Real estate pros and foes clash on rent strike, Covid response

Sen. Julia Salazar, Cea Weaver, Sherwin Belkin and Francis Greenburger go to the mat

Real estate professionals and tenant advocates agree that the federal government needs to provide more relief. But that’s where their common ground seems to end.

During the latest TRD Talks Live panel Monday, representatives from both sides of the landlord-tenant divide sparred over a planned nationwide rent strike. Cea Weaver, tenant organizer with Housing Justice for All, said the strike is aimed at pressuring the government. New York State legislators have proposed a bill that would suspend rent and mortgage payment obligations, and a similar measure has been floated in Congress.

“Tenants are unable to pay rent, period,” Weaver said. “When we say rent strike, what we are saying is that we’re turning a moment where people cannot pay into a moment of political activity and turning our individual inability to pay into collective action, calling on the government to intervene.”

Sherwin Belkin, real estate attorney and a founding partner of Belkin Burden Goldman, said many tenants can afford to pay, and questioned the strike’s focus on landlords.

“It’s not just shelter that’s a need. Food is a need. Medicine is a need. Clothing is a need. Is Cea suggesting that whether it’s Whole Foods or the local bodega, [saying], ‘Give me the loaf of bread, but I’m not paying for it. Give me a pair of shoes, but I’m not paying for it.’? Why is it that the property owner is being made the subject to strike?”

Weaver later explained her thinking: “Asking folks who have generated wealth off of owning land for many years to give up a little bit during great social need, while we fight for government intervention, is not that drastic of a thing.”

Sen. Julia Salazar, one of the sponsors of the rent-suspension bill, said that the real estate industry isn’t being singled out. She said she’s also calling for President Donald Trump to use authority granted under the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to produce essential goods.

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“This is an unprecedented crisis, and it is going to require an unprecedented solution,” she said. “The burden is not really on property owners, or even the banks or mortgage servicers. But ultimately, I do think it does need to be the responsibility of the federal government and the state government to make this possible.”

Salazar has also introduced another bill that provides some property tax and mortgage relief to property owners. Belkin said it doesn’t go far enough to make up for lost rent payments.

“Owners are being asked to give up 100 percent rent for dribs and drabs of relief,” Belkin said.

Salazar said the measure “isn’t intended to be quid pro quo” but acknowledged that both federal funding and increased revenue to the state is needed for the proposal and others to succeed.

Francis Greenburger, CEO of Time Equities, a New York-based landlord, said relief should be directed at those most in need, rather than delivered in the form of a mass rent strike.

“People who are without need — to give them relief is nonsensical,” said the longtime developer and advocate. “Let’s identify the real needs, and let’s address them though government help, through private help, rather than some blanket approach that makes the problem five times worse than it is.”

Write to Kathryn Brenzel at