photo of protesters before the march
Tenants from Tivoli Gardens hold up their banner before the march. Photo by Ben Gutman

More than 200 tenants and housing activists from across the D.C. metro area marched to the home of White House domestic policy chief Susan Rice on Jan. 23 and called on the Biden administration to include rent cancelation in the latest COVID-19 relief package proposal.

President Joe Biden selected Rice, who served as national security adviser in the Obama administration, to spearhead the administration’s domestic agenda as head of the White House Domestic Policy Council. 

The protesters called on Rice to include the cancelation of rental payments, along with accruing rental debt dating back to the start of the pandemic, for all tenants — including the undocumented — in the next federal COVID-19 relief package. They further demanded that relief for landlords be predicated on adequate maintenance repairs and limits on raising the rent, enforcement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eviction moratorium, and investigation into cases of illegal evictions, threats of eviction or coercion to self-evict.   

Multiple House of Representative committees have approved parts of Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, including the Ways and Means Committee’s advancement of $1,400 direct payments and an extension on unemployment benefits. The Democrats aim to pass the complete package by the end of the month.  

photo of protesters leaving Susan Rice's house

Protesters demand rent cancellation. Photo by Ben Gutman

The administration’s plan would also extend eviction and foreclosure moratoriums to the end of September, provide $25 billion in rental assistance (in addition to the $25 billion made available through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program), and $5 billion in emergency assistance for people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. 

However, rent cancellation has not been included. Most housing activists demanding rent cancellation call for a simultaneous cancellation of mortgage payments and a bill, such as Rep. Ilhan Omar’s proposed Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020, that reimburses property owners and lenders. But many activist groups prefer that larger, corporate landlords and predatory “slumlords” be excluded from economic relief. 

The question, the activists say, is whether the proposed relief package matches the magnitude of the housing crisis. 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates at least $100 billion in rental assistance is needed to keep low-income renters stably housed over the next year. By Jan. 1, 11.4 million American renters averaged approximately $6,000 in back-rent debt totaling $70 billion owed.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 63% of Americans say they have been living paycheck to paycheck and a projected 54 million Americans were food insecure in 2020, an increase of 13.2 million since 2018. In addition, Black, Latino and multiracial families accounted for 57% of those saying that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the last seven days.  

Tenants are concerned that without rent cancellation, long-term unemployment threatens to further chronically indebt immigrant and minority communities reliant on employment in the hospitality, restaurant and other essential industries. Many of these unemployed workers were present at the event organized by Stomp out Slumlords, the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter’s anti-eviction and tenant organizing campaign.

photo of protesters marching to Susan Rice's house

Tenant organizers from Metro D.C. DSA’s “Stomp Out Slumlords”. Photo by Ben Gutman

Denis Tercero was furloughed from his job as a waiter at the Ritz-Carlton in April and has been organizing a rent strike at the Tivoli Gardens Apartments ever since.

A resident at Tivoli for 20 years, Tercero had never been late on rent before the pandemic, but a lack of financial support from the government has left him and many of his neighbors food insecure and unable to pay rent. Tercero is a member of the Tivoli Gardens Tenant Association and one of the lead organizers of a building-wide food distribution network that helps feed dozens of families suffering from unemployment. 

He also helped coordinate a protest at landlord Calvin Cafritz’s mansion in Georgetown in August 2020, but he said without any rental concessions, he’s been forced to continue advocating for relief.

“We just keep struggling, but we keep fighting to see what comes out of it,” Tercero said. “President Biden should listen to us and do something at the national level, not just in this city. We’re hoping that Susan Rice, that when she hears us, she might say something.”  

The energized crowd, including young children, marched through the Palisades neighborhood chanting, “Cancel the Rent” and “Ole Ole Ole Ole Rent Strike.” Dozens of signs included messages like “Don’t Bail Out Slumlords,” “Stop the Rent, We Need to Buy Food” and “Confronting Greed” in English and Spanish. They stopped outside Rice’s house, met by several Secret Service vehicles.

Speakers took turns expressing demands through a megaphone. Their frustrations targeted a lack of government assistance, failure to address systemic inequality, and persistent deterioration in housing conditions for low-income residents.   

