AOC: Rent strikers have no choice

Ocasio-Cortez says she asked Cuomo privately for rent and mortgage cancellation

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Credit: Photo by Brittany Greeson/Getty Images)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Credit: Photo by Brittany Greeson/Getty Images)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — progressives’ rock star from New York — threw her support behind rent strikers Monday.

In a virtual town hall hosted by New York tenant coalition Housing Justice for All, Ocasio-Cortez called for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cancel rent and mortgage payments at the state level and expressed support for those who do not pay rent because of the coronavirus.

“When it comes to these rent strikes, to echo what each and every one of you have said, people aren’t striking because they don’t feel like paying rent, they’re striking because they can’t,” said Ocasio Cortez. “It doesn’t matter how many threatening messages a landlord sends … you can’t coerce people to do something they cannot do.”

Her message differed in one way from that of rent-strike organizers, who want even tenants who can afford the rent to withhold it — to pressure legislators to act.

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Ocasio-Cortez was joined at Monday’s event by tenant organizers and advocates who called for radical measures to provide relief for renters, small landlords and the homeless. Speakers included a tenant leading rent strikes in Elmhurst, Queens, a neighborhood in Ocasio-Cortez’ Queens-Bronx district that was hit hard by Covid-19; a public housing resident striking on the Lower East Side; and an advocate who called for empty hotel rooms to be used for the homeless.

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In New York, Ocasio-Cortez said that she has repeatedly asked Cuomo to cancel rent and mortgage payments in private conversations. Now she has publicly demanded he do so, noting that she has already “picked up the phone.”

“As we know here in New York, we have to fight with Democrats to make sure things get accomplished,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “Here in the state of New York, we have a Democratic governor, a Democratic state legislature and a Democratic City Council, and we are still struggling to cancel rent.”

The congresswoman also urged viewers to support a bill that her Minnesota colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced earlier this month to cancel rent and mortgage payments.

The bill would offer total forgiveness on rent and mortgage payments, starting April 1 until 30 days after the end of the federal state of emergency.

The measure would also create a landlord and lender relief fund to make up for the lost rent and mortgages. But landlords who apply for relief must agree to freeze rents for five years, abide by “just cause” eviction rules (a controversial measure pushed by tenant advocates in New York), offer vacant units to public housing tenants receiving rental assistance and follow other fair housing rules.

Tenant organizers are threatening to launch a rent strike May 1 if Cuomo does not cancel rent. The governor has said a 90-day ban on evictions for non-payment of rent has taken care of the issue for now and that he is considering options for what to do when it expires in mid-June.