Millions of People Will Struggle to Pay Rent in April, but Few in Congress Care

Amid record high unemployment, most congressional Democrats have shown no interest in addressing many people’s inability to make major bill payments.

Residential houses are seen through a hole of a construction site fence in Queens on a sunny day on March 18, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Residential houses seen through a hole in a construction site fence in Queens, New York City, on March 18, 2019. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, April 1, rent payments will be due for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic — yet even with unemployment at a record high, major bill payments have barely factored into U.S. politicians’ response to the crisis.

On Friday, the House passed an emergency multi-trillion dollar relief package, which was approved by the Senate on Wednesday night and will now head to President Donald Trump’s desk. It’s about five times bigger than Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus and represents a massive upward transfer of wealth. Though it includes a significant expansion of unemployment benefits and a onetime check of up to $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples, it’ll take up to three weeks for people to begin receiving those relief checks, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. That will be too late for the nearly 3.3 million people who filed for unemployment benefits last week, and others who have become underemployed as a result of the pandemic.

While some states — namely New York — have taken steps to temporarily block evictions, congressional Democrats, with the exception of a handful of progressive lawmakers, have shown almost no interest in addressing the bills due in less than a week, one of the most pressing financial concerns ordinary people currently face. “It shows that Pelosi and Democratic leadership still have their eyes on protecting corporations and not the people,” said one House Democratic staffer.

Over the weekend, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., reiterated her call to suspend major bill payments to help stabilize working families during the escalating pandemic. “If we’re able to get money into households and stop the bleeding with pauses on money going out of households then we can get working families through this thing,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper. The freshman lawmaker has also been working with state officials to try to get rent payments canceled by April 1. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders have also directly called for a suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments nationwide, in addition to stopping evictions and foreclosures. (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other members of Congress joined Sanders’s call for an eviction moratorium and student loan relief, though they have not called for a suspension of rent payments.)

House Financial Services Chair Rep. Maxine Waters last week released a memo of stimulus priorities that included the suspension of almost all consumer credit payments, such as mortgages, car loans, student loans, and credit cards. She proposed suspending rent and utility payments for public and federally assisted housing residents, while providing payment assistance to “help non-assisted renters who meet certain economic conditions cover their rent and utility payments.” Under the Senate bill, student loan payments would be suspended for six months, but the benefit isn’t automatic and requires borrowers to contact their loan servicer for help.

For the most part, demands to cancel rent have been coming from the political left, tenants’ rights groups and other progressive activist circles. They have made modest and incremental gains in a handful of cities and states, but as of yet no change has been enacted that meets the size of the crisis. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order leaving the decision to pause evictions up to local jurisdictions, which has prompted a confusing patchwork of temporary measures in cities like San Francisco and San Bernardino. States like Washington and Pennsylvania, meanwhile, have adopted more widespread measures.

Rent suspension has had the most momentum in New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a three-month moratorium on all evictions for residential and commercial tenants, but tenants’ rights coalitions like Housing Justice For All are pushing for a full statewide cancellation of rent payments.

“New York currently has the strongest eviction moratorium in the country. It’s critical while we are in this crisis, but we have to prepare for when we emerge,” Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator with Housing Justice For All, said in an email. “If we don’t, courts will remain open and evictions will surge. Many of us will not be able to pay the back rent owed that accumulates during this time. Rent, mortgage, or utility payment owed or accumulated during the length of this crisis should be canceled — no questions asked.”

State Sen. Michael Gianaris responded to Cuomo’s eviction moratorium by calling for the state to cancel rent for 90 days. “Eviction moratorium is good but tenants without income won’t be able to pay accumulating rent in 90 days and will then face eviction,” Gianaris said in a tweet. The Queens lawmaker unveiled legislation on Monday, which would make it so that individuals affected by the pandemic wouldn’t have to pay rent, and their landlords could subtract the amount of the lost rent from the mortgages they owe. Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou is sponsoring the bill in the lower chamber.

Weaver argued that a rent suspension should apply across the board, rather than be explicitly tied to the pandemic. “Gianaris’s bill is a step in the right direction,” she said, but many New Yorkers “work precarious jobs, and will be unable to prove that their lack of income is COVID-19 related,” so the “most effective way to make this program work is to make it universal, for all renters, for the duration of this crisis.”

Lynda Holder, a 56-year-old tenant organizing her building in Brooklyn with Housing Justice For All, is in desperate need of rent suspension. Holder, who relies on disability benefits, described her living situation and “stressful” and “very scary,” saying that their landlord doesn’t keep the building clean or make repairs “even in the best of times.”

While an absentee landlord is a challenge even in the best of times, Holder’s housing  difficulties came to a head in the wake of the pandemic. She recently learned that her 96-year-old father, who lives in another state, was diagnosed with Covid-19. “He is the only parent I have left,” Holder said. “I am trying to figure out how to get down to him and support all of them, but I can’t afford the rent and going down to be with my family. I should not have to choose between being with my family and going behind on my rent.”

“Landlords like him get rich while the rest of us get poorer every day, and repairs don’t happen,” she continued. “We know landlords are making money handed over first from us through tax breaks. Now that there is a crisis, where people are losing their jobs or needing to travel or be with sick family — they still want us to pay our landlords who won’t even clean the building or hire a functional super? No, we need a break, this is a crisis.”

Though some activists have started making scattered calls online for a rent strike, Weaver emphasized that strikes require trust, solidarity, and “a clarity around shared demands,” which becomes particularly challenging during a situation that forces isolation.

“A rent strike is a powerful tool that should always be on the table for any tenant union, but it’s not the same as not paying the rent,” she said. “How can we convert thousands of people being unable to pay the rent into thousands of people who are taking collective, intentional, political action together?”

Meanwhile, a number of corporations, including Subway and The Cheesecake Factory, also plan to cut payments to their landlords or go on a rent strike.

Natasha Lennard contributed reporting.

Join The Conversation