Huntington Tenants Union calls for rent strike amid historic unemployment crisis

In response to unprecedented unemployment numbers resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, tenants and housing advocates nationwide are calling on the federal government to implement protective measures such as rent payment and eviction freezes—meanwhile, some local advocates are calling for more direct action via a rent strike.

“Huntington Tenants Union is joining in with the effort to act in solidarity with other tenants in this unprecedented time of economic upheaval,” Aaron Llewellyn, a member of the union, said. “If the courts are suspended, then so is the rent; if our work is cancelled, then so is the rent.”

Llewellyn said despite the West Virginia Supreme Court’s decision to suspend all non-emergency proceedings until April 10, which includes evictions, some tenants are still being threatened with potential eviction. As a result, HTU is organizing a rent strike.

“We need this threat of eviction taken away from the landlords who want us out on the streets,” Llewellyn said. “Plainly, tenants cannot pay money that they do not have.”

Llewellyn said the union is calling for a freeze on notices to vacate for non-payment of rent, an extended moratorium into the summer and for the duration of the crisis, cancellation of late fees and a direct rent freeze.

Katelynn Laslo, a Huntington resident and Marshall University psychology student, said a rent strike may be necessary because most tenants are currently unable to work and have no way to earn money for rent payments.

“I work at Kroger, so I’m essential. They just recently gave us a pay increase for working on Sunday, but before then, things have been tight,” Laslo said. “$40 is all I got paid last week. Our rent is $525 per month. That $40 I made doesn’t even cover electric; it hardly covered our water bill.”

Laslo said she feels fortunate to be able to continue working during such trying times, but she has had to cut her hours significantly to take care of herself and other family members who are more at-risk of contracting coronavirus because of health issues.

“My fiancée and I are both lucky enough to still have a job, but both of our hours have been cut to stay safe, and I know a lot of people whose jobs have been taken away,” she said. “I fell sick with eerily similar symptoms recently and had to be quarantined because of that. Since I had to cut my hours to keep myself and others safer and got quarantined, my paychecks have been nearly nonexistent.”

Laslo said she was fortunate to be able to pay rent April 1 because she had enough money saved, but she is worried about what will happen moving forward.

“If this keeps up, I am honestly worried about next month’s rent,” she said.

Huntington resident Sarah Michaelis Davidson said she has been on leave from her job with AT&T since mid-February for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus, and although she is planning to begin working from home soon, she is unsure how she will pay rent.

“My biggest concern is my partner and I are running out of money,” Davidson said. “We were scraping by with his income from being a server and my tax return while I’ve been on leave, but he got laid off and now we have a small amount of money, and it’s picking between rent or electric and water.”

Davidson said she and her partner already have made significant adjustments to their ways of living because of the socioeconomic anxiety they are experiencing.

“I’ve been handling things by not turning on heat or air conditioning (and) taking my showers elsewhere to save on water,” she said. “All of our meals have turned into cereal and pasta. It sucks, but we don’t have a choice.”

Davidson said many of the other tenants in her apartment building have lost their jobs and have no way to pay rent, but their landlord is not waiving late fees. She said she is worried she and others will soon become homeless because they have no other options.

“We are having to choose between paying rent to someone making more money in a month than we make in a year or having running water,” she said. “I understand that giving us one month free is out of the ordinary and will absolutely have an effect on the owners, but please think of us. We are so close to being on the street, and we don’t have the money right now.”

Davidson said she feels like the poorest and most vulnerable citizens are being forced to deal with the impacts of the current crisis even more than those with substantially more wealth and power. She said her only hope to pay rent is if she receives her $1,200 stimulus check soon.

“But everyone in my building who is getting (a stimulus check) will have to give nearly all of it to someone else,” she said. “There’s no way to win when you’re poor. Suddenly, all our minimum wage jobs have become essential, but not essential enough to pay us well enough to get by.”

Davidson said she is afraid of returning to work too soon, but her only other choice is to lose her home.

“The people who have money aren’t willing to suffer like the average American; they would rather make us suffer than miss out on a dime,” she said. “I’m scared. I’m disabled and not fit to be working right now, but with my partner losing his job, what choice do I have? If I go back like I am now, I won’t keep my job for long, but we need to rush things or we are homeless.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].