From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Cancel the Rent
Date May 13, 2020 12:10 AM
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[Evictions and foreclosures in the U.S. could trigger a new wave
of infection and illness—but it’s not too late to act.]
[[link removed]]

CANCEL THE RENT   [[link removed]]


Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
May 12, 2020
The New Yorker
[[link removed]]

[[link removed]]
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* [[link removed]]

_ Evictions and foreclosures in the U.S. could trigger a new wave of
infection and illness—but it’s not too late to act. _

Members of the Los Angeles Tenants Union and their supporters hold a
demonstration at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights on April 1 to demand
rent forgiveness for the month because of the coronavirus pandemic’s
economic fallout., Los Angeles Times


It is now clear that the twin prescriptions of social isolation and
shuttering large parts of the national economy have lowered the death
toll of the novel coronavirus
[[link removed]] in the United States from
the direst predictions. But in a country where the “social safety
net” is more a distant memory than a source of actual provision or
support, large swaths of the public now face the threat of hunger and
homelessness. Each passing week brings more questions about what our
cities and states will look like when the shelter-in-place orders are
lifted; they also bring us one week closer to the rent coming due.

By May 6th, twenty per cent of tenants had not paid this month’s
rent, a slight improvement over the twenty-two per cent who did not
pay last month’s rent in the first week. This is probably the result
of renters receiving increased unemployment and stimulus checks, but
it is also unsustainable. Republicans have vowed not to renew the
extra unemployment money when it comes up for a vote again in July,
and most states are running out of funding to make their shares of the
payments. Meanwhile, in a matter of weeks, a staggering thirty-three
million people have filed for unemployment, and the future of millions
more hangs in the balance. April’s unemployment rate was nearly
fifteen per cent
[[link removed]],
a height of joblessness not reached since the Great Depression. The
Congressional Budget Office has projected that by the fall, the
official unemployment rate could rise even higher, to sixteen per cent
[[link removed]].

Threadbare protections against many forms of destitution exist,
whether it be unemployment assistance, Medicaid, or food stamps, but
there are virtually no programs people can turn to in a housing
emergency. There are charities here, or an emergency grant from a
public agency there, but millions of ordinary people staring down the
first of the month are on their own. Last month, Chicago’s
Department of Housing
[[link removed]]
offered one-time-only thousand-dollar grants to two thousand residents
who need help with the rent; a staggering eighty-three thousand people
applied for them within five days.

The crisis of stagnant wages and rising rents certainly predates
_COVID_-19. Forty-seven per cent of renter households in the U.S. were
already “cost-burdened,” meaning that they pay at least thirty per
cent of their income in rent. More than half of African-American and
Latino renters are cost-burdened. Twenty-five per cent of renters are
“severely” cost-burdened, meaning that they pay at least half of
their income in housing. From June of 2018 to July of 2019, Harvard
researchers found that the median rent for an unfurnished apartment in
a new building was sixteen hundred and twenty dollars, a
thirty-seven-per-cent increase
[[link removed]]
from the median rent in 2000. To state the obvious, that’s more than
Trump’s one-off stimulus check. For almost everyone, housing is
their greatest monthly expense.

The mismatch between housing need and costs has been a constant
feature of the U.S. economy, with shortages driven by the basic
reality that there is little to no money to be made in housing for
working-class or poor people. The dynamic is especially acute for
African-Americans. The real-estate market has been lauded as a
race-neutral space, guided only by supply and demand, but more than a
century of racial discrimination and residential segregation, rooted
in the government-inspired perceptions that African-Americans pose an
existential threat to property values, belies that myth. The roots of
the current crisis, however, can be found in the Great Recession and
the avalanche of foreclosures in its wake. As millions of struggling
homeowners, particularly African-Americans, lost their homes,
private-equity firms, like the Blackstone Group, swooped in to buy
hundreds of thousands of the properties. Those homes whose mortgages
had been backed by the federal government were especially attractive,
because the feds, eager to dump these properties, would sell them at a
thirty- to fifty-per-cent discount
[[link removed]].

