a person hold a #cancelrent sign in spanish.


What Would It Mean to Cancel Rent?

The growing organizing demand raises a host of questions for the affordable housing movement.

Photo by Joseph Smooke, courtesy of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco

a person hold a #cancelrent sign in spanish.

Photo by Joseph Smooke, courtesy of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco

Photo courtesy of People’s Action

If you live in a state capital or large city, it’s likely that sometime last week you saw a caravan of honking cars pass by covered with signs calling for public officials to cancel rent. Or maybe you saw one of many banner drops from balconies or highways, or a rent strike poster pasted on a lamp post. As a new month has arrived and rent is due, the cancel-rent movement is getting louder.

Tens of millions of people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic in the last month. Even those who are covered by an eviction moratorium are now worried about accumulating back rent and ending up on the streets once the moratorium lifts.

A hotline to help people connect with assistance during the pandemic in Santa Clara County, California, gets hundreds of calls every day. And the top concern is rent, says Jeffrey Buchanan, public policy director of Working Partnerships USA, which helped to found Silicon Valley Rising, a community and labor group that staffs the hotline. “Most tenant households don’t have $400 in savings, and the average rent here is $2,700 per month. It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of families who have no idea how they are going to make May rent.”

While nonprofit housing providers and many individual landlords are assisting their tenants who can’t pay, many others are insisting that the rent is due, and even violating eviction moratoriums; examples of that reported by ProPublica and Shelterforce are likely only the tip of the iceberg, given the lack of standardized data collection and enforcement regarding evictions. Other landlords have continued to raise rent during the shutdown, or proposed things like having people who can’t pay move into smaller apartments in the middle of shelter-in-place requirements.

“Some private landlords are saying once the moratorium is over they’ll pursue legal action,” says Arianna Feldman, communications organizer for Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters For Justice) in Minneapolis. “There’s been some retaliation. One member has had their landlord calling every day in April to say ‘When you are going to pay?’”

In response, a wide range of tenant and worker organizations are organizing around the idea of canceling rent and mortgage payments during the crisis.

“The pandemic crisis is an economic crisis that then becomes an eviction crisis,” says Davin Cardenas, national field organizer for the Right to the City Alliance. “We didn’t create this crisis; we shouldn’t suffer the effects.”

“The whole country didn’t wake up one day and just say ‘hey, none of us are going to work,’” says Rose Webster-Smith, program coordinator for Springfield No One Leaves in Springfield, Massachusetts. “This was ordered by the government. If the government is going to mandate that we stay home, then the government needs to take care of that debt that everyone is accruing and make sure that there’s protection in place so that people can safely shelter in place.”

What Does Cancel Rent Actually Mean?

Organizers are still coalescing around specifics. A national bill to cancel rent payments was introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) on April 17 and organizers are working with legislators in several states and some localities as well.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, who stands at a podium in front of an American flag, has proposed legislation that would cancel rents and individual mortgage payments nationwide to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

Rep. Ilhan Omar has proposed legislation that would cancel rents and individual mortgage payments nationwide. Photo by Lorie Shaul, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The baseline for all proposals is that rent payments would be waived completely some period of time, not to be owed later, and without any late fees or punitive action allowed against tenants. The time frames proposed have included three months, the rest of the year, and until the national emergency is lifted.

Most supporters are also calling for a simultaneous cancellation of mortgage payments to support not only struggling homeowners, but also smaller landlords.

The question of if and how to reimburse property owners, and which ones, is more contentious. Omar’s bill calls for a fund to reimburse property owners and lenders (minus double dipping—you can’t get both full payment for missed rent and mortgage cancellation).

Some tenant organizers say they would have preferred that larger corporate landlords not be eligible for that relief, but there was a concern about whether the bill would constitute a “takings” under the Constitution if it excluded anyone affected. The Takings Clause, a provision in the Fifth Amendment, states that private property should not be taken for public use without compensation. The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley has argued, however, that temporary unreimbursed rent cancellation is within the scope of governmental emergency powers. Shutting down nonessential businesses after all, has similarly affected the incomes of business owners and their employees.

