When I posed the question to my friends and family on Facebook about who’s struggling to pay rent right now, the chorus of “me” was incredibly loud. As we move into the second full month of mandatory stay-at-home orders, millions of Americans are out of work. The amount of people currently facing a financial crisis is at an all-time high. This leaves many people suddenly unable to pay their rent.
As a result, many of those struggling people are banding together to do something about it. The cancel rent movement, backed by congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, is quickly gaining traction among the most vulnerable Americans, and for good reason: As long as COVID-19 is forcing the country into lockdown, housing policy must be quickly reformed to meet this need.
That’s why organizers are getting together nationwide, coordinating the biggest rent strike in American history. Approximately 200,000 tenants refused to pay their rent. They’re trying to illustrate a critically important point: people shouldn’t have to choose between keeping a roof over their heads or putting food on the table. At any time, but especially during a pandemic.
“Just as COVID started affecting things here, I had to work out a payment plan with our landlady,” explains my friend Priscilla Blossom, a mom of one and writer in Denver. She writes mostly for travel websites, which are obviously taking a hit right now. “Four of my main outlets have since put me on pause, so it’s put a damper on my incoming finances.” She also told me that her husband was out of work pre-coronavirus and has only recently found full-time work again. So they’re still paying off back rent (via installments) from when he was unemployed.
The Atlantic points out that three in five renters can’t come up with $400 in an emergency — and that’s when the economy isn’t in crisis. When you see that figure, it isn’t hard to understand why so many people can’t afford to pay rent right now. “We’ve been saying in the housing-justice movement, ‘We’re just one paycheck away from eviction,’” strike organizer and housing activist, Cea Weaver, tells The Atlantic. “It’s true. And now everybody knows that it’s true.”
According to data released by the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord trade organization, only 69 percent of renters could pay a portion of their April rent. In March, 81 percent of tenants were able to pay. There’s a strong likelihood that this number will continue to drop in upcoming months. But if we cancel rent now, we can allow people to get ahead — or at least not fall further behind.
For my friend Janelle Alexander, the need to cancel rent is great. A single mother, she’s been unemployed since before coronavirus hit. But now, she knows her back is up against the wall. “Just postponing rent will make it impossible to recover. I’d love to be able to just protest and not pay it but I don’t trust that my landlord wouldn’t find a way to evict me,” she told me.
Now isn’t a time when landlords should be putting people on the street. But the chances of it happening to a lot of people are high. Not all landlords and property owners are understanding of their tenants’ struggles. Thankfully, there are people in office who actually want to do something to help everyone.
In April, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D- MN) introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act . It’s a bill that would “institute a nationwide cancellation of rents and home mortgage payments through the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.” Not only would the bill forgive all payments, but the renters and homeowners wouldn’t accumulate any debt. Nor would there be a negative impact on their credit score or rental history. Additionally, there would be an optional relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders to cover the payment loss. And it would create opportunities to fund more affordable housing during this economic downturn.
Co-sponsoring the bill are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) along with Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Jesús “Chuy” García (D-IL), and Grace Meng (D-NY).
“We must take major action to protect the health and economic security of the most vulnerable, including the millions of Americans currently at risk of housing instability and homelessness,” said Rep. Omar via a press release. “Congress has a responsibility to step in to stabilize both local communities and the housing market during this time of uncertainty and crisis. In 2008, we bailed out Wall Street. This time, it’s time to bail out the American people who are suffering.”
Rep. Pressley added, “By cancelling rent and mortgage payments for the duration of this public health emergency, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act affirms that housing is a human right and ensures that no person or family is forced to choose between putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their head during this unprecedented crisis.”
“I have a duplex and the rental income from the other side is crucial for me being able to afford my house. If we cancel rent but not mortgage, I’d be pretty fucked,” explained my friend Irina Gonzalez.
That’s why much of the movement to cancel rent also includes cancelling mortgages. Private companies who own multiple buildings aren’t giving many people options. Across social media, we’re seeing those unsympathetic landlords, the ones who are suggesting you can pay your rent if you simply change your lifestyle.
For example, according to NY1, a rental management company based in Florida sent an email demanding its Queens, New York residents not only pay rent, but suggested options for how they could round up some extra cash.
“Owners still have to pay their bills,” they said in an email. “If you have been laid-off from your job due to the closures of non-essential businesses, there are still several places hiring,” they went on to say, suggesting residents look for work at places like Domino’s Pizza and Walmart.
People have nothing; where exactly do the owners think the money will come from? Their bootstraps are already pulled tight, okay?
While the House Democrats have a bill focusing on renters and housing owners, that’s not the only bill out there. Another group of progressive Democrats also have a plan. On May 4th, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio shared a new bill proposal via Twitter. Brown’s bill, the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act, would provide $100 billion in emergency rental assistance. What’s more, the funds can also cover up to six months back rent and late fees. “The last thing we want during a public health crisis is people being forced out of their homes and onto the streets,” he tweeted.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Act would put the responsibility of dispersal on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD.) They could also pair with housing agencies and other community organizations to disperse the money. Renters wouldn’t have to worry about handling the money; payments would be made directly to the home providers.
No matter what, those who are struggling need a solution now. Cancelling rent without penalizing renters or landlords is a crucial way to help stabilize the economy. It’s not that people have just decided they don’t want to pay. They literally can’t. COVID-19 has hit American families hard — but there are ways to keep it from being utterly devastating, and this is a huge one. Cancel rent now.
This article was originally published on