These were cheap houses to begin with—they were an entry point for
working-class families who wanted to buy a house. Many of the
properties have been turned into rentals, meaning that there are
significantly fewer entry points into the ownership market. This has
meant that black and brown families have become especially vulnerable
to the changing rental market. It is a hallmark of private-equity
landlords, with their huge haul of properties, to be primarily
focussed on maximizing the return
[[link removed]]
on their investment. The result is persistent rises in rent, cutting
back on repairs and other maintenance, ramping up fees, and casually
evicting tenants who cannot keep up. It is housing reduced to its most
base exchange value. Many of the key players in developing this new
market of single-family rentals have played large roles in and around
the Trump Administration—including the Secretary of the Treasury,
Steven Mnuchin, who was known as the “foreclosure king” of
Southern California. Is it any wonder why no real housing relief has
come from this White House?

Between 2011 and 2017, four million units of “low-cost rentals”
were lost and not replaced
[[link removed]].
More than forty per cent of the remaining low-cost units are fifty
years old or older. In Philadelphia
[[link removed]],
hundreds of apartments and houses have been legally designated
[[link removed]]
as “unfit for human habitation”—but hundreds of families do live
in these properties, as a last resort against homelessness. These are
the market forces behind the rising rates of homelessness across the
[[link removed]]
and the dramatic reverse migration
[[link removed]]
of African-Americans, who are returning to the South in search of
cheaper housing. But there is no refuge in this economy: the high cost
of renting combined with the lack of tenant protections has resulted
in a surge of evictions across the South. According to Princeton
University’s Eviction Lab, nine of the ten highest-evicting large
[[link removed]]
are in the South and are at least thirty per cent African-American.

Now thousands more will join the ranks of the rent-burdened and the
financially distressed. Some landlords, recognizing the enormity of
the crisis, have tried to work with their tenants
[[link removed]],
but others have used the vulnerability of sudden unemployment and
housing insecurity to manipulate them. There have been stories of
violence, intimidation
[[link removed]],
and illegal evictions
[[link removed]], where landlords
change locks or remove the belongings of a resident. And then there
are the landlords who have tried to coerce women into exchanging sex
for rent
[[link removed]].
The directives to stay at home while courts are closed and advocates
are stretched to their capacity amplifies the urgency of providing
robust financial resources for struggling tenants, so that they can
either pay their bills or be freed from their debt and the threat of

There has been a little more progress for homeowners, because of the
federal government’s quick intervention requiring that federally
backed mortgages not be foreclosed on in the event of missed payments.
There was also a moratorium on evictions for tenants in federally
subsidized rentals, but this provision affects only about twenty-five
per cent of rental units. And most renters are unlikely to be aware of
the status of their landlord’s mortgage.

The incomplete actions of local and federal officials could result, by
late summer, in hundreds of thousands of evictions and foreclosures,
which would trigger a new wave of infection and illness. If anyone
thinks this is hyperbole, they are not paying attention. We already
know that poverty is an accelerant for the virus, and eviction is a
plunge into American poverty. Already, nine per cent
[[link removed]]
of people who think they might have _COVID_-19 won’t seek medical
attention because of concerns about costs. Those numbers will grow as
people cascade into the financial oblivion that is foreclosure and
eviction. Homeless shelters
[[link removed]] are already
major sites of _COVID_-19 outbreaks; forcing hundreds of thousands of
families into the streets would be throwing gasoline on
still-smoldering embers.

Of course, none of this has to happen. The muted action of the federal
government should not be confused with the inability to act. Clearly,
federal officials know the meaning of “bailout.” For weeks,
Congress has been passing trillion-dollar rescue bills, but most of
the dollars are directed at businesses. The premise of the corporate
bailouts is always that the money will be redistributed to the public
by keeping people employed, but, without a true guarantee, there is
simply no reason to believe that it will happen. In late March, hours
after Congress passed a bailout bill that would send United Airlines
more than five billion dollars, the company announced
[[link removed]]
that it would likely initiate layoffs in the fall, when its government
money runs out. There may be bigger issues to come, as the stimulus
packages have had very weak oversight provisions
[[link removed]].

