Columbia Tenants’ Association

Rent Strike Letter

July 17, 2020

Dear Columbia Residential,

We are a group of tenants of Columbia University Apartment Housing. We write this letter to give you formal notice that we have commenced a graduated rent strike, effective June 18, 2020, when rent for the summer semester was due. We do so in response to Columbia Residential’s insufficient response to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, which has exacerbated the long term injustices faced by tenants of Columbia-owned buildings.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the ongoing crisis of housing affordability for many in New York City. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, caregiving, and working-class communities, including our own here in Columbia-owned buildings. Historically, the university has contributed to these injustices by encroaching on neighboring communities, evicting tenants, charging high rent rates and failing to provide sufficient rent-stabilized apartments. We commence this rent strike in solidarity with the city-wide rent strike, as well as kindred efforts at peer institutions, learning from these communities who have been organizing for transformative housing justice in New York City. The decisions to evict tenants, whether through formal or informal means, in the midst of a global pandemic and mass unemployment is inhumane and contradicts the values the institution supposedly holds dear.

The pandemic has exacerbated the difficulties experienced by many with regards to housing. Though some have had the opportunity and privilege to relocate to be with loved ones, many continue to pay rent in two locations at once, unable or unwilling to find subletters given the current housing market and overriding health concerns. Others have stayed put as job offers are rescinded and employment opportunities dwindle. 

International student tenants in Columbia Residential units are additionally burdened by xenophobic travel bans and flight cancellations enacted by the Trump administration. In the midst of these struggles, international students face the additional threat of holds placed on their student accounts for unpaid rent and fees, effectively forcing students to weigh their material well-being against the possible loss of their student visas.

Columbia Residential’s ability to cancel rent would aid each and every one of us. As one of the largest and wealthiest landlords in the city, Columbia Residential should be able to afford and lead citywide efforts in delivering such assistance. We recognize that Columbia Residential has offered limited move-out assistance, waived lease cancellation fees until August 15, provided graduating students with the option of lease extensions until August 15, cancelled scheduled rent increases for the 2020–2021 academic year, and removed fees associated with installment plan payments. However, these measures do little to address the underlying financial hardships faced by students, academic workers, and tenants who have lost multiple sources of income and have been forced to pay and continue to pay for unforeseen expenses. As the crisis enters its fourth month, and the number of new cases throughout the country continues to surpass previous highs, far more is needed from the university, and from Columbia Residential in particular, to ensure the physical and financial well-being of its tenants.

We thus demand the following immediate actions from Columbia Residential:

1. Universally cancel summer rent and provide compensation for costs associated with being pressured to move.

  1. Cancel rent from June 1 to August 31 for all Columbia University Apartment Housing (UAH) tenants, and offer full refunds to all who have already paid rent.
  2. Provide refunds for moving, storage, health, travel, and other associated costs for tenants who were pressured to move out during the pandemic and guarantee their ability to return to previously occupied units.
  3. Provide full rent forgiveness for all tenants who already left and have outstanding bills from the beginning of the pandemic in March.

2. Evict no-one, cease pressuring tenants to leave, and extend leases.

  1. Halt evictions of all residential or small-business tenants for the duration of the pandemic. 
  2. Stop harassing tenants by withholding tenants’ registration privileges, diplomas, certificates, or transcripts for non-payment of rent. Clearly separate student bills from housing bills.
  1. Stop pressuring tenants to move out for the duration of the pandemic and harassing tenants for nonpayment of rent. Examples of harassment and pressure include:
    • Offering to renew a lease with an unreasonable rent increase.
    • Relocating tenants for upgrades without explicit consent, and without right of guaranteed return.
    • Interrupting essential services such as heat, hot water, electricity, or gas.
    • Removing a tenant’s belongings from their apartment or room.
    • Impairing the habitability of a housing unit.
    • Disturbing the comfort of a person legally entitled to live in an apartment or room.
  2. Extend the suspension of lease cancellation fees to the end of 2020.
  3. Continue to work with Student Financial Services to suspend late fee assessment until the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.
  4. Extend leases for all students who graduated in 2020 until the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.

3. Establish fair and flexible signing and renewals of leases.

  1. Offer guaranteed returns to original units for all tenants who have broken or will break their leases for the duration of the pandemic.
  2. Offer flexible timelines for student applications to Columbia housing and the signing of new leases.
  3. Cease unreasonable rent increases for new leases and justify all rent increases with documentation of improvements made. Provide transparent disclosure of rent rates for the same unit prior to the pandemic when new leases are offered.

These are our immediate demands for our rent strike. Our movement is also more than the ongoing strike, and aspires towards housing justice for all in New York City. We continue to work with other organizations to build tenants’ associations in Columbia-owned buildings, Morningside Heights, Harlem, and beyond. As a movement, we seek to hold Columbia accountable to its practices as a landlord university, demanding an end to its opaque policies, predatory practices, and active involvement in gentrification, as well as a long-term lowering of rent to affordable rates and a commitment to rent stabilization and affordable housing in neighboring communities.

We hope to work with you to address the long-standing structural inequities in Columbia Residential’s housing policies. We would like to meet and discuss how we can work together to make sure that the Columbia Residential community can stay well, physically and financially, during these trying times. Please feel free to reach us at cu.peoplescovidresponse@gmail.com.

Thank you,

Columbia Tenants Association

Columbia People’s COVID Response

Want to Join Columbia Tenants’ Association?

Columbia Tenants’ Association is a group of concerned tenants living in Columbia-owned buildings. The Tenants’ Association is part of Columbia People’s COVID Response (CPCR), a broader coalition of Columbia-affiliated people dedicated to the recuperation of any educational, financial, and cultural losses emburdened upon Columbia’s students, non-tenured faculty, and the predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods it occupies. CPCR formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, which has exposed and exacerbated Columbia University’s abuses of power, and organizes for justice in housing, labor, tuition, and immigration.

To find out how you can be a part of our renters’ movement, or a part of the CPCR coalition, email us at cu.peoplescovidresponse [at] gmail [dot] com.