Real Estate

Writers, Actors and Others Struggle to Hisse the Rent as Strikes Continue

Faye Lauren, a celebrity makeup artist, loved the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment she shared with two roommates for eight years. She strung fairy lights in the backyard, drank her morning coffee on the front balcony and furnished the place with West Elm pieces. But in July, when Hollywood actors called a strike, celebrity red carpet events, and, in turn, Ms. Lauren’s career, evaporated. Without income, Ms. Lauren could not pay the rent.

“When the actors’ strike happened, I knew that I had to leave,” she said. “I was so beyond stressed out, I couldn’t even breathe. I didn’t really see a way out.”

So Ms. Lauren, 37, sublet her room, sold what furniture she could and flew to South Florida with her cat, Bowie, to live with her parents in a community for people who are 55 and older.

Two months into the actors’ strike, and almost five months into a writers’ strike against the same entertainment companies, people who work in the film and television industry are struggling to keep up with basic living expenses. Rent or mortgage is usually a household’s biggest bill, and the least flexible. Miss a rent payment or a few mortgage payments, and eviction or foreclosure may soon follow.

Talks between the writers and Hollywood studios resumed this week, but even if the two sides reach an agreement soon, regular paychecks may still be far off.

The strikes lay bare a hard truth: The cost of living is dangerously high for many workers in the film and television industry whose wages are often low in jobs with inconsistent hours, and whose bases of operation are often in two of the most expensive cities in the country, New York City and Los Angeles. In August, the median monthly rent in Manhattan was $4,400, and it was $4,695 in downtown and the west side of Los Angeles, according to Douglas Elliman.

“If you live in a place like New York, you are very easily paying 50 percent of your income toward rent,” said Barbara S. Davis, the chief operating officer of the Entertainment Community Fund, which has distributed $7.4 million in assistance to 3,400 film and television workers since the writers’ strike began. “It is the largest bill people have and the most worrisome.”

The impact is vast. Roughly 2.4 million people work in the country’s film and television industry, according to the Motion Picture Association. The screen actors’ union, known as SAG-AFTRA, represents 160,000 members, and the Writers Guild of America represents more than 11,000 television and film writers. Untold numbers of grips, set decorators, costume designers, videographers, casting directors and others in supporting professions, like Ms. Lauren, have also been affected.

Writers and actors are striking in response to stagnating wages, exacerbated by the rise of streaming services like Netflix, and to protect their jobs from being replaced by artificial intelligence. The workers interviewed for this article said they supported the strike, despite the economic toll.

Dylan Jude Sheridan, a graphic designer on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and his wife have watched their savings dwindle and their credit card debt soar so they can pay rent on their Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, apartment.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Film industry charities are fielding hundreds of calls a week. Sidelined workers, both in the striking unions and outside them, have exhausted savings accounts, reached credit card limits and borrowed money from loved ones to keep their homes. Some have gotten roommates, moved in with friends or family or are living in their cars.

When the calls come in, rent is front of mind. “They can live in their apartment without lights, but it’s harder to live out on the street,” said Cyd Wilson, the executive director of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, which provides emergency assistance for members of the screen actors’ union.

When the actors’ strike started, the union gave $1.5 million to the SAG-AFTRA Foundation to distribute to the union’s members. But Ms. Wilson knew they would need more.

After receiving $1 million from Meryl Streep and a larger donation from Dwayne Johnson, Ms. Wilson called Courtney B. Vance, the foundation’s president. “I’m on the phone with him saying, ‘We’ve got to go big,’” she said. He was in an R.V. with his wife, Angela Bassett, taking their twins on college tours.

Ms. Wilson and Mr. Vance decided they’d call actors with the largest net worths and ask them for $1 million. Ms. Wilson worked the phones. “Oh, my gosh, sometimes we had to have three or four phone calls,” she said. “There were layers of people.” But within a week, the foundation had raised $15 million.

The SAG-AFTRA Foundation has received as many as 100 applications for support a day, distributing $2.8 million in grants, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, to 2,100 people. Roughly 95 percent of the requests are for housing assistance. The foundation will soon start distributing a second round of grants.

