Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A campaign dubbed Our Homes, Our Health is pressuring lawmakers to suspend rent and mortgage payments nationwide during the coronavirus crisis.
Laura Rodriguez starts each day with a prayer and hopes that her kids don’t see the anxiety that she says she is struggling to control.
Rodriguez lives in Aurora, Colorado, where six of her seven children are hunkered down with her, sheltering in place. Her husband runs the family’s small business: He works as a painter, usually as a subcontractor. A company owes him payment for some recent jobs, but the office is closed, so the check isn’t coming — and so far, neither is any federal aid. Bill collectors are calling. The stress is mounting.
“We’ve got two disconnection notices already,” Rodriguez says. “We did pay April’s rent, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen with May and whatever other months we still have to cover until the pandemic is under control and we can actually go back to work.”
For the second time since the country started lockdown protocols to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, the rent is coming due. In a crisis defined by grim slopes on alarming charts of infections and deaths, rent day marks an ominous recurring cliff, with millions of families going over the edge each month.
Rodriguez worries about becoming one of them. But she’s also taking action: She’s working with the nonprofit organizing group United for a New Economy to try to cancel the rent in Aurora and across Colorado. “I would like for [Colorado Governor Jared] Polis to be bold. Stop evictions, the foreclosures, stop the rent increases and late fees and disconnection of utilities,” she says. “To stop all that, to be able to get back on our feet, at least until this pandemic is over.”
Colorado’s governor has directed landlords, banks, and sheriffs to avoid evictions, but without the power of a state order, it carries all the weight of a polite ask. The state’s coronavirus-related tenant protections rank among the worst in the U.S., according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “As soon as this pandemic stops, these people [who receive eviction notices] are still going to get evicted,” Rodriguez says. In fact, it could happen much sooner.
United for a New Economy is part of a national grassroots effort to compel leaders at all levels of government to level rents right now. This national movement — launched this week under the banner Our Homes, Our Health — brings together housing groups, community organizers, and tenant advocates to convince federal, state and local lawmakers to to suspend all rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic. No other approach will work, say the advocates with the National Housing Justice Grassroots Table, a coalition of groups that includes the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Partnership for Working Families, and Right to the City Alliance. Other supporters of the idea include New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well as Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, who earlier this month introduced a bill to suspend rent and mortgage payments through this crisis.
The organizers behind Our Homes, Our Health are also pushing to make rents fairer and more affordable after the lockdowns lift. “Going back to the status quo of how things were working before the pandemic is not a solution for a lot of low-income families and people of color,” says Chris Schildt, a senior associate for PolicyLink, a national research and social justice group. “The status quo was a perennial crisis.”
Our Homes, Our Health combines a number of longtime leftist policy goals, like pushing for social housing, with protections specific to the Covid-19 crisis. To address the pandemic, the platform calls for canceling the rent for all kinds of rental housing and expanding emergency options for people who are homeless. Once the immediate crisis passes, they want to see freezes on rent increases and other rent control policies. They also argue for a right for tenants to be able to renew their leases. Many of the items on this wish list line up with Eviction Lab’s Covid-19 Housing Policy Scorecard — which currently gives few states passing grades.
Over the longer term, the Our Homes, Our Health platform recommends a mix of existing tenant protections (such as just-cause evictions and a right to eviction counsel) plus deeper structural changes (requiring or persuading banks and landlords to sell foreclosed properties to community trusts). A few of the proposals enter the range of the fantastical — such as using eminent domain to “target AirBnbs, luxury housing, and corporate landlords.”
Still, the campaign acknowledges the strain that a national rent holiday would put on landlords. To protect these property owners, many of which are small mom-and-pop operations that work on slim margins, the campaign calls on lawmakers to both forgive rents and forbear mortgage payments. (While this strategy could have unpredictable consequences for the banking system, the Federal Reserve has already promised to backstop mortgage-backed bonds.) The platform goes further, describing a suite of policies — “Buy-Outs Not Bailouts” — to purchase distressed properties from landlords and transfer their ownership to public entities. The idea is to make social housing, not corporate speculation, the most likely outcome of coronavirus-related market chaos.
“How do we think of recovery in terms of building a better and more equitable system that works for all? That is what’s necessary in this moment,” Schildt says. “In 2008, we did not do that, and we’ve seen the consequences — the highest levels of inequality that this country has seen in 100 years and an incredible crisis of evictions and housing instability, especially for communities of color and especially for African-American women.”