If the hundreds of billions of dollars slated for business were
redirected to needy tenants and homeowners, it would go a long way
toward stabilizing the housing crisis, while also functioning as a
genuine stimulus. Instead, the multi-trillion-dollar Coronavirus Aid,
Relief, and Economic Security (_CARES_) Act earmarks twelve
[[link removed]] billion
dollars for housing assistance through the Department of Housing and
Urban Development, including four billion
[[link removed]]
in emergency funds to provide shelter to homeless populations. This is
certainly welcome, but a comparison of the sums involved with the
historic need shows that Congress remains painfully out of touch with
the financial realities confronting millions of ordinary people. The
remaining eight billion dollars is intended for existing
subsidized-housing programs, which is a beginning but wholly
insufficient. The vast majority of renters live in private housing,
without the assistance of our warped public-aid system.

A crisis of this proportion presents two options: continue along the
same path that has produced a chronic housing shortage, racism and
redlining, and the enrichment of a few, or leverage the crisis to keep
people in their homes and to invest in new housing for poor and
working-class families. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
[[link removed]]
a Second Bill of Rights, which would guarantee to all Americans, as
rights, “a useful and remunerative job, “adequate medical care,”
“a good education,” and “a decent home.” According to
Roosevelt, these rights were based on a “clear realization of the
fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic
security and independence.” The following year, President Harry S.
Truman downgraded these “rights” to a “goal,” though he also
concluded, “A decent standard of housing for all is one of the
irreducible obligations of modern civilization.” The Housing Act of
1949 proposed [[link removed]] “the
realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a
suitable living environment for every American family.”

The United States is the richest country in the world, and it has
never been more urgent to provide decent and comfortable housing for
all. Today, this means using the country’s awesome resources to
cancel rent and mortgage debt so that families may remain in their
homes. Some elected officials have responded with the appropriate
degree of urgency. Senator Bernie Sanders
[[link removed]] has called for the
cancellation of rent and mortgage payments. In March, even the
moderate former Vice-President Joe Biden
[[link removed]] called for rent payments to
be cancelled. Representative Ilhan Omar has introduced federal
[[link removed]]
that would cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the
pandemic crisis and includes the creation of a fund for repaying
landlords and lenders.

Yet the leading liberal lights of some of the worst-hit states have
offered only limited and piecemeal solutions. In California, Governor
Gavin Newsom, who is often applauded for exhibiting competence in his
handling of the coronavirus, did not impose a moratorium on evictions,
opting to leave this up to each locality. (He later signed an
executive order that gives tenants statewide more time to respond to
eviction proceedings, a move that critics have panned
[[link removed]]
as “entirely useless.”) Some municipalities have allowed for a
pause in rental payments, but only if tenants can prove that their
hardship is specifically tied to _COVID_-19. This is plainly a
ridiculous requirement in the midst of a pandemic, especially since it
is quite possible to become ill but not secure the still-elusive
_COVID_-19 test.

In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed a dramatic executive
order [[link removed]] that
called attention to the unprecedented nature of the crisis, including
its economic impact. The mayor’s order recognized “that many
persons so affected do not have access to paid time off,” that
“even a few lost days of wages due to the effects of _COVID_-19
could mean not being able to buy food, pay rent,” and that
“government entities around the world are implementing eviction
prevention measures to increase housing stability for residents.”
Given all this insight, however, her moratorium on evictions applied
only to tenants in public and subsidized housing.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot trumpeted
[[link removed]]
her “Housing Solidarity Pledge,” which calls on landlords and
lenders to voluntarily enter into repayment plans with tenants,
without late fees. Seventeen organizations, representing banks,
landlords and real-estate interests, have signed the pledge, but
several tenant organizations have called it
[[link removed]]
“wholly insufficient,” since the mayor also stated that tenants
must “meet their obligations” to repay rental debt. As if to make
the point of tenants’-rights activists, one of the signatories to
Lightfoot’s pledge, TLC Property Management, has filed dozens of
[[link removed]]
cases in Chicago and its suburbs since March 20th, when Illinois’s
governor, J. B. Pritzker, declared a statewide moratorium on
evictions. Activists are calling on the governor to lift a state law
banning rent control, a necessary precondition to cancelling the rent
and mortgage payments.