In Omar’s bill reimbursement is open to any property owner with a lease, but it comes with conditions which many landlords are not happy about, including a five-year rent freeze and a range of fair housing protections that extend to groups not currently protected by the Fair Housing Act, such as people with records and immigrants.

“There needs to be a balance between relief and regulation,” says Helen Matthews, communications manager of City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), which is looking into similar provisions to go with local rent relief efforts in Boston. “If there is relief that trickles up to large corporate landlords there needs to be strings attached. Landlords should not be able to hike rents and evict people through no-faults while receiving aid.”

Pairing rent cancellation with a rent freeze or at least rent control during the recovery is a frequent suggestion. “We don’t want to see landlords taking a financial loss now only to punish tenants later by price gouging,” says Tara Raghuveer, housing campaign director for People’s Action.

It remains to be seen whether any state proposals will contain similar reimbursement measures, but it’s possible that only the federal government would reliably have the fiscal tools to accomplish such a program, especially as tax revenues for states drop during the shutdowns. States can’t go into debt the way that the federal government can, which limits their flexibility in a crisis like this.

“The federal government has a very strong role in stopping mass evictions and displacement right now,” says Matthews of CLVU. “Unless it distributes massive amounts of money to states, [the states] will have a hard time handling housing stability.”

Cancel Rent or Rent Relief?

The other major approach being floated to address the growing crisis of people being unable to pay their rent is rent relief, or direct payments to make up unpaid rent for those in need. (This is usually combined with a recommendation for permanent mortgage modifications to move a series of payments to the end of the loan for homeowners in need.) At the federal level, Rep. Denny Heck (D-Washington) is currently proposing $100 billion in short-term rent and utilities payment assistance to be distributed to low-income households via states through the Emergency Solutions Grant program. Rent relief has wide political support in the housing world, from some tenant activists, affordable housing advocates, and representatives of rental property owners, though it hasn’t managed to get traction in the federal stimulus process so far.

And there’s been movement in the Senate. Today, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced a similar bill for $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.  

Aside from appearing more politically palatable, rent relief targets those in need and would require less of a government expenditure than a plan that cancels all rent and reimburses all property owners.

“The cost of canceling all rents, including luxury rents and the majority of renters who are employed and can afford it,” would cost many times more than the $100 billion rent relief proposal, writes Michael Kane, director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, in a comment on Shelterforce. “Targeting the assistance to people who need it the most would be far preferable, and set the stage for universal vouchers when the crisis is past.”

Supporters of cancel-rent proposals are not opposed to rent relief. “Our members have been approaching it as ‘yes and,’” explains Feldman of Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia. “The majority have applied for [a variety of] aid [programs] and relief, and are really grateful for that aid. But a lot of people are falling through the cracks and not qualifying. The only way it seems to get the relief that all our members would need would be through canceling rent. They are struggling to afford food, medicine, diapers . . .  If there is any [direct] relief, they would prefer it goes to basic necessities, instead of going to rent.”

People falling through the cracks is one of the reasons why organizers who are working directly with struggling tenants prefer rent cancellation over rent relief. Rental relief will require some kind of documentation of income, need, and economic harm caused by the pandemic. Undocumented immigrants and their families will likely not qualify in the current political climate. Neither will people working in the informal economy or whose situations have been too unstable to otherwise accumulate documentation. People who were already unemployed or unstably housed before the crisis may not be able to prove they’ve been directly affected.

It’s hard for many to prove economic harm, says Buchanan of Working Partnerships USA. “It’s difficult for folks in the informal economy, gig workers, the unbanked, to be able to pull together documentation of what your baseline income was and then what your income is today. The moment you start to refine targeting, people in need could fall outside the safety net.”