Other housing experts have said that the best way to avoid any potentially disastrous unintended consequences is to keep money flowing through the system — to have governments provide relief to renters, who in turn lift up landlords, banks, bond-holders, and other pillars of the economy simply by paying the rent. But socialist organizers who yearn to decommodify the housing market are more likely to see the current crisis as an opportunity for creative destruction — a ladder out of the chaos that both rescues tenants and fundamentally changes their disposition.
This age-old debate about housing and wages is no longer academic. Such sweeping ideas are necessary, since the current trillion-dollar pandemic response packages have failed the most vulnerable households, the advocates say. The federal stimulus simply isn’t reaching enough families in need. More than 88 million Americans so far have received their promised $1,200 stimulus payments from the federal government, but tens of millions of people are still waiting for their checks. Plus, the one-time $1,200 payment — which works out to about a month’s full-time wages at the federal minimum wage — isn’t enough money to pay rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country.
And while the federal government has bolstered unemployment insurance benefits, state-level systems have buckled under the pressure. Epic call waits to understaffed agencies and constant timeouts on flimsy application portals have hampered the federal Covid-19 response. According to new research from the Economic Policy Institute, for every 10 people who successfully filed for unemployment over the last four weeks, three or four eligible workers couldn’t get through; another two people didn’t bother because the process was so difficult.
That works out to 8 million to 12 million workers who still aren’t receiving any unemployment benefits. Another tenant-turned-organizer, Roberto Rodriguez, finds himself lost in that gap. His wife was working as a school bus driver for Orange County, in Orlando, but she was laid off last month when schools closed. She filed for unemployment, but she can’t get through. The last paycheck she received was a month ago.
“We call unemployment, we call the governor’s office, we call all the representatives — everybody who can help — and basically, they all say the same thing,” Rodriguez says. “The system is down. The system is broken. It’s not meant for this.”
Rodriguez was driving for Uber, but his doctor says that isn’t safe for him right now: He’s a cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, so he takes immunosuppressant drugs. He also can’t get the federal government’s promised unemployment aid for 1099 workers. But if he and his wife can’t find support soon, he says he’ll have no choice but to drive again.
For now, Rodriguez is pouring his energy into Organize Florida, a nonprofit grassroots group. Families in Orlando could manage for the duration on $1,200 stimulus checks, he says, but not if they have to pay the rent. The May rent alone will absorb nearly all of that money, leaving little left over for food, healthcare, or utilities.
Unaffordable rents were already the rule for poor families across the country. Even before the pandemic, more than 71% of low-income households were severely cost-burdened, meaning that they paid more than half their income to rent. Now those families are facing homelessness — even if they are not evicted immediately. The steps to protect vulnerable renters only delay mass nationwide evictions.
“We already knew that we were rent burdened before the pandemic and the shutdown happened,” says Pam Phan, a national field organizer for the Right to the City Alliance. “Now that folks in even larger numbers have lost their livelihoods, we’re in a much different situation. Action had to be taken.”
No doubt, the shape of the reform-as-rescue operation put forward by Our Homes, Our Health is radical. It would almost certainly face a court challenge. But supporters say that rent cancellation will pass legal muster: It’s not an unconstitutional “taking” under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Penn Central v. New York City. As an answer to the immediate crisis, rent cancellation is turning heads. Local governments in Denver,, Seattle, and San Francisco have passed resolutions calling on their respective states to take action. A spate of cancel-the-rent protests have swept several U.S. cities in recent weeks. And some buildings and tenants are taking it upon themselves to organize rent strikes, official policy be damned.
As evidence for what organizers hope to accomplish, Phan points to the eviction and foreclosure moratorium passed in Massachusetts on April 20. It’s one of the strongest such emergency laws in the country; indeed, Massachusetts now tops Eviction Lab’s national rankings. Phan says that the local advocacy group Homes for All Massachusetts was instrumental in making it happen: The group had already established the relationships between the legislature, governor’s office, and local leaders that helped to build support for an ambitious solution.
“States like Massachusetts, even a week ago or a month ago, did not seem to think that across-the-board moratoriums were a possibility,” Phan says. “The years of organizing and development set us up for a really strong moratorium. That’s not where we’re going to stop.”