How can you stay home if you can’t make rent?
Already, nearly a third of the United States’ 44 million renter households couldn’t pay their rent in April. Even after the federal government distributed its one-time stimulus checks, 20 percent still hadn’t paid by the first week of May. The maximum payout of $1,200 isn’t enough to cover the median rent for a two-bedroom anywhere in the country, or a one-bedroom in the 30 most expensive US cities.
The Federal Housing Administration, as well as cities, states, courts, and even police departments have woven a patchwork of eviction moratoriums across the country, intended to prevent renters from losing their homes until shelter-in-place orders lift.
But as evictions restart in cities such as Houston, it’s clear that temporary bans on evictions don’t protect tenants, because no city or state has canceled rent. When the bans expire—as they will in Kansas City, Missouri, and Florida next week—all back rent comes due. Millions of tenants are continuing to lose their jobs and accumulate debt. These bans can only stall the coming eviction tide.
So far, no level of government in the United States has passed legislation that will protect tenants long-term. No lawmakers’ actions or proposals will accomplish what tenants across the country actually need: to make rent disappear.
Congress Democrats have introduced two separate bills that each claim to address the depth of tenants’ need. One, the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act, introduced by Washington Representative Denny Heck, offers $100 billion in rental assistance, to be granted to states and municipalities—who will then dole it out to tenants who can demonstrate need. The other, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, introduced by Representative Ilhan Omar, would cancel both rents and mortgages for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. Landlords would be able to apply to a special HUD program to recoup the total amount their tenants owed.
There’s one point on which both proposals agree: Despite the pandemic, which has shuttered businesses and severed millions from their jobs, rent is still owed. And someone—the government—should pick up the tab. Both proposals offer rent relief, not rent cancellation.
Some cities and states launched their own rent relief programs in March and April. Chicago’s Housing Department offered one-time, $1,000 grants for tenants to use to pay rent. Eighty-three thousand households applied; only 2,000 saw a dime. In Santa Clara, Ca., a $11 million assistance fund dried up in just three days. Washington state’s assistance fund will help 5,000 families; there are 360,00 renter households in Seattle alone.
Los Angeles has given tenants 12 months to pay back rent once its state of emergency ends. When that time is up, tenants will be asked to draw on nonexistent savings and income from permanently lost jobs. In May, the City offered preloaded debit cards with up to $1,500 to residents who could prove their low-income status and lost work. Of the more than 185,000 people who applied, only 15,000 received aid. The city also announced an Emergency Renters Assistance Fund, with a proposed budget of a $100 million. That would need to cover LA’s estimated 365,000 renter households that are now in urgent need.
These examples demonstrate the flaws of a market-based approach. Rent-relief funds are not entitlements: As funds’ budgets are drained, even tenants who qualify can’t count on receiving aid, turning public assistance into a lottery. These city- and state-run programs are also means-tested, which tends to exclude the undocumented and those working in the informal economy. And all of these funds put the burden on tenants to apply—turning tenants into pass-throughs, for money that ends up in landlords’ pockets.
Existing relief programs don’t even prioritize the “mom-and-pop” landlord, that paragon of housing policy who, increasingly, does not exist. Rent-relief funds will largely benefit America’s corporate and Wall Street landlords, who are notorious for poor housing conditions and monopoly rents.
Relief funds subsidize landlords’ profits while leaving rent prices intact, eliminating the possibility of collective bargaining on tenants’ behalf. In this way, rent relief or rent assistance is a pandemic response modeled on the failing Section 8 program. A framework championed in 1973 by President Nixon, these federally funded housing vouchers are notorious for decade-long wait lists, redlining, and chronic lack of funds: For every five households that qualify, just one will receive any aid. Like Section 8, rent relief provides public subsidies for private profit. Is it any wonder that rent relief is supported by the National Association of Realtors, consistently a top-three spender among national lobbying groups?
There are parts of Omar’s bill that we should praise: It prioritizes small rather than corporate landlords. It makes landlords, not tenants, apply for the funding, since it’s landlords, not tenants, who will ultimately receive the money. It directs unlimited money to municipalities to cover all costs. And it attaches regulatory strings, including a five-year rent freeze and restrictions on evictions.
Yet neither Omar’s nor Heck’s proposal actually suspends or reduces rent. Rather, while every other economic sector grinds to a halt, both would guarantee passive income on real-estate investments, cementing long-standing racist inequalities.
Tenants don’t need a bailout. They need jubilee. As renters across the country go on both organized and de facto rent strike, they lay claim (if temporarily) to housing as a human right—to shelter, no matter their ability to pay for it. Rent strikes prefigure a system where the speculative housing market can no longer wreak havoc on people’s lives.
A recent report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies warned that at least 10 million people in the United States spend over 50 percent of their income on rent. According to 2018 data from Economic Roundtable, almost 600,000 Los Angeles residents spent 90 percent of what they earned keeping a roof over their heads.
Canceling rent is a call not for charity but for justice. As unemployment soars, the stock market celebrates. The violators of our human right to housing—the developers and landlords who have financialized cities into landscapes of homelessness and luxury blight—should be made to pay.
We could call back the billions in loophole tax breaks the CARES Act offered to real estate developers and real estate investment trusts. We could levy a real estate billionaire’s tax. We could postpone current mortgage payments to the end of their terms and cancel rent now, allowing many years of future profit to make up landlords’ missed costs.
Multiple polls have found rent cancellation during the pandemic to have bipartisan support. Still, it’s doubtful politicians will follow through; tenant suffering has done little to sway lawmakers in years past. That’s why tenants must view themselves as the agents of this change. Rent relief won’t lead to more rights, and it won’t happen on our terms. But cancellation would rewrite the script of power relations, and it could happen building by building, through collective work—and organized rent strikes.
Mass rent strikes can both make the movement visible to politicians and be used as a collective bargaining tool. The LA Tenants Union—which I helped start—has a history of successful rent strikes and eviction blockades. This week, a tenant who had just been diagnosed with Covid-19 was kicked out of her apartment: Her landlord changed her locks, turned off her power, and threw her belongings onto the street. A rapid mobilization by LATU members ensured that she could return to her apartment and quarantine in peace. In 2018, after a year-long rent strike bolstered by direct action and community support, an LATU Tenants Association won a collective bargaining agreement for their building in Boyle Heights. These tenants were able to roll back legal rent increases, push their landlord to guarantee needed repairs, and keep the rent they had withheld during the strike.
It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make this clear: We must prioritize the use of housing as homes over its value as an investment, and put basic needs before profit motives. While legislative action stalls, we turn to what we can do ourselves. Tenant organizing can politicize and leverage the nonpayment of rent—alchemizing shared vulnerability into shared power.