Brooklyn Renters are Organizing, Sharing Resources and Lobbying Cuomo on Facebook

Matt Fink

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The fat buzzards of disaster capitalism can, with the right eye, already be seen circling corona-ravaged New York. By most accounts they were seen darkening the sky following Hurricane Sandy.  It stands to reason, then, that they see a similar opportunity in Brooklyn in the cataclysmic, massive uprooting that may occur when New York’s three-month rent moratorium expires and unemployed Brooklyn tenants owing back-rent are evicted.

Residents of New York, particularly in pockets of those most affected by the pandemic’s economic fallout – the working class and those who rely on the  restaurant and service industry for their living – have started organizing rent strikes and rent cancellation movements. 

The fight for rent reform is not only happening on the ground but also by some of our representatives in Albany. 

In the meantime, the fight on the ground continues. One such pocket of resistance has burped up from Bushwick’s very own countercultural citadel, the so-called Bohemian Grove collective.

It began as the coronavirus’s impact began to be felt in New York’s restaurant and bar industry. Matt Clifford, Bohemian Grove resident and Bushwick restaurant owner, was forced to close his business due to the coronavirus outbreak. Suddenly bereft, like so many other of his fellow New Yorkers, of his livelihood and and confronted by too much free time, he had to find something to fill the gap.  

Clifford decided to create a Facebook group advocating for a city-wide “rent strike.” Not expecting much of a response, he was surprised when it took on a life of its own practically overnight. The page, entitled “Action: New York City Rent Strike,” currently has over 3,000 members, a cohort which has swiftly expanded the group’s scope from rent to several other issues.

The Rent Strike Facebook group has since become a riotous bird-nursery of competing chirps and squawks. Posts vary from guides to applying for New York State unemployment insurance, a “master list” of resources for would-be rent strikers, discussions on class war, and Robespierre-esque drawings of guillotined landlords.  

The practical side of the page seems to be winning out, though, a fact which seems to please Clifford. 

“We want to be as effective as possible,” said Clifford by phone. “We came to the conclusion that we should support this bill, and lobby senators and Governor Cuomo.” 

Said legislation, currently in committee, is bill S8125A, sponsored by District 12 State Senator Michael Gianaris. The bill seeks to “Suspends all rent payments for certain residential tenants and small business commercial tenants if such tenant has lost employment or was forced to close their place of business and certain mortgage payments for landlords of such tenants in the state for ninety days following the effective date of this act.” 

Essentially, the bill’s key aim is, rather than merely postpone rent, to cancel it altogether for the prescribed period, something that Cuomo’s rent-related edicts have fallen short of.

The bill would also provide assistance for mortgage holders who rely on regular remittances from tenants for their own livelihood; mortgage payments, like rent, would be permanently waived for the 90-day period. 

The bill’s even-handed approach seems to be shared by Clifford and his fellow Facebook page administrators, who try to avoid an “us vs them” mentality from prevailing therein. 

“The biggest hold-up is these small landlords that need to pay their mortgage,” stated Clifford. “They shouldn’t be stuck with the burden, either. The government gave out this huge stimulus to the banks, who are now offering zero interest loans to businesses…I feel like they could offer similar relief to mortgage holders.” 

Aside from the more immediate spector of rooflessness that thousands of people face, what worries Clifford is that the crisis will result in another of the clean sweeps made, he said, by large monied interests following both 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy. (For a classic non-New York example, look to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.) And according to him, Cuomo couldn’t care less about that eventuality. 

“[Cuomo] gets on TV and makes people feel comfortable – more than Trump, who’s a liar and doesn’t give a fuck,” said Clifford. “ But Cuomo doesn’t really care either. What the people need he isn’t really providing. It’s gonna be another instance of people having to move away and businesses closing, and big money coming in and buying everything. The cool parts of the city are gonna be gone – again.” 

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