Jewel Burgess, a tenant leader at Park 7 Apartments on Minnesota Ave. NE, reflected on her life before the pandemic left her unemployed.

“When I was working I had to work three jobs to pay my rent and then I still had to wait for my next paycheck to buy the food, to buy the household supplies; things I needed to survive,” Burgess said. “So it doesn’t add up if I have to work three jobs to have a place over my head and I’m still scraping money to put food on my table or take care of my daily living.” 

Protesters call for Biden’s domestic policy chief to cancel rent

In August, Burgess led a delegation of Park 7 tenants and other housing activists in a protest at landlord Chris Donatelli’s mansion in Forest Hills. Residents at Park 7 have been on rent strike for more than 3 years in response to deteriorating conditions, safety concerns and hostile confrontations with the building’s management company, among other issues.  

Tenants from D.C.’s suburbs in Maryland and Virginia were also present. Renters in Prince George’s County are more vulnerable to eviction than residents across the District line, due to weaker protections. Activists from Stomp out Slumlords and Pan-African Community Action have blockaded two eviction attempts in Chillum and Mount Rainier.  

[Read more: Three Tenants Were Facing Eviction Threats. Amid A Summer Of Protest, Dozens Of Activists Mobilized

Tenant Organizer Henry Widner began to take a stand against the management of LaSalle Park Apartments in Chillum, MD after he talked with neighbors threatened with eviction.

“You can’t throw a rock anywhere and not hit somebody that has a problem with management, either with mold, rats, broken air conditioning,” Widner said. “And all we got was letters harassing people trying to get them to move out, so we figured we needed to stand up and at least make our voices be heard.” 

Constant harassment by landlords and threats of eviction have forced many tenants to prioritize rent payments over food in fear of eviction in the middle of the winter.

Ofelia Alvarez, a tenant at Sarbin Towers in Mount Pleasant for 23 years, has been receiving food assistance from the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church and the Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC) since the pandemic began. She gets in line outside of CHEC at 4 a.m. to get a bag of food.

“There are people that are sick. They can’t leave at such an early hour, but if they go later there’s no more food because there’s a lot of people,” Alvarez said.    

While the extension of the eviction moratorium offers renters some breathing room, it has not stopped landlords from filing 241,339 evictions in 21 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab during the pandemic. District landlords filed 1,854 eviction cases in Landlord & Tenant Court between March 11 and December 1. 

Similarly, advocates say that the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and additional funds offered through the COVID-19 relief package are a step in the right direction. However, tenant protesters believe that without comprehensive rent cancelation, tens of thousands of D.C. Metro renters are vulnerable to exclusion. 

[Read more: No Significant Funding Added to Emergency Rental Assistance Program Despite Ongoing Effects of COVID-19]

Individual applications for federal rental support through the ERAP must meet certain eligibility, including qualification for unemployment and demonstration of risk of homelessness. Tenants overburdened with forms and conditions attached to the ERAP are not guaranteed all 12 months of assistance if granted eligibility. Despite proposed rental assistance, tenants fear that continued increases in rent prices and accruing rental debt will intensify threats of eviction.

photo of protesters marching to Susan Rice's house

Protesters march to Susan Rice’s house in the Palisades. Photo by Ben Gutman

Modesto King, a tenant at the Woodner on 16th Street NW, was laid off in June and left unemployed until November, while he took care of his sick wife. He began withholding rent in April after receiving food assistance through mutual aid provided by D.C. Tenants Union organizers.

“If we cancel the rent totally, then with the little bit of money we get we can buy food, buy all the things that we need to cover us,” King said. “And I’m not speaking for myself only, I also want to speak for the millions of Americans that are going through a harsh situation, even worse than the one I’m going through.”

The prospect of an increase in rental debt exacerbating those harsh situations is what worries Henry Widner.

“Most immediately, I would want the people in power to use their power to cancel rent and to make sure that nobody here has to deal with a lifetime of debt just because of the pandemic,” Widner said. “Because that’s not fair and it’s inhumane and nobody deserves that.”