In addition, rent relief puts all the risk of insufficient appropriations and bureaucratic processes on those least able to take that risk—tenants who could lose their homes. Local rent relief funds that were piloted in places like Boston and San Jose ran out of funds in only a few days. Nearly half of states may not have enough funds to cover unemployment claims. The Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money in less than a week. Unemployment claims have been extremely slow to come online for many, and there is a fear that with some states moving to “reopen” prematurely that fewer workers will qualify if technically their employers would be allowed to operate. Would they then also not qualify for rental assistance?

When tenants are at risk of becoming homeless, rent cancellation proponents argue, tenants should be bailed out first, without exception. The processes of negotiating eligibility, verification, and payment should fall to property owners, they say, who are, on the whole, better able to sustain the wait and the risk, especially with mortgage forbearance already available to many of them.

Housing justice organizers don’t want a repeat of what happened in the housing market from 2008 to 2010, where homeowners facing foreclosure struggled for months, often fruitlessly, for relief, while immediate bailouts were made to banks and corporations.

“We have to learn from the mistakes that we made in the 2008 bailout, where we bailed out corporations with the hope that they would bail out the people,” says Webster-Smith of Springfield No One Leaves. “Relief depends on a government entity to be funded. Cancel rent is more of the people’s bailout, which will in turn, bailout the economy, because if the government is putting money towards people’s mortgages, property taxes, and rent, then people have the money that they’ve recouped to go out and spend in the economy.”

What About the Landlords?

Unsurprisingly, landlords have had negative reactions to the idea of canceling rent, with many voicing their concerns against proposals like Omar’s without even realizing it contains a reimbursement provision. But responding to those concerns varies dramatically with what kind of property owner is being discussed.

There is widespread agreement among advocates for both rent cancellation and rent relief that large corporate landlords and private equity firms should not be the beneficiaries of whatever policy passes. “In the past decade real estate companies have purchased $70 billion in stock buybacks from their profits,” says Tracey Ross, director of federal policy and narrative change at PolicyLink. “We shouldn’t be too concerned about corporate landlords. This is an opportunity for them to give back, to focus on residents who helped them get rich.”

There is also agreement that there’s a huge danger of another wave of speculative buying by private equity and large corporate real estate companies, which are already preparing to scoop up properties. But there is disagreement about whether rent relief or rent cancellation would be better at preventing it.

That question relates largely to which scenario would be least destabilizing for small landlords.

Some fear that rent cancellation, with or without full reimbursement to property owners, would privilege the larger landlords with deeper pockets who could both weather a loss of income better or access reimbursement faster, and cause a wave of takeovers of smaller owner-occupied rentals.  “We don’t need to have all our multifamily affordable units to be owned by hedge funds,” says David Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference. “We want to have a diverse economy. We don’t want to create opportunities for bottom feeders to take advantage of a crisis. We don’t need to enable that by forcing small and independent apartment owners into bankruptcy.”

Though it prioritizes nonprofits and smaller landlords, the bulk of the reimbursement proposed in Omar’s bill would still go to “large, corporate landlords, who (backed up by the Fed) would have the capital to snarf up smaller holdings,” argues Kane of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants.

“We have landlords for whom if they didn’t get rent for three to six months it wouldn’t be a hardship,” says Lisa Byers of OPAL Community Land Trust in Washington state. “Under those circumstances, [their tenants] shouldn’t have to be [paying rent]. But for other [landlords] it’s a shoestring; they rely on it.” But, of course, distinguishing between the two is not easy.

Rent cancellation proponents are also concerned about the speculation problem. “Private capital can move incredibly fast,” says Chris Schildt, a senior associate at PolicyLink, which has launched Our Homes Our Health to advocate for solutions including rent cancellation. “We need to make sure [small-property owners] are not forced to sell to investors who would just jack up the rent, which is what they were already doing.”

“We know Wall Street and corporations and big landlords are waiting in the wings ready to scoop up properties. They are fine with massive homelessness just as in 2008,” says Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy.

