photo: empty streets of New Orleans
With its tourism-based economy on hold and existing entrenched poverty, New Orleans faces a particularly grim housing future. Emily Kask/Bloomberg

To prevent a housing disaster, leaders in nine U.S. cities called on state and federal officials to give more support to tenants as the Covid-19 crisis deepens.

April 1 means nothing to a virus, but it has worked like a magnifying glass to concentrate the economic sting of the Covid-19 shutdown on out-of-work residents and rent-burdened families. As millions of Americans struggle to make rent — or sacrifice other necessities to do so — a growing cohort of local leaders around the country are questioning the steps taken by lawmakers to protect renters. Representatives from city councils in nine major U.S. cities, including several dealing with profound health crises due to the coronavirus pandemic, used the first day of the month to call on lawmakers to cancel rent obligations altogether.

In an intra-city press conference on April 1, officials in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Paul, Minnesota, said that Congress and state governors need to cancel rent payments now, echoing the urgent demands of frustrated tenants and activists in those cities and beyond. Apartment residents owe roughly $22 billion in rent, according to CoStar, but nobody knows how much renters can actually afford to pay right now.

“I have never heard from so many people scared, anxious, and in distress about their families and their future,” said Los Angeles City Council member Mike Bonin, adding that with the April rent due, “that [anxiety] is magnified today.”

The city councilors highlighted the new crisis dynamics brought into stark relief by the rent due date, the first to hit since stay-at-home orders devastated local economies. Specifically, the city council members are asking statehouse leaders to use emergency powers to cancel rent obligations and impose a moratorium on mortgage payments. States such as New York and Pennsylvania are already considering these laws. The coalition of council members — assembled by San Francisco Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney — also said that Congress has to provide more direct support for out-of-work renters by declaring a national rent jubilee, starting now and extending for the foreseeable future. That, they insist, is only way for millions of families to avoid lasting financial damage.

The alternatives are unthinkable, says Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, notwithstanding the local eviction moratoriums now in place. Many Minneapolis families won’t be able to cover the next rent check, whenever it’s due. “Instead of two to three weeks out of work, [by May 1] we’re going to be at that point almost two months into this thing,” Ellison says. “Any sort of savings that out-of-work people have today is going to be extremely depleted when we get to next month and the month after that.”

Current renter protections vary from region to region, and even orders that seem sweeping can leave holes when not combined with long-term assistance. On March 27, for example, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that effectively limited the number of evictions that can be completed for the next 60 days, in an attempt to stop renters from being put out on the streets due to non-payment of rent during the state’s shelter-in-place. But housing advocates and state legislators on the April 1 press call insisted that California’s eviction measure falls short.

“Right now, unfortunately, millions of Californians have effectively no protection from eviction,” said State Senator Scott Wiener. “A renter can be evicted on paper during the emergency, and when it ends the renter can be physically ejected from their apartment.”

Tenants can still receive three-day eviction notices. If they don’t pay their rent or respond to the notice during those three days — and even if they do send landlords proof that they have coronavirus-related income loss — they can still have eviction lawsuits filed against them in court. Most pressingly, tenants will all be on the hook for back rent and eligible for eviction as soon as the 60-day period is up, sparking fears of mass expulsions in June.

“Once they serve that three-day notice and it expires, absent some other defense, the landlord has a cause of action to evict you,” Brian Augusta, director of the Rural Housing Project for California’s Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, told CityLab. “It’s just a matter of when.”

Even on-paper evictions that don’t result in tenants being kicked out of their rental can have damaging long-term effects, said Sarah Steinheimer, who works with Legal Services of Northern California, a nonprofit law firm. An eviction filing can ding a renter’s credit score or lead to future discrimination by landlords, even if the detainer is dismissed.

Because of a growing patchwork of protections at the federal, state and local level, she says, some renters believe they have rights that they do not in fact have. “The vast majority of tenants do not have attorneys in unlawful detainers,” she said. “It’s already very confusing and difficult for tenants on their own without an attorney to navigate unlawful detainee and court process. It’s even more confusing today.”

California State Assembly member Phil Ting is working with Wiener to introduce state legislation for a moratorium on non-payment evictions that would also create a structure for renters to gradually pay back their bills, potentially at a diminished rate.

The best solution, according to Augusta, would be to issue a statewide blanket ban on eviction filings, stalling new eviction processes entirely. But that method still kicks the can down the road: “At some point all of this will be lifted and we’ll go back to normal and then this question arises,” he said. “What do we do about the unpaid rent?”

During Wednesday’s all-city pitch for a national rent holiday, council member after council member spoke about the enormity of the challenge their residents are already facing. Brad Lander, a New York City Council member, said that at one food pantry line in the Brooklyn district he represents, eight out of 10 people in the queue were turning to food aid for the first time in their lives. New Orleans City Council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer talked about the double-whammy of the city’s deeply entrenched poverty and the evaporation of essential tourism dollars. Rental assistance will be key to ensuring the city’s survival, and for as long as the crisis lasts. “It’s not going to continue for just the next 60 days.,” said Palmer, whose district includes the racially and economically diverse French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, and Treme neighborhoods.

Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Council member, said that her city expects to reach a crisis point with Covid-19 infections within the next week or two. Other cities face the same dire curve. Leaders need to deliver a solution to the housing crisis before their attention is subsumed by the health crisis. “It’s partly why it’s so crucially important to talk about housing now,” Gym says. “I deeply, deeply worry that the only thing we’re going to be focused on for the next several weeks is keeping people alive.”

As a policy solution, a rent holiday raises the prospect of broad economic chaos. If landlords are still required to pay their mortgages eventually, while renters aren’t paying their rents at all, landlords are going to fail or go out of business — which doesn’t help their tenants much. Forgiving mortgage payments just shifts the burden up the financial ladder onto the bondholders who invest in securitized mortgages. This might look like two birds with one stone for people eager to decommodify housing — to decouple its role in investment from its function as shelter. The problem is, many mortgage-bond investors are insurance companies and pension funds. Distress in these markets eventually rebounds to real people.

Yet chaos is coming one way or another, and the task before leaders now is to decide the safest course for managing the fallout. Under the status quo, the people who are going to suffer the most — who are hurting already — are the poorest and most vulnerable tenants in every city.

Gym, the Philadelphia representative, notes that immigrants in sanctuary cities like hers are already paying a price, thanks to the new public charge rule authorized by the Trump administration, which could remove millions of families from benefit programs like food stamps and Medicaid. “The indescribably and unnecessarily cruel ruling that legal immigrants have to choose between subsidies that they have paid for or citizenship in the U.S. is unconscionable during this time,” she says. Undocumented immigrants, and many immigrants with status, are ineligible for unemployment insurance, says Lander in New York. “It just doesn’t work for literally millions of New Yorkers.”

Mitra Jalali, a city council member in St. Paul, said that even if every resident in need in her city gets help, it won’t be enough to keep them in their homes. Her city, like every other metro in the country, faced an affordable housing crisis before the pandemic struck. The need before coronavirus was already astronomical.

“The stimulus check from the federal government is $1,200, but the median rent in St. Paul has tipped past $1,100,” Jalali said. “The resources sometimes feel like you’re throwing a twig into a bonfire.”

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