With their doors closed to the public, and the city deep in the first, overwhelming wave of coronavirus cases, New York’s museums and historical institutions looked to the future, putting out calls for images and objects related to residents’ experience of the unprecedented pandemic. By late summer, photographs were already on display — outside on walls and in courtyards — while requests for contributions have continued into the fall and winter. With “rapid-response collecting,” museums help us interpret the moment we are living through, while getting a jump on top-quality specimens for the historical record.
Before shutting down in March, the curators at the New York Historical Society snagged a personal-size Purell bottle for posterity. Throughout the spring and summer, other institutions secured face masks, photographs, and diaries. The Museum of Capitalism solicited letters, emails, and text messages — displayed below — which tenants received from their landlords in anticipation of non-payment of rent. The Museum is a nomadic institution founded in 2017 to educate current and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of capitalism. These communications, and other artifacts from its collections related to housing, are part of a current exhibition at the Queens Museum.
In the United States, where shelter is not a human right but a profitable commodity, it took little time for the pandemic to lay bare the insecurity of housing. Early attempts to help the unhoused maintain social distance ranged from the grotesque — remember the Las Vegas parking lot subdivided in six-foot squares? — to the pragmatic: other cities, notably Los Angeles, quickly moved people to vacant hotels. With unemployment and rents both so high, those fortunate to have a roof over their head have also come under greater risk of losing it. Calls to “cancel rent” translated to temporary moratoria on evictions, providing brief reprieve for those who have lost income due to the pandemic. But they only shift the timeline for potential abyss for as many as 40 million Americans. In New York City, hundreds of thousands of households could soon be pushed out of their dwellings. New York State’s Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which offers limited protections, is currently set to expire on the first day of 2021; the city’s first residential eviction since the pandemic began was reported the week before Thanksgiving.
When we remember 2020 from the vantage point of the future, museum curators may struggle with where to store a surfeit of hand-sewn face masks. Imagine if the struggle to secure a decent home was also a relic of a distant past.
When housing was a commodity in the capitalist economy of the 21st century United States, a person known as a “tenant” would pay money, often referred to as “rent,” to a “landlord” to use their property as a home. For landlords, investment in housing was not only a way to build wealth as property values increased, but also a way to generate ongoing income in the form of rent payments from tenants.
This came with certain expectations, codiﬁed in the form of a written document known as a “lease.” Though these documents help us to see the system called “the economy” as underpinned by millions of individual, speciﬁc agreements between real people, such agreements created not just legal obligations but also structural relations between tenant and landlord that often resembled the class relations between worker and owner. And landlords who owned multiple properties or units often employed a property management company to handle maintenance and repairs, as well as advertising and communications with tenants, creating a middle layer of management common in other types of capitalist ﬁrms.
In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused many Americans to lose regular employment income, landlords, property management companies, or others acting on their behalf, anticipating the possibility of non-payment of rent, sent out preemptive messages and notices in the form of letters or emails to tenants. These communications exhibited a range of tones, from friendly and understanding invitations to cooperate, to aggressive and condescending threats to retaliate.
This collection, drawn from samples gathered across the United States, shows the variety of landlord-tenant relations and offers a glimpse into the workings of rentier capitalism.
Skyland Management, which managed residential properties in Florida and New York, sent this email to tenants in early April 2020, reminding them that the pandemic will pass and rent is still due, and suggesting several businesses where they could apply for employment.
Los Angeles-based ROM Residential drafted this letter asking for tenants’ sign-off on payment plan terms. The fine print included a clause stating that if a tenant receives any government stimulus, “resident agrees to pay owner within 5 days of the receipt of payment 100% of the monies received.”
Residents from cities across the US posted this letter received from Alliance Property Management, which once claimed to be the seventh largest management company in the nation. The letter attempted to correct rumors of rent relief programs with a statement many recipients found particularly biting: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Allentown, Pennsylvania based Hyman Properties threatened to disconnect tenants’ cable services if rent was not received on time, stating that “it is very offensive to us” if tenants chose to pay for utilities considered “non-essential” before paying rent.
Indianapolis-based RJR Ventures emailed tenants to suggest they dip into savings, borrow from relatives, or sell their car to make rent payments, even before procuring food for themselves. The email promises aggressive “removal” while appealing to a sense of group unity which if violated might “make everyone homeless.”
This email to tenants from a Brooklyn landlord called for communication and collaboration, stressing the expenses that landlords have, which make the pandemic-induced hardships “not one-sided.”
A Milwaukee landlord whose mortgage and bills were already paid reduced his tenants’ rent for the month of April to $100, hoping the savings would be spent on local businesses and help “our economy.”
This email to tenants from a New York landlord asks tenants to “see this from my position,” referencing the city’s moratorium on evictions in Spring 2020. A follow-up email recommends some of the landlord’s “contacts,” including a financial planner and local employers that may be hiring.
One New York landlord started a campaign advocating relief for landlords. Its press release used the famous “I can’t breathe” slogan popularized by Black Lives Matter following Eric Garner’s murder by NYPD in 2014.
The California Apartment Association, which in 2020 was the nation’s largest statewide trade group representing owners, investors, developers, managers and suppliers of rental homes and apartment communities, drafted this sample letter for its members. The existence of such groups was a reminder that the landlords and other investors in the real estate sector were already highly organized before the pandemic.
The Eviction Defense Collaborative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income tenants respond to eviction lawsuits, offered this sample letter for tenants. In the early months of the pandemic, as tenant organizing and widespread calls for rent strikes grew, sample letters like this were drafted and shared widely, within single buildings and among whole complexes and neighborhoods.
These letters and emails were collected with the help of many individuals who shall remain anonymous. All identifying information of recipients has been redacted to prevent retaliation by management. Many of the letters and emails addressed to tenants were sent by individuals acting on behalf of organizations; in these cases, the names of these individuals have also been removed.
All texts in this collection are presented in full as they ﬁrst appeared, though some additional formatting has been applied for consistency and readability. Some have been reconstructed in cases where samples came from reporting or were forwarded as text ﬁles. We wish to acknowledge reporters Ron Lee, James Crowley, and Caroline Reinwald, and various users of social media, for helping to share these stories.
For more information on tenant rights and housing justice advocacy, please visit Cchaya CDC (Queens), Housing Justice For All (New York City), or Alliance for Housing Justice (US). As part of their larger work to document experiences and stories around gentriﬁcation, displacement and resistance, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is creating an ongoing archive of post-COVID tenant-landlord communications here.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.