Rent cancellation supporters have two main responses for how to handle this dilemma. The first is that tenants and their small landlords should work together toward policies that support both of them, including rent cancellation and relief from mortgage debt and even property taxes and utility payments. “Possibly there should be some sort of fund available that smaller landlords can access,” says Schildt, to cover non-debt costs like repairs.

“We advise our tenants, obviously, to communicate with their landlords,” says Webster-Smith. “And we’ve seen a few responses back from the landlords saying ‘Well, they’re not canceling property taxes, and they’re not canceling this bill or that bill,’ and our response is ‘Join the movement. We’re saying no new debt. Somebody should be helping you with those property taxes and addressing those utility bills.’” Springfield No One Leaves was formed in 2010 in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis, and its members include tenants, homeowners, and small owner-occupant landlords. Webster-Smith herself first joined as a member when she experienced foreclosure. And so, “We’re very clear here in Massachusetts that whatever we’re doing for tenants we need to do for homeowners and whatever we’re doing for homeowners, we need to include the tenants. We are one in this fight,” says Webster-Smith.

“We definitely don’t want to push for any rent cancellation without also the cancellation of mortgages for small owners,” says CLVU’s Matthews. “We’ve worked with small owners and renters hand in hand. Baked into [Massachusetts’s] eviction moratorium was mortgage forbearance—specifically that a mortgage holder can tack payments on to the end of their mortgage term. We need something parallel for renters. We want small owners and renters to be fighting hand in hand for something that’s best for everyone.”

The other piece of the anti-speculation struggle is a desire to be proactive about bringing properties out of the speculative market and into permanent affordability and community ownership, or decommodifying housing. When, inevitably, the economic disruption brings a wave of rental properties up for sale, who will buy them? “If a landlord isn’t getting rental income and they don’t want to be in the rental business, then how can there be a buyout option?” says Schildt. Omar’s bill, for example, includes a fund for purchases by nonprofits, land trusts, and similar entities.

About Those Nonprofits

Of course decommodified housing in the form of co-ops, land trusts, and nonprofit-owned housing already exist—housing a couple million households—and they all rely on rent payments of some sort for their ongoing operations. Calls to suspend or cancel rent payments across the board have made many managers of this type of housing uncomfortable. On the one hand, not having people on the street or struggling under additional rent burden is central to their mission, and none of them believe rent should be demanded right now from people who can’t pay.

On the other hand, many fear their organizations will be collateral damage of campaigns that sometimes seem to imply that rental property managers’ only expenses are debt payments and so mortgage cancellation should balance out rent cancellation.

Many nonprofit housing providers experienced rent losses of around 15 percent in April and expect those losses to be larger in May. Still, with some mortgage relief from their lenders and other government assistance, that may be survivable. But few if any are expecting more than half of their tenants to be unable to pay. If a broad-based rent cancellation policy brought their rent losses to 100 percent, most would be in crisis in very short order without substantially more assistance. And foreclosure of these properties could wipe out affordability restrictions, bringing the buildings to market rent.

“Debt relief would make things easier,” says Dee Walsh, executive vice president and chief officer of strategic development of Mercy Housing, whose 20,000 rental properties save their residents collectively $23.87 million a year compared to market-rate rents. “But it doesn’t make it an even deal.” Along with taxes, utilities, repairs, and maintenance, she says, “we have to staff the properties. I think some folks might have an image of landlords who are stuffing their pockets with dollar bills. In affordable housing you don’t have much of a margin.”

“If the tenants just don’t pay rent there hasn’t been a lot of thinking about what happens on the other side,” says Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, a nonprofit housing provider that owns and manages 9,000 units in California. “Utility companies aren’t suspending my charges for water and sewer. We have to pay our own staff. Wholesale nonpayment of rent would just create a terrible chain.”

