra, also a 20-something organizer for the CTU.

With this in mind, who’s to say tenants cannot strike by demanding their landlord lower rent or cancel rent during the pandemic?

It’s certainly a possibility if 80 percent of a building’s tenants strike, especially considering the effort and money it would take to evict all of them at the same time. What’s more, several major corporations, such as Subway and Mattress Firm, are telling landlords they will not pay rent or are paying less.

How a residential rent strike plays out, though, is serious business that (unfairly) could alter a renter’s life.

“Organizing your building is no joke,” said Nielsen, “evictions can ruin your life.” Eviction hearings have been suspended, of course, but landlords can still file evictions and they are, says the CTU.

The landlords we spoke to, such as Donny Thompson of ERA Real Solutions Realty of Grove City, told us they mostly manage rentals and are not the owners. “We work with 300 owners from all across the globe,” he said.

Thompson said many are mom-and-pop operations who own a handful of rental properties. “They have bills to pay, too,” he said.

At the same time a 2017 report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found more than half of rental properties in the U.S. are owned by “institutional investors,” such as banks, hedge funds and corporations.

On both the state and federal level, there have been calls to freeze rent and mortgage payments for 90 days, as Democratic State Senator Mike Gianaris of Queens has done, by introducing a related bill.

Late in March, California Governor Gavin Newsom convinced 200 state-chartered banks (which included many national banks) to provide a forbearance on mortgage payments for 90 days.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has requested landlords to suspend rent payments for small businesses for 90 days. But he has not offered a similar request for residential tenants.

Locally, Columbus City Council member Shayla Favor has been tasked to deal with the city’s housing crisis, that is only going to get worse. In a Facebook video she said, “you still have obligation to pay rent,” but added, “we are still awaiting possible intervention from the state of Ohio.”

Favor also made heartfelt pleas to help our surging homeless population and she should be commended, but the CTU says Favor can do more for the uncountable who are on the verge of homelessness.

“If City Council can’t or won’t take action to defend us, they should be finding every available avenue to pressure the state for rent amnesty and cancelation to complement existing mortgage protections,” said Nielsen.

The CTU suggests the only help local renters can depend on will be from themselves and their fellow tenants.

“The most important reason to form a tenant union is because housing is a human right. And it’s not being treated that way. It’s been very commodified by capitalism,” says Ybarra. “When you are a renter, you’re paying rent to a landlord, who’s then paying a mortgage to a banker, and the bank profits off a landlord and landlord profits off you.”