In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and an associated economic catastrophe, cities across the country are now acting quickly to try to minimize the fallout. One idea that’s rapidly spread, and is being acted upon, is a moratorium on evictions.
The details differ across each city, but the basic idea is simple: nobody should be evicted if they can’t pay rent due to the coronavirus, whether because they are sick and cannot work, or because they’ve lost their job or had hours cut back by their employer.
The best of these measures put a moratorium on all evictions, so that it doesn’t matter if you’re being evicted for non-payment of rent or for some other reason, nor if your situation is actually related to COVID-19 or not. We are in a massive public health crisis, and nobody should be put out onto the street or be forced to find a new apartment right now.
A version of this broader measure was recently put into effect across the whole state of New York, although there appears to be some loopholes that are causing confusion. In Massachusetts large affordable housing providers announced a voluntary moratorium over a week ago, while advocates are still pushing for a legislative solution.
Eviction Moratorium vs. Rent Suspension
But even the best of these eviction moratoriums are not good enough. What tenants really need is a suspension of rent—that is, rent should no longer be owed at all, period.
This is what’s required to keep potentially millions of people in their homes during this historic crisis, and it’s being demanded by grassroots organizations across the country.
Imagine you’re a tenant and you’re already paying $1,500 per month. Then you get laid off, like scores of other workers right now. OK, you’re protected from eviction for the next six months, or as long as this pandemic continues.
But then what? Will you be forced to pay $9,000 in back rent? (For context, 6 in 10 Americans don’t even have $500 in savings.)
Under almost all the proposals being discussed, tenants will still be responsible for all the rent they cannot pay during the crisis—they’ll have massive rent debt. This will ultimately just delay huge numbers of evictions until a few months after the state of emergency is officially declared to be over.
In Los Angeles, for example, it’s looking like the city council will pass a measure that protects tenants from eviction—if it’s for non-payment of rent—for the duration of this crisis, after which point they’ll have “up to 6 months to fulfill payment obligations.”
Other cities’ measures don’t even provide such grace periods. In Seattle, for example, according to the Seattle Times, “when the moratorium ends, tenants will owe whatever debts they’ve incurred and landlords will be allowed to evict them for non-payment.”
Demands From the Bottom
This is an obvious recipe for disaster. In response, grassroots organizations across the country are demanding a suspension of rent collection.
A petition going around already has over 100,000 signatures.
A coalition of 21 community groups in Chicago have signed onto a letter demanding “an indefinite freeze on collection of all rent, mortgage, and utility payments throughout the duration of the crisis.”
Several local chapters of the LA Tenants Union have signed onto a broad list of demands that includes the following: “An immediate suspension of all rent collection (‘rent holiday’) … to ensure that tenants do not lose their homes in the event of loss of work.”
And the Bay Area Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) released a statement demanding rent suspension: “During this crisis, rent must be completely forgiven; there should be no expectation to pay it now, or ‘back pay’ it in the future.”
Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is on board, tweeting: “Eviction, foreclosure, & shut-off suspensions are good but they are nowhere near enough. People don’t want to be in the position where the moment the orders are lifted there will be a marshal at their door. They still feel like rent is due unless a payment moratorium is called.”
Is a Rent Suspension Legal?
That all sounds great, but would it actually be legal for the state to literally suspend rent? Possibly, yes, because governments have sweeping powers in times of emergency.
According to the LA Times, “[law professor John] Sprankling also believed that courts would also allow a blanket ban against evicting people from their homes without compensation to landlords, since judges have long recognized that emergencies allow for exemptions to constitutional protections afforded under the Fifth Amendment,”—that is, the part of the constitution that protects property owners against uncompensated takings.
For example, in the 1922 case Levy Leasing Co., the Supreme Court upheld a New York law mandating that tenants could not be evicted as long as they paid a “reasonable rent,” to be determined by the courts. New York’s law was an emergency measure in response to a severe post-war housing shortage, and the court reasoned that constitutional protections for property owners may be suspended where there is a crisis “so grave that it constituted a serious menace to the health, morality, comfort, and even to the peace of a large part of the people of the state.”
Foolishness as an Antidote
The current pandemic certainly sounds like the type of crisis described just above by the Supreme Court. But so does the pre-pandemic status quo, where on any given night over 500,000 people are forced to sleep on the streets of one of the richest countries in the history of the world.
Popular struggles may again point the way forward for housing policy in a post-COVID-19 world.
For example, the Hillside Villa Tenants Association in LA’s Chinatown is fighting for the city to use eminent domain to take over their expiring affordable housing development. They are now explicitly making the argument that the overlapping health and economic crises would not so easily induce an eviction crisis were there more robust public and non-speculative community ownership of land.
“If the city owned our building, rent could be suspended very easily,” they tweeted. “If we ourselves owned our building, nobody would be forced to pay rent this month. But because Tom Botz still owns our building, many of us don’t know what to do come March 31.”
Capitalist land tenure rests at the heart of the American political project. The concept of vast public ownership, or even just the possibility of the state stepping in temporarily to halt rent payments—and perhaps mortgage payments, too, which make many landlords vulnerable to the even more powerful financiers—seem to be the stuff of Marxist fantasy.
The idea popularized by political theorist Mark Fisher that it is “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” certainly still rings true today.
But crises are also times of radical possibility. If today’s social movements have their way, we may come out of this pandemic finding it impossible to return to what we thought to be normal with respect to land and housing. And that might be just what we need.
As the historian and intellectual Vijay Prashad has written: “The common sense of our times will lead us to a bad end. Foolishness is needed as an antidote.”