On Monday, an email with the subject line “COVID-19 RENT STRIKE NOW” appeared in the inboxes of about 53,000 UF students.
It was sent by UF Student Government Sen. Zachariah Chou (Inspire, Murphree) on behalf of Gainesville Housing Justice — a coalition of students and community members that formed as a resource for people who want to rent strike.
A rent strike is a form of protest during which a large group of tenants must all agree not to pay their rent until a list of demands is met by the landlord. In this case, Gainesville Housing Justice added a list of potential demands to the email, including rent reduction or stoppage, early termination of housing agreements and a waiver of late fees. If support exists for a rent strike, the coalition plans to organize tenants on a complex-by-complex basis around the demands that best suit the needs of those tenants.
It is the climax of a month-long struggle between landlords and college tenants over rent payments during a pandemic, and it all started with a petition.
Several apartment companies such as Trimark, The Scion Group, The Courtyards and Social 28 did not respond for comment after The Alligator reached out through email, phone calls and voice messages.
About a month ago, Sarah Lobo created a petition called “Rent Relief- University of Florida Students.” The 21-year-old UF interior design sophomore found herself without her job as a volleyball coach due to COVID-19 and a $1,200 payment for her apartment and parking space at Solaria Apartments, located at 1024 SW 7th Ave. near Norman Hall.
Lobo loves her apartment, but this month, she’s not there.
She followed UF’s March 11 direction and returned home to her parents’ house in St. Augustine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, just as many other students have. But now she is entirely dependent on her mother’s salary as a mortgage broker, which is based on commission, to make her rent payments. Previously, her mom had minimally helped with her rent.
She contacted Trimark, the company that owns Solaria Apartments, and was told that rent was still due even if she wasn’t living there. The company wouldn’t waive the parking fee either, she said. Like many other college students, her status as a dependent left her out of the recent CARES Act, which provided stimulus money to Americans to make up for wages lost during the pandemic.
Frustrated by this, Lobo took to social media and created the online petition which is addressed to multiple leasing agencies in Gainesville as well as local and state officials.
The petition, which has exceeded 10,000 signatures, asks for rent relief for students who have left Gainesville or lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic but are still locked into leases. Some of these leases go into the summer, when classes remain online for the semester and when students also rely on subleasers to take over the rest of their leases.
As the petition gained popularity, Lobo updated it to encourage students to email Gov. Ron DeSantis an explanation of their personal situation and why they need financial help and protection from landlords.
Apartment complexes can’t evict tenants right now because of the statewide executive order issued by DeSantis that suspends all evictions until May 18.
In addition, Alachua County courts are only hearing essential civil cases, and do not define evictions as being essential, said Alachua County courthouse spokesperson Christy Cain. However, Lobo is worried about what happens if she still can’t pay her rent after the executive order ends.
“We’re asking for rent relief, so even though the eviction order is in place, that’s not helpful in terms of paying our rent,” she said. “We’re not asking for free rent, we’re just asking for a little bit of help.
She hasn’t received any responses from the 35 government officials and apartment complexes her petition is addressed to, she said, despite creating it about a month ago.
Lobo got in contact with Mark Merwitzer, a student who co-authored a Student Government resolution with Chou, which would require all off-campus housing vendors that wish to participate in the biannual UF housing fair held in front of the Reitz Union to provide relief to students impacted by COVID-19. The housing fair is typically attended by about 15 vendors.
“If you want to be at a UF-sanctioned event, you have to treat your students like they’re actual people and not just sources of revenue for you,” Merwitzer said.
Merwitzer, a 20-year-old UF political science sophomore, is also locked into an $800 per month lease for an apartment that he’s not currently living at 13th Street Apartments, located at 725 NW 13th St. near Midtown. Earlier this year, Merwitzer was running for a Senate seat and associated with the now-defunct Progressive Party. The party disbanded after a transphobic conversation between the party’s president and vice-president was released on Facebook.
After Fuchs’ messages urging students to go back home, he returned to Miami and stopped working at Publix so that he wouldn’t potentially expose his aging parents to the virus. In order to terminate his lease, he would have to pay the rest of the monthly payments upfront.
In regard to SG, Chou, who has been a Murphree area senator for four years and ran for Student Body President, isn’t confident that the resolution will be heard before the end of the Spring semester. This is due to canceled Senate meetings from obstacles of legislating digitally, and because SG hasn’t traditionally dealt with off-campus housing issues.
Because UCF President Thad Seymour Jr. issued a statement to apartment complexes about rent relief for students, Merwitzer decided to reachout to UF President Kent Fuchs.
In an email sent Mar. 26, Merwitzer urged Fuchs to make a public statement in the hopes that it would sway landlords to provide relief to students.
Fuchs responded to him, saying that he had asked UF's community and government relations team to think about ways that UF might influence the situation, especially because the university would announce its plan to refund those who moved out of on-campus housing early.
“So far all I’ve had, throughout the two weeks of working on this, has just been lip service,” Merwitzer said.
UF issued a statement on Monday encouraging students who are experiencing financial hardship to work with their landlords to find a mutually agreeable solution, and said the university is currently speaking with rental property owners to find solutions.
“We encourage students to thoroughly review their rental agreements to understand the effect any voluntary actions may create, including effects on their financial health,” said university spokesperson Steve Orlando. He directed students to the SG-funded Student Legal Services for assistance in understanding those terms, which employs four attorneys.
On April 3, Democratic Florida Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Smith wrote a joint letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking him to sign an executive order that would allow students out of their leases without penalty from landlords. DeSantis has not made the executive order.
Having seen all avenues with the university, SG and the state government seemingly exhausted, Chou wrote an email to members of the Student Body proposing a rent strike organized with the Alachua County Labor Coalition and Gainesville Housing Justice.
“There is power in numbers. Though we all come from different walks of life, we are bound together by our shared economic struggle during this crisis,” Chou wrote in the email.
Rent strikes would ideally be planned for May 1, but it depends on the response from students, said Ashley Nguyen, a representative from Gainesville Housing Justice and a UF international studies and political science senior.
“The goal is not only to bring relief to students during the pandemic, but to be able to build and sustain a long term resistance against how landlords are treating tenants,” Nguyen, 22, said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the SG-funded Student Legal Services employs four attorneys. The Alligator originally reported differently.
Contact Kaelyn Cassidy at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kaelyn_cassidy.