“The nonprofit housing providers are in this business for the right reasons, but they have the smallest margins for error, the least ability to sustain no rent for a long period of time,” says Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Beyond the immediate risk to existing affordable housing, some fear that there will be unintended consequences for the movement to decommodify housing if the messaging around rent cancellation doesn’t acknowledge that providing housing of any kind does have ongoing costs beyond profit and paying back a mortgage.

Nonprofit housing development and acquisition “still requires rent, even if set for low incomes,” says Peter Cohen, co-director on the Council of Community Housing Organizations. “It requires having cash flow, reserves, insurance, property management, and tenant relations, etc. That’s what our community housing nonprofits have learned and evolved over the many years. If our north star is a decommodified housing system, effectively social housing in a whole variety of different forms, we want to be responsible about how we maintain and sustain that housing system at scale so it will work in practice. So when our movement puts forth proposals like this, it is important that we differentiate based on how and by whom housing is owned, distinguishing nonprofit from private entities, so we don’t harm our own collective pathway to that north star.”

“Our main income is rent,” says Olivia Williams, who studies alternative economic systems and is also a part-time staff member at the Madison Community Co-op, in Madison, Wisconsin, which has 165 tenants. The co-op is not evicting tenants who don’t have funds to pay rent, and is exploring a combination of mutual aid, rent forgiveness, and payment plans to help all its members deal with the pandemic, but it is also encouraging those who can still pay to do so, and also to help their neighbors if they can. “We have to think of it as if we are our own landlord,” says Williams. “No one is profiting. We are investing in ourselves. But because of dominant ways of thinking about renting, members lose sight of that sometimes and start talking about ‘us and them.’ It’s a common struggle in the co-op movement. Members step up to remind each other that we do have power. That’s how it’s structured.”

Champlain Housing Trust (CHT), a community land trust in Vermont, was projecting in April it might lose somewhere around $2.7 million in rent over the next months. “I just can’t imagine we would evict people,” says CHT director Brenda Torpy. “Hopefully if they’re being made close to whole they’ll be paying some of their rent. What we think we’ll do is ask the state to support property owners in lost rent. We’re hopeful the state will recognize the value of keeping the nonprofit sector open and working.”

Amie Fishman of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH)—which represents affordable housing developers, advocates, community leaders, and businesses—says she could sense tension early on between nonprofit housers and tenant organizers regarding calls for rent suspension and rent strikes. “The call for rent strikes and rent suspension came out of real hardship and urgency of renters all across the country facing this extreme situation,” Fishman says.  “It should be seen as people coming together to come up with solutions to this crisis.” Working to ensure debt and rent relief, Fishman says, is a common goal to help acquire, and preserve, affordable housing. 

“We don’t see supporting tenants and supporting [affordable housing] developers as mutually exclusive,” agrees Luke Villalobos, legislative advocate on land use and finance for Housing California, a coalition that includes tenant organizations and nonprofit housing developers. “Tenants are really insecure because they don’t know what awaits them, and developers feel the same way because they don’t know how they are going to keep these projects alive. It’s not either/or.”

“Tenants who aren’t in a position to pay can’t be expected to,” says Lisa Alberghini, communications director for Housing Partnership Network, a membership organization of large nonprofit housing providers. “The notion of residents and owners being pitted again each other isn’t going to be a productive solution.”

Cancel-rent organizers don’t want to harm nonprofits or small landlords and will support proposals to provide them relief. But, they say, their priority right now has to be on the people most vulnerable, most of whom are not housed by nonprofits, and who won’t be able to pay rent one way or another.

“None of our members are in the position of still being able to pay rent comfortably,” says Feldman. “We were already in a housing crisis before the pandemic hit. The need is so great and so urgent, it outweighs the other considerations. Our main objective right now is to address the urgent need that our members are facing.”

“We have to pair the idea of canceling rent with canceling mortgages and pair organizing renters with organizing homeowners and small landlords,” says Cardenas of Right to the City Alliance. However, he emphasizes, “we have a very specific need for renters to have more political ability to defend themselves, when often landlords have larger associations that are well financed” that can stick up for them.

