It’s May 1 and thousands can’t pay their rent. Here’s what some Michiganders are doing.

Widespread income loss leads to resurgence of tenant unions

Lansing Tenants Union protest at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's residence, May 1, 2020 |Audrey Matusz

Madeline Smith, a 23-year-old Michigan State University student set to graduate this month, can’t pay her rent for May.

She didn’t pay her April rent, either. And she doesn’t plan to pay for June.

Smith lost her two on-campus jobs in March when the university shut down due to COVID-19. Suddenly, she was unable to afford her living expenses, a situation many are facing across Michigan and across the country as a pandemic continues to ravage households and families.

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 31% of Americans did not pay their April rent during the first week of the month. In April 2019, that number was 18%. Approximately 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past six weeks as a result of the COVID-19 crisis – with 1.2 million of those in Michigan.

Madeline Smith photo

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suspended evictions for tenants and mobile home owners on March 20, which has since been extended until May 15. She also signed executive orders prohibiting foreclosures and water shutoffs during the emergency. But many Michiganders are bracing for a slew of evictions and other utility shutoffs and landlords will still demand full payment of past-due rent after the orders expire.

A few months of missed rent adds up quickly. April data from Apartment List lists Michigan’s average monthly rent at $725 for the median one-bedroom apartment and $928 for the median two-bedroom apartment. In Lansing, rent averages $880 per month and in Ann Arbor, it’s $1,580, according to RentCafé data from February.

Smith decided to go on a rent strike ahead of April 1. While planning to withhold payment from the owner of her shared house, the Lansing area-based rental giant Gillespie Group, she went on social media and urged friends to do the same.

Lansing Tenants Union protest at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s residence, May 1, 2020 | Audrey Matusz

It wasn’t long before she linked up with the newly-formed Lansing Tenants Union (LTU), which had just started organizing a larger rent strike effort across the Lansing area.

“I sent [Gillespie] a letter from the LTU saying that I’m affected financially by the pandemic and I don’t plan on paying rent anytime soon,” Smith said. “… I’m hoping to work something out.”

She said that she hasn’t heard much back since then, but Gillespie Group has waived her late fees. The company did not return a request for comment.

“I just kind of feel like I’m in a purgatory, like I don’t really know what’s happening,” Smith said.

Ross Fisher and several other tenants on Lansing’s East side began organizing the LTU once it became clear that many people in the area were unable to pay their rent. Fisher said a number of them had received threatening letters from their landlords demanding payment on time.

“The [Lansing] landlords have been mostly hostile to the idea of a tenancy union and have not seemed too flexible in terms of accommodating the tenants,” Fisher said.

No Rent Michigan | Facebook

In a little over a month, the LTU has grown to about 150 members, spanning from all parts of Lansing and even some from East Lansing.

The group is just one of half-dozen local housing advocacy groups that have sprung up across Michigan since the COVID-19 crisis began, including the Ann Arbor Tenants Union (AATU), Greater Kalamazoo Area Renters Union, Grand Rapids Area Tenants Union and Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network. Other previously-established groups that have joined the cause include Detroit Renter City and the Grand Rapids-based Together We Are Safe.

No Rent MI is the effort’s statewide apparatus that is providing the local groups with resources like organizing guides they can use and adapt to fit their needs. Organizers say that although No Rent MI is specific to this moment and this current crisis, the local groups plan to continue building on their work after the pandemic is over.

“A lot of people are reaching out [to LTU] just because they’re really scared and nervous about their housing situation. … They got laid off and they can’t pay rent and they’re not sure what to do. And then there’s a lot of other tenants who have just joined because they’ve heard about it and want to build solidarity with other tenants,” Fisher said.

“We didn’t really have an organization like this and Lansing up until recently. This crisis definitely was really the catalyst for creating it,” he added.

In Ann Arbor, the tenants union blossoming there is less of a new creation and more of a revival.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, unrest among University of Michigan students facing high rent and housing discrimination swelled into the original Ann Arbor Tenants Union. A formal rent strike was organized in 1970, which was at least partially successful.

The union was eventually defunded by the university. But now, with the COVID-19 crisis making an already-expensive rental situation into a financial nightmare for many, the group is making a comeback.

Ann Arbor | iStockphoto

“In between that defunding and now, the cost of rent has especially skyrocketed. But of course, that’s happened across the United States,” said Sharif Krabti, an organizer with the AATU and No Rent MI.

He said the AATU currently has about 150 members and more than a dozen core organizers.

The statewide demands of No Rent MI, which are echoed in many of the local organizations, were adopted from those made by the Huron Valley Solidarity Against COVID-19 coalition.

They include:

  • Immediate suspension of rent collection for residential and commercial units
  • Forgiveness of past-due rent payments
  • Extension of the moratorium on evictions until 60 days after Michigan’s current state of emergency
  • A moratorium on all utility shutoffs

A petition created by Detroit Renter City (DRC) outlining the demands was sent to Whitmer, McCormack, Attorney General Dana Nessel and state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) on Monday. An organizer from DRC told the Advance on Thursday that the group has not yet heard back from anyone, nor have they heard from the state lawmakers they have reached out to about the issue.

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Whitmer’s office did not return a request for comment on the petition and did not respond to whether the governor is considering any of those options.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Michigan sent a letter to Whitmer and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack that calls on the state and the Supreme Court to expand and extend the current orders.

“The Governor and Supreme Court must finish the job, and expand the existing moratoriums to protect renters and homeowners so that countless Michigan families will not be displaced through evictions and foreclosures,” said Bonsitu Kitaba, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director.

Krabti said he is aware that it would take “a tremendous amount of pressure” for the state government to order something as significant as complete rent forgiveness. But right now, a lot of the work is still on the local level, trying to get concessions from landlords and pressuring local officials to take up policies geared toward protecting renters.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor did not return a request for comment.

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“These problems are largely just exacerbated and highlighted when you have a crisis like this,” Krabti said. “It’s tough to say what will happen after the crisis, but for me personally, I would love to see more tenants unions and tenants organizations springing up as a result of this.”

In Lansing, Mayor Andy Schor’s office said a citywide directive to freeze rent can’t be considered.

“Mayor Schor does not have the power to suspend rent. That would be [a] violation of contract law,” said spokesperson Valerie Marchand, adding that Schor’s office encourages residents to speak with their landlords to see what arrangements can be made.

While things still look uncertain for many tenants across the state for the remainder of the COVID-19 outbreak, activists are doing what they can now while looking forward to reshaping the future of housing in Michigan.

“I think a lot of us that got involved were already concerned with the level of commodification in housing in Lansing and across the country,” Fisher said. “So we want to make sure that … everyone can access quality housing as a human right.

“[That’s] a really broad, big goal for us, and that’s not going to be accomplished overnight, it’s not going to be accomplished just during this COVID crisis. We want to push for policies that give everybody fair and equitable housing, and we’re going to keep doing that after this is done.”