As millions of newly laid-off Americans try to figure out how to pay rent for the month, with no clear sign of when they may be able to work again, city council members and advocates across the country are calling for a radical step: canceling rent payments.
Several cities have eviction moratoriums in place, and properties with FHA-backed mortgages are also temporarily protected from foreclosures and evictions. But those measures only mean that renters won’t immediately be kicked out—they’ll still have a growing pile of debt in the form of rent they have to pay back later, with no clear sense of when it will be possible to work again.
Now, many people are calling for state and federal officials to cancel rent and simultaneously put a moratorium on evictions.
“The eviction moratorium is important, but it’s clearly not enough,” says San Francisco supervisor Matt Haney. “People are being told they have to stay home. Many people have been put out of work entirely, and many of those folks simply don’t have money to pay their rent. They’ve done nothing wrong except follow the rules. And yet they’re facing a massive increase in debt . . . that will mean a huge increase in evictions and homelessness at the very time that we’ll be trying to help everybody recover.”
Many of those who are most affected by the coronavirus crisis, because they don’t have desk jobs that can be done remotely, were already struggling to pay bills in low-paying retail or service jobs. “The reality we have to face for so many millions of folks across the country is that they are living almost paycheck to paycheck,” says Peter Cohen, codirector of the affordable-housing organization Council of Community Housing Organizations. “They’re kind of at the margins. We’ve all seen the data of how many Americans are ‘rent-burdened’—they’re paying more of their income than they should be—in order to leave enough money for food and medication and other things.” Roughly half of the renters in the country are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. Even if their jobs start again, it would be nearly impossible to pay for several months of back rent on their old salaries.
In a press conference today, city council members from Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St. Paul, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle joined Haney and fellow San Francisco supervisor Hillary Ronen to argue that governments need to support rent cancellation. In New York, a state bill that would provide rent cancellation for 90 days is under consideration. (April rent, obviously, isn’t the only challenge—many people are likely to also be unable to work in May and perhaps in June, and may struggle to find jobs when businesses reopen.) In California, the governor could temporarily cancel rent through emergency powers, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors issued a resolution this week asking the governor to act; the Seattle City Council passed a similar resolution.
Housing advocates are pushing for similar action across the country. A few cities have already acted—Mountain View, California, for example, now has a $500,000 renter assistance fund. Some other groups have suggested different ways to help, such as allowing tenants to use security deposits to cover rent for April.
“We’ve seen that homeowners have gotten some mortgage relief, and that is not trickling down to renters,” says Leslie Dreyer of the Housing Rights Committee. “We definitely need statewide and national legislation put in place to save us. And in the meantime, people are also calling on their very wealthy landlords, who’ve made a killing off tenants’ backs for years, to do their part and to provide relief now.”
“Ultimately, I don’t think this is something that should be shouldered by tenants,” Haney says.