Winsome Pendergrass wants Gov. Andrew Cuomo to know that she’s not paying rent on May 1, and neither are thousands of her fellow working-class New Yorkers.
You may not have heard of Pendergrass, who just lost her job as a Manhattan home health care aide because of the pandemic, but on Thursday, with a passionate, blistering speech that elevated the pain of millions of anxious tenants, she cut through the coronavirus chatter to demand economic justice.
“Gov. Cuomo is doing press conferences every day, and he’s tiptoeing around tenants and what should be done,” Pendergrass, a 62-year-old housing rights activist in Brooklyn, told journalists and activists over Zoom.
She’s one of 1.4 million people in New York state who have lost their job during the pandemic and who, like so many others, can’t pay rent Friday.
Pendergrass has become part of a growing coalition of housing activists across the country that have organized a rent strike starting Friday, a historic effort to pressure federal and state officials — Cuomo in particular — to cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic.
“I know the rest of the world thinks. ‘Oh, he’s doing such a fine job. Look at him, he should be president,’” Pendergrass said of Cuomo, who’s enjoyed the adulation of many columnists and pundits for his response to the pandemic.
“Child, please!” Pendergrass continued. “You don’t want him to be no damn president because he’s not taking good care of us! He’s not taking care of his constituents. He is not standing up to the landlords. He hasn’t put his foot down and said, ‘Let’s cancel rent,’ but we are asking him, we are pushing and we are telling him, he has to cancel rent or else he’s going to see another side of us.”
The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the looming rent strike.
Cuomo did issue a three-month freeze on evictions back in March, but activists say that’s not nearly enough and will only result in a wave of New Yorkers losing their homes this June when the moratorium ends and they suddenly owe months of back rent they can’t afford.
Last week he said he was exploring “options” for when the eviction freeze ends but would not elaborate.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, said earlier this week that she pushed the governor in a private conversation to cancel mortgage and rent payments.
But Cuomo — a Democrat who has used the pandemic to consolidate power, push through an austerity budget and scuttle progressive reforms in the state — has remained silent on proposals in Albany that would cancel rent while simultaneously offering relief for landlords, steps activists say are desperately needed to stave off even further economic ruin for poorer New Yorkers, a group that is disproportionately Black and brown.
“This crisis in New York City,” Pendergrass said on the Zoom call, “was caused by Gov. Cuomo. He got money from the real estate people and lined his pockets for the last election, so he’s kissing up to them. And he left his constituents behind.”
“There is enough money in America for us to have health care for all, free good education, affordable housing and a living wage,” Pendergrass continued. “But because we are under a cruel and racist system, they pimp us out. There’s no other word. I’m not going to be nice. They’re pimping us out. They take everything from us, right down to the bone, and they give us nothing. People talking about going back to normal? Going back to normal is banks and corporations continuing to rape us. Going back to normal is governments screwing us over again and again. Going back to normal is millionaires and billionaires stripping us to the bones and laughing at us.”
Pendergrass, an activist with the group New York Communities for Change, was speaking on a Zoom call organized by a coalition of tenants rights groups planning Friday’s historic rent strike. Groups included the Action Center on Race and the Economy, The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and Kansas City Tenants, among many others.
The groups say they’ve already organized nearly 200,000 renters across the country to withhold rent payments throughout May.
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