Members of the writers’ guild are eligible for an interest-free loan of up to $7,000, and can apply for additional loans, with a total value of $14,000, administered by the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

The actors and writers have the benefit of marquee names who can draw attention to their members’ struggles. But “the crews don’t have those people in their population,” said Bob Beitcher, the president and chief executive of the Motion Picture and Television Fund. He added, “They don’t have prop masters who can give $1 million” to a strike fund.

The Motion Picture and Television Fund has distributed about $3.5 million so far this year, in $1,500 grants to both union and nonunion workers. Roughly 90 percent of the requests have been from people who work on film and television crews, most of them represented by nonstriking unions, like the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which includes stagehands, wardrobe attendants, animators, hair and makeup artists and other workers.

Because of the strikes, Lisa Curry, a writer and comedian, gave up her apartment in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles and bought a Kia Forte to travel the country and perform stand-up.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

“Everyone is teetering on the brink of absolute disaster,” said Dylan Jude Sheridan, 53, a graphic designer for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, Wendy Brown, 48, a set decorator, and their young daughter. Out of work since the strikes started, the couple has “burned through” their savings and nearly maxed out their credit cards to pay their $3,100 monthly rent.

Mr. Sheridan recently set up a Facebook page hoping to connect industry workers with odd jobs as they wait for an end to the strikes. “Every week you start with a hope that something is going to happen, and by Wednesday it’s: Oh, another week of nothing,” he said, adding, “The ramifications of this are far and wide. I think people’s spirits are becoming broken.

Once agreements are reached, getting back to work will take time, Ms. Wilson said. “It could be four months before anybody is actually standing on a set,” she said.

Even some celebrities say it’s hard to keep up. The actor Billy Porter told The Evening Standard that he would have to sell his home because of the actors’ strike, though his property in Bellport, N.Y., is not listed for sale. And Sydney Sweeney, a streaming darling, credits her brand ambassadorships, not “The White Lotus” or “Euphoria,” both on HBO, for her ability to afford her Los Angeles lifestyle.

The strikes come at a particularly vulnerable time for people in an industry still recovering from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. In the first two months of 2020, Ms. Lauren earned $20,000, her best months ever. But her income never fully recovered even once red carpet events had resumed because celebrities weren’t traveling as much and were wary of close-contact encounters, like having makeup applied. “It was very tough to get things going again,” Ms. Lauren said. “There wasn’t as much work as there was before.”

This time around, the support systems that sprung into place to carry Americans through the pandemic are gone. Eviction moratoriums have ended. There are no federal stimulus checks or supplemental unemployment insurance to help make ends meet. In many states, striking workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance. California lawmakers recently passed a bill extending unemployment insurance to striking workers there, but even if Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it, the law would not take effect until January.

Lisa Curry, a writer and stand-up comedian, gave up her Los Angeles apartment in June, put most of her belongings in storage, bought a blue 2023 Kia Forte and spent the summer driving across the country performing stand-up, staying with friends and family. “It’s been so hard for so long that by the time the strike hit, we didn’t have a big safety net,” said Ms. Curry, who is in her 30s. “A lot of us were already running on fumes.”

When the writers’ strike started, Ms. Curry, who had worked for “The Jim Jefferies Show,” did the math, and paying $2,200 a month for a room in a Mid-City apartment made no sense if there was no work to be had in Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to sit and bleed rent,” she said. After a long summer crisscrossing the country, she is staying with a friend in Mar Vista until she hits the road again in November.

The continuing strikes have left many workers feeling suspended in time as they wait for their careers to restart. Ms. Lauren now lives in her parents’ guest room, with a twin bed and a desk where she’s creating a tarot deck from vintage “Playboy” magazines. “It gives me a chance to still be an artist and still be creative,” she said.

Standing on a grassy knoll, on the edge of a canal that runs through the residential complex, she worried what her neighbors, mostly retirees who fly down for the winter, might think of the young woman who looked as if she belonged in Brooklyn, with floral tattoos lacing her forearms. “My parents keep trying to ask me to go to the pool and go walking in the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s a little hard for me because I feel so uncomfortable. I don’t belong here.”

She is uncertain about what comes next. She spent 15 years building a career as a makeup artist. Now she wonders how, or if, it will ever get started again. “I trained my entire adult life to do this job,” she said. “But I am so burned out from the financial struggle.”

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