A graffiti on a wall in Minneapolis calls for a rent strike on May 1, 2020.

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In March, when Jose Cadena Ramirez learned about Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s stay-at-home-order related to Covid-19, he knew the move would significantly hinder his ability to work as a mechanic and day laborer. “I needed to make a decision between feeding myself, buying groceries, and paying rent,” Ramirez said through a translator. “It was unclear how long this would last.”

Ramirez, who lives in South Minneapolis, also had to figure out how to pay other bills, including for car insurance and wifi. He and his wife are both in their 50s and don’t have health insurance. “If one of us were to get sick, I don’t know whether we would be able to get the care we need,” he said. 

It wasn’t long before most of Ramirez’s work opportunities were shut down. And even when he has the opportunity to make money, he’s afraid to risk his health and safety by leaving his apartment.

So, when the first day of April came, Ramirez didn’t pay his rent. “I made the decision to prioritize my needs over paying rent,” he said, noting that he may not be able to pay on May 1 either. So far, Ramirez hasn’t heard from his landlord.

He’s called the landlord’s office hoping to make alternative arrangements, but nobody answers the phone. “When I go to the office, the office is closed,” he said. “I haven’t been able to reach them.”

Ramirez has joined the ranks of a growing pool of renters in Minnesota who have decided, out of necessity, to forego paying rent.

He lives in a building with 12 units; he knows that four other tenants also have stopped paying rent. Ramirez and his neighbors communicate via Zoom meetings organized by Minneapolis-based United Renters for Justice, or Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (IX), which supports a national movement to “cancel the rent” until the COVID-19 crisis passes.

Renters like Jose Cadena Ramirez are forced to make tough choices between buying food and paying rent.

Arianna Feldman, a communications organizer for IX, which has 300 active members, said the work to facilitate communication between renters is being done in collaboration with a number of advocacy and labor organizations, including African Career, Education, and Resource, Inc. (ACER) and the Housing Justice Center.

According to Feldman, a number of IX members have spoken to her about problems they are having with their landlords. “Some landlords are responding that [the statewide] eviction moratorium does not include that rents are suspended,” Feldman said. “They are encouraging people to still pay rent and threatening future evictions.” In one case, she said, a renter reported that a landlord refused to do any repairs until the rent is paid.

Lawmakers get involved

A handful of lawmakers at the local and national levels have joined IX and others to speak out in support of tenants who are unable to pay their rents during the statewide shutdown. They include Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has organized a national petition calling for a rent freeze.

Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison also has been vocal about the issue, writing a letter, signed by a number of council members in Minneapolis and Saint Paul as well as other local officials, to Gov. Walz requesting a suspension of rent and mortgage payments during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“We need the state to support some sort of rent [and] mortgage action,” Ellison said. “If the renters can’t pay then the mortgages won’t get paid. We are looking at a foreclosure crisis and an increase in homelessness. I don’t think we can afford that.” 

Ellison believes the problem is larger than what the city can manage. “The burden should be on the state to engage, and the federal government,” he said. “Without a bold swing at this problem, we are looking at mass displacement, a massive amount of homelessness.”

Tenants already in distress 

Vanessa Del Campo, a tenant member of IX, is currently living in an apartment with her husband, cousin, mother, and child. Del Campo decided to not pay rent in April because she and her husband both are unable to work. 

“The decision we took as a community—me and my neighbors—is that we decided to not pay rent in April,” she said through a translator. “Because we are still not working, we don’t want to pay rent in May. That is why we are pushing to cancel rent in my community and the whole city of Minneapolis.”

Del Campo has been unable to access some of the resources available to individuals and families in need of financial assistance. “I don’t have a lot of the requirements to meet unemployment, or other necessary things to be able to qualify for city or government support,” she said.

The current campaign to cancel rent isn’t the first time Del Campo or Ramirez have been involved in tenant organizing. They both were part of a highly-publicized class action lawsuit against their former landlord, Stephen Frenz. “The fact that we’ve been organizing so long, we already have relationships built,” Del Campo said. “That allowed us to respond very quickly.”

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she said, “We have been holding weekly video calls with our own community and also with the broader community about trying to cancel rent.”

Hamza Hassan, a lead housing organizer for ACER, pointed out that many renters were in crisis even before the virus landed in Minnesota. “People are just one crisis away from being displaced,” he said. Low-income people can spend 50 percent or more of their income on rent or mortgage payments. And, according to a report by the Federal Reserve from 2019, four in 10 adults don’t have $400 cash on hand to cover an emergency payment. 

ACER is supporting a bill making its way through the Minnesota House of Representatives that would provide 100 million in rental assistance for tenants as well as small businesses, including mom and pop landlords. A Senate version of the bill would provide $30 million.

“What we are pushing for is cancellation of rent and cancellation of mortgages because we do understand that a lot of these businesses are small mom and pop landlords who do not have excess funds to continue operations at this time,” Hassan said.

He noted that the campaign to cancel rent is different from a rent strike. “A strike is to say that tenants have this money but they are voluntarily holding back for political gain,” he said. “That’s not the reason tenants aren’t paying rent. They quite literally can’t.”

What Del Campo hopes most for is empathy—both from her landlord and lawmakers. “I am hoping that they will hear from the experience we are having as low-income people, and as families that are struggling right now,” she said. “I am hoping they see that we are trying to prioritize the safety and the health of our family.”

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Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...