Historically, the tension between the housing that is available and
the housing that is needed has inspired the formation of tenant
unions, rent strikes, and other initiatives aimed at securing housing
justice. The last great wave of tenant activism came in the
nineteen-sixties, when Harlem residents organized rent strikes against
rat infestations
[[link removed]], and the
Chicago Freedom Movement, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., helped
to organize tenant “unions against slums
[[link removed]]”
in Chicago. These efforts were just small parts of a broader
[[link removed]]
for better and just housing for African-Americans, including the
battle to end housing discrimination, which culminated with the
passage of the Fair Housing Act, in 1968, and the supposed opening of
the entire housing market to all citizens. Ultimately, the act failed
to do so because landlords and the real-estate industry were deeply
invested in perpetuating residential segregation. The separation of
rental and buyers’ markets continued to add financial value to the
idea of the exclusive white neighborhood, while black neighborhoods,
with older housing in disrepair, still netted more expensive rents
because African-Americans were a captured market.

Tenant activism has persisted since then, but it is, almost
necessarily, locally oriented and, thus, fragmented. Typically, rent
strikes and tenant organizing have been focussed on a single building
or directed at a particular landlord. With major landlords, these
actions can at times cut across neighborhoods, involving multiple
buildings, but they are narrow almost by definition. The returns on
this activism have been mixed, with a local ordinance here calling for
one kind of remedy, and a local rule elsewhere calling for another
fix. More generally, housing policy has been stuck in narrow
discussions about affordability, based on small-scale projects that
barely make a dent in the overwhelming need for housing. The choke
chain of pragmatism cuts off the air when we desperately need to
breathe new ideas and energy into housing and development in the
United States.

The organizing happening today is different. It is being guided by
more general demands that rents be cancelled and accruing debts wiped
off the books—and that the federal government use its enormous
resources to rescue tenants. The physical assembly of renters and
struggling homeowners is not possible because of social distancing,
but that has not stopped efforts to coördinate rent strikes across
the country, starting first in April and continuing in May. From
Kansas City, Missouri, to Richmond, Virginia, and beyond, local
organizers are attempting the unprecedented: mobilizing millions to
withhold their rents, in an effort to force the federal government to
include tens of millions of renters in its relief efforts.

Two of the largest strikes are in New York City and Philadelphia
[[link removed]],
led by organizations including Housing Justice for All
[[link removed]] and the Philadelphia
Tenants Union [[link removed]]. In New York, the goal
of organizers is to enlist a million city residents in withholding
their rent under the banner of the strike. Cea Weaver, an organizer
with Housing Justice for All, described
[[link removed]]
the peril and promise of the crisis, to Curbed, as “really
terrifying, but it’s also quite inspiring.” She added, “It’s
in moments of crisis that we’re able to win big things, from the
first rent-control laws in New York State’s history about a hundred
years ago to public housing and more. It’s in moments like these
when we can really push the envelope to envision a totally different

The maturity of these demands did not emerge from a void. The torrent
of home foreclosures during the Great Recession inspired a wave of
housing activism, as local organizations engaged in eviction defense
to help families remain in their homes. Organizations like the
Miami-based Take Back the Land and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign
became known for engaging in eviction resistance and occupying empty
houses as a tactic to create housing for those experiencing
homelessness or as a defense against dispossession. These and other
local initiatives represent grassroots efforts to slow the for-profit
model of housing development that has marginalized poor and
working-class families and their struggles for housing security.

Last December, in Oakland, where the tech boom threw gentrification
into overdrive, four single African-American mothers took possession
of an abandoned house owned by corporate real-estate entity called
Wedgewood, Inc. Wedgewood intended to hold onto the property as its
value increased, but the inhumanity of “buy now, sell later” is
glaring in Oakland, where some estimates suggest that rents increased
by fifty per cent
[[link removed]]
between 2012 and 2017—and where black people make up seventy per
cent of the rising homeless population. As the mother-activists have
pointed out, there are more empty houses in Oakland than there are
unhoused people. In early January, after a judge ruled that the women
had no legal right to occupy the house, a paramilitary police force
raided the building, evicting the women and arresting two of them.
But, in response to the activism and international publicity,
Wedgewood agreed to negotiate a sale of the house to a community land
trust, insuring that the women and their families would be able to
live there.