“Yes, we need to find ways to backstop our affordable housing providers,” says Buchanan of Working Partnerships USA. “But at the same time, while deed-restricted affordable housing is a vital part of our housing landscape, it represents a fraction of the total amount of families who are in need in this moment. We also need solutions to deal with the rest of the housing market.”

Rent Strikes as a Tactic

In many places, calls for rent cancellation are being paired with rent strikes. Right to the City and People’s Action, two of the major national networks supporting the cancel-rent movement, have not called for rent strikes. But they say they support their local members or other groups of tenants who have determined it’s the right tactic for them. “We organize with a vision first, not a tactic,” says Webster-Smith of Springfield No One Leaves.

Rent strike implies a choice not to pay rent, but many if not most of the people not paying rent are unable to pay, and are using an official rent strike as a way to turn that inability into collective action that registers their need. “Millions not paying rent doesn’t build power by itself,” says the signup document for New York Can’t Pay May! “We only build power by making our individual actions public and collective! By joining this movement, we are making a coordinated demand for relief.”

In some cases, rent strikers are also calling on those who can pay to join them in solidarity strikes. Some are specifically framing these as a reaction to landlords who have refused rent forgiveness for those who can’t pay. “It’s up to the landlords really: they can do the right thing for their out-of-work tenants, or they can face rent strike action from [all of] their tenants,” Puget Sound Tenants told the publication It’s Going Down.

Others see a rent strike as part of bringing attention to a crisis that already exists and forcing government action. “If you’re striking in solidarity with others who can’t pay even if you can, that’s a strategic action that may lead to some help for the small landlords, and broader policy to protect renters,” says Williams. “That’s how direct action works—you have to create a crisis.”

That potential is recognized even by those not advocating for rent strikes. “It does potentially create political will,” says Warren Hanson, CEO of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, a CDFI that finances affordable housing. “Electeds pay attention to where the noise is or where the urgency is. The business community has their civic organizations built up and staffed up and always ready to be right there at the front lines asking for help, and the tenants are just a bunch of individuals typically. They don’t have the leverage unless they do something like this.”

Williams notes that she would personally draw the line at solidarity rent strikes in nonprofit or community-controlled housing though. “If you’re renting from a nonprofit housing provider, rent striking doesn’t help,” she says. “HUD austerity is continuing to happen, and there’s fewer and fewer sources of funding, so you’re hurting the already inadequate amount of affordable housing that we have.”

Moving Forward

Rent and mortgage cancellation has resonated for many people. As of Friday afternoon, New York Can’t Pay May listed over 13,000 pledges. It’s Going Down identified new and existing tenant organizations in every part of the country, and beyond, that were planning rent strikes, and reported a large increase in autonomous tenant councils. The coalition Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, for example, told IGD that the group has been contacted by more than 500 Bay Area residents over the last few months.

“It’s amazing to see the response to the simple proposal of canceling rents for three months” in San Jose, says Buchanan. “We saw, in a 24-hour period, hundreds of people reach out to their council members [and] do an enormous amount of actions.” When the city council debated the proposal, he says 1,000 people were watching on either Zoom or YouTube, and 200 people had signed up for public comment, some staying in the meeting for eight hours for a chance to speak, though the mayor ended up cutting off the commenting. “There’s still a whole lot of energy in the community,” he says.

“We want to be sure that that a new normal is created that benefits renters across the country,” says Cardenas. “Canceling rent, canceling mortgages is halting the need for us to spend our final pennies to enrich someone else, whether it’s a landlord or whether it’s a bank. We don’t want to come out of this crisis going from paycheck to paycheck. Let’s position ourselves to actually go from paycheck to abundance, and to actually be in a position where our families are able to save and thrive. Normal wasn’t working for the majority of renters before the crisis and that’s not where we want to return to after.”

Nicole Martinez, Lillian M. Ortiz, and Minhae Roth contributed to this article.

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