Times have not been good for American renters for a while, but they have never been this bad. In April, a quarter of tenants couldn’t pay their full rent; in May, the proportion has risen to nearly a third.
With the economy still frozen and roughly 36 million newly unemployed workers in the last two months, June will likely see that percentage rise even higher.
Government officials at every level have attempted to address the coronavirus-related housing crisis, but so far their efforts offer only partial relief. A temporary pause on evictions has protected millions of renters, but landlords have begun to find loopholes. And rental assistance policies that seemed generous in late March seem meager in early May.
Across the country, tenants are pressuring city politicians to freeze or cancel rent — and threatening strikes if they don’t get more relief.
Evictions: Paused But Not Forgotten
One of the most controversial provisions in the coronavirus stimulus package, the CARES Act, was a ban on all foreclosures and evictions in federally managed properties and housing financed with federally backed loans. Under the moratorium, homeowners can request a six-month forbearance for their home loans and landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants until July 25.
While the law’s housing provisions sound simple, they contain important complexities. Only around one-quarter of properties in the United States are financed by the federal government. And even for tenants living in a building that ban covers, many have had no way of knowing for sure that they qualify.
Luckily, most states have taken at least some action to enact coronavirus-related tenant protections. The best performer (according to the Princeton Eviction Lab’s Housing Policy Scorecard, anyway) is Massachusetts, which has suspended eviction hearings, halted removals and prevented utility companies from shutting off renters’ water, gas or electricity.
At the other end of the spectrum are six states ― Arkansa, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming ― that have passed no tenant protections whatsoever. While some cities within those states have attempted to close the gap themselves, many of America’s renters lack clear information about whether they’re at risk of eviction.
Pamela Bridge, the director of litigation and advocacy for Community Legal Services, a Phoenix-based nonprofit law firm that assists tenants, said that despite the unprecedented social and economic circumstances, people are still being removed from their homes.
“Evictions are the one thing that isn’t paused,” she said.
While Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued an order in March halting all lockouts for tenants who provide notice of COVID-19-related hardship, “the order wasn’t really a moratorium on evictions,” Bridge said. “Tenants are still receiving eviction judgments for nonpayment of rent and other violations. Those tenants are still going to be locked out of their homes — it will just be after July 22, the day the governor’s order ends.”
Arizona’s eviction ban has other shortcomings, as do the bans in many other states. Tenants are still obligated to pay their landlords and are still receiving judgments for missing rent ― they just can’t get kicked out for the time being. Plus, having an eviction on their record will make it almost impossible to find another apartment. Residents of public housing and recipients of housing vouchers will likely lose their access to federal housing benefits.
“The hearings are by phone now,” Bridge said. “But other than that, it’s business as usual.”
Rental Assistance: Too Little, Too Late
Since the passage of the CARES Act, the federal government has proposed various efforts to help renters cover their back rent before the topic of an eviction even arises. The new COVID-19 stimulus proposal, the HEROES Act, would provide $175 billion in housing relief, including $100 billion in rental assistance.
On Wednesday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden proposed forgiving all mortgage and rent payments, aligning himself with a Congressional Progressive Caucus proposal. “Forgiveness,” he said, “Not paid later.” While the passage of these bills remains unlikely, renters and low-income homeowners need more relief, and soon.
Edmund Witter, a senior managing attorney for Seattle legal aid service The Housing Justice Project, said it’s looking increasingly unlikely that throwing more money at the problem will be enough. Last month, King County ― where Seattle is located ― announced an extra $5 million in rental assistance to keep low-income tenants in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. The program ran out of money in less than 48 hours.
“We need to figure out a bigger solution or else we’re going to see a lot of people hitting the streets,” Witter said. He pointed to figures showing that even in the most expensive rentals, some cities are showing delinquency rates as high as 10%.
“It’s spreading to everyone, at every income,” he said.
Rent Strikes: Uncharted Territory
Without meaningful relief for renters and low-income homeowners, tensions over housing payments will only get worse. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is keeping a running tally of organized rent strikes.
Some cities are releasing form letters for tenants to tell landlords that they can’t pay the rent in full. No matter what happens at the federal level, organized tenant actions will be local. And city leaders don’t have time to get ready.
But still, rent strikes are just one response that could come out of the coronavirus-driven housing crisis. Witter pointed out that rent strikes have never been applied to the scale of a global pandemic.
“I’ve organized rent strikes before, and they tend to work when you have a whole building saying, ‘We know what we want, we have a concrete grievance and we’ll pay when it’s addressed,’” he said. “It gets harder in a situation like this, where people have different ideas of what their demands are and what the stopping point will be.”
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