In L.A., as in Oakland, thousands of units of housing sit empty as
owners wait for property values to rise before cashing out. Meanwhile,
upward of thirty-five thousand people are homeless. A group of Latino
families who call themselves the Reclaimers
[[link removed]] have called upon “the city and
state to immediately use all vacant properties to house people.”
These families already faced eviction; some were living in cars
because of the unchecked rise in rents. With the immediate threat of
_COVID_-19 and state orders to shelter in place, they decided to
occupy eleven vacant houses that had been purchased by a state agency
in anticipation of expanding the freeway system. As Ruby Gordillo, a
mother of three who is occupying one such house, contends
[[link removed]],
“This is public land. This is a taxpayer house. You paid for it. I
paid for it. We all paid for it. All of these vacant houses on public
land should be used for public good, to create real affordable

These creative examples of housing activism will be necessary when the
eviction engine begins to churn in the coming weeks and months. It
seems patently absurd to turn people onto the street when a financial
depression had been brought on through no fault of their own.

The demands for rent relief and equitable rescue legislation have to
be built on an equally imaginative and broad scale. Last November,
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
[[link removed]] and Senator
Bernie Sanders introduced a Green New Deal for Public Housing Act in
Congress. Where such proposals might once have seemed utterly utopian,
they now feel long overdue. The plan calls for spending up to a
hundred and seventy-two billion dollars to retrofit and decarbonize
more than a million units of public housing. Across the country,
[[link removed]]
of public-housing units have been allowed to deteriorate, as local
officials prepare to sell the land to developers. Investing in this
housing and keeping it in the public domain would not only generate
thousands of jobs but also create good, sustainable housing for
thousands of working-class families.

There’s also the Homes Guarantee [[link removed]],
introduced by the People’s Action, a national coalition that has
called for a multi-trillion-dollar investment in the creation of
affordable housing. In addition to support for the Green New Deal, the
Homes Guarantee calls for building twelve million units of social
housing, creating a tenants’ bill of rights, and imposing taxes that
discourage real-estate speculation and the continued commodification
of housing. It also calls for reparations for Native Americans and
African-Americans, to compensate for the financial damage of
displacement, redlining, and housing discrimination. Together, these
proposals offer a complete reimagining of what housing policy can and
should look like. For those who think such ideas are unrealistic, one
must ask if they are any more improbable than expecting the market to
suddenly produce the needed housing. As the Homes Guarantee organizer
Tara Raghuveer has argued
[[link removed]],
“The theory of the Homes Guarantee is that the market failure has
been so profound, we can’t wait around for the market to work.”

At the heart of the demands of organizers across the country is
cancellation of rent owed and rent coming due. The insistence on
payments from millions of renters makes no sense, given that the
shortfalls they are experiencing have been created by the orders to
shelter in place and close businesses. If our government can spend
trillions of dollars to bail corporations out of a worsening economic
situation, then there is no reason why that same gesture cannot be
extended to poor and working-class families. Millions of low-wage
workers across the country have been designated as essential workers
and heralded as heroic. But what is needed even more than flattery and
compliments is relief from the housing insecurity that compels them to
risk their lives for low wages.

There is an inherent conflict between the human right to housing and
making housing available based on what the market will provide and at
the highest price it can command. But there are real reforms to this
arrangement that can be made today. If the Army Corps of Engineers can
build field hospitals for _COVID_-19 patients overnight, why can’t
they also build new housing for those in need of it? In Philadelphia
and Baltimore and Chicago and Detroit, why can’t old and abandoned
housing be rehabilitated and repurposed to stop the skyrocketing rise
in rents and the displacement of black and brown working-class
families? We have to reverse the strange alchemy where markets turn
land, concrete, steel, and glass into money, while conversely turning
people out into the streets.

Consider the grim alternative, if we remain stuck with the shamefully
inadequate housing relief that has been offered: hundreds of thousands
of poor and working-class renters and homeowners, particularly from
black communities, dispossessed of their homes and pushed into the
streets, doubled and tripled up in relatives’ and friends’ homes
or warehoused in homeless shelters, hungry, exhausted, and increasing
their exposure to this novel coronavirus. We know about the higher
mortality rates for black and brown people who contract the disease.
As a society, we must ask whether the failure to pay rent or a missed
mortgage payment should be punished with a death sentence.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
[[link removed]] is
the author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate
Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
[[link removed]].”
She is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton

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* [[link removed]]







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