We Told You So: Haphazard Rent Relief Rollout Shows Need for Rent Cancellation

Did we want to bail out corporate landlords or help renters? Because we’re doing the former.

A cancel-the-rent rally in 2020. Photo by Flickr user Kyle, CC BY 2.0

A year and a half ago, renters like myself were struck with the stark reality that we were not only in a global pandemic, but that our right to live in our homes was under serious threat. Rapid income loss left many renters wondering how we were going to pay rent. While some renters received support in the form of stimulus checks or increases in unemployment insurance, many tenants were left out of this aid. And for the lucky ones, this recently ended aid didn’t even cover many of the expenses renters carry, of which rent is often the highest.

When the pandemic exacerbated a housing crisis years in the making, “cancel rent” emerged as a necessary rallying cry in response to this new state of uncertainty. After all, how can people be expected to afford even basic necessities when millions of them lost their jobs overnight?

The pandemic is raging on for much longer than any of us could have expected, and renters are again facing worsening conditions. Though we nominally have rent relief that is helping some, corporate landlords are also using its availability to continue to secure their interests and abuse their incredibly unequal power relationship with tenants in an unbalanced housing market. 

After 19 months of safeguarding at least some tenants from the trauma and violence of eviction, the federal eviction moratorium has disappeared, despite COVID numbers climbing once again. As imperfect as it was, the moratorium gave millions of renters relief from one of the most violent aspects of the housing crisis.

We have been assured by legislators that billions of tax dollars are getting out the door to renters nationwide to cover rent debt. In other words, renters are safe, all we need to do is apply for rent relief.

If only it were that easy! As of August, only 11 percent of the $46.5 billion rental aid program had been distributed to states, which themselves are having a hard time getting the assistance out to renters (or in some cases choosing to make it hard). It has become crystal clear that creating a system that puts all the burden on renters—in the form of complicated and inaccessible applications, means-testing, and strict eligibility standards that often leave out large swathes of people such as the undocumented and formerly incarcerated—has held back desperately needed federal aid getting to renters closest to the edge of eviction. 

‘… The continued argument for the right to evict is about more than just rents, it’s about power.’

Profit-motivated interests are being prioritized over the needs of everyday people. Nothing shows this reality more starkly than the decision by the Supreme Court to end the CDC’s federal eviction moratorium based on the Alabama Association of Realtors’ argument that the real estate industry was “at risk of irreparable harm” and that preventing it from evicting tenants “intruded on one of the most fundamental elements of property ownership—the right to exclude.”

While it is unconscionable to go through with evictions when rent relief is so far from being distributed and the delta variant is overwhelming hospitals, what’s possibly more infuriating about the Supreme Court’s decision is that it protects the profits and rights of a propertied few over the rights and safety of millions. In the context of $46.5 billion in taxpayer dollars being pumped—even if too slowly—into the real estate industry, it clarifies that the continued argument for the right to evict is about more than just rents, it’s about power.

In San Francisco, where I work with renters defending their right to their homes, I see this power dynamic at work daily. In the last 19 months landlords have refused to follow the law, even when tenants have done everything right. They have pushed tenants out through illegal harassment and threatened to refuse rent-relief payments because they want long-term renters out so they can flip the units.

Most landlords work very hard to present as small and struggling. Unfortunately the actual small landlords—those who aren’t investors or speculators looking to evict and flip—also have to slog through the bureaucratic rent-debt-relief mess.

[RELATED: Struggling Landlords Should Favor Rent Forgiveness]

While the conversation could just be about how complicated the rent relief system is, the reality—which often gets lost—is that at least 42 percent of all rental units in the United States are owned by corporate landlords (by which we mean corporations of any size that own rental property). Therefore, billions in taxpayer-funded rent relief is becoming yet another massive bailout for the real estate industry, which has been lobbying elected leaders to be allowed to evict millions of tenants during a pandemic.

Meanwhile, they are double dipping into limited public funds. In San Francisco, for example, corporate landlords applying for rent relief have also already received PPP loans in similar amounts to what they are claiming in rent debts. When asked why it did not use PPP loans to zero out rent debts, corporate landlord and property management company Veritas claimed it was to cover the operations costs of its buildings and company. In the past 19 months, Veritas has regularly acquired new buildings all over the Bay Area and according to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office, it has billions in hand from investors. Clearly Veritas is doing fine. Mosser, another corporate landlord operating in the San Francisco area, also received a PPP loan and has recently been sued by tenants for violating Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance on multiple fronts.

This is why our demand from the beginning was to cancel rent, and then provide public support to those landlords who actually needed it. This is a demand to keep renters housed and a demand that limited public funds go to those who actually need them, not to owners and managers who have the means to zero out their tenants’ rent debt without another taxpayer bailout of corporations.

So what needs to happen now?

First, all barriers for rent relief directly to renters must be eliminated so that the “self-attestation” endorsed by the Biden administration allows for direct cash payments to get out the door immediately, and the burden of proof and application needs to be put on the landlords who so adamantly claim to need these funds, especially those with the time, resources, and wealth to weather this crisis.

[RELATED: How Santa Fe Prevented Evictions With Easy Access to Rent Relief]

Second, Congress must act immediately to extend the moratorium, given the challenges with the existing rent relief system.

Unfortunately these commonsense solutions are being ignored by most legislators who have the power to fix the broken system they created. 

While often derided as unrealistic, our original call to cancel rent, debt, and mortgages was grounded in our knowledge that any protections needed to be universal to actually work and that a complex system of applications and bureaucracy would only worsen the crisis.

We haven’t implemented even a fraction of what renters have been demanding, and we have a pretty good idea of what the end result will look like: steep upticks in COVID transmission, massive financial costs to local governments as people lose their homes, and all the disastrous socioeconomic downstream effects of mass evictions. Most importantly, millions of people will be abandoned at their darkest hour. In many cases this will plunge them into poverty and a brutal cycle where the stigma of eviction will follow them around for the rest of their lives.

The demand to cancel rent, debt, and mortgages continues, as will our fight for a just recovery, not only for landlords, but for the millions of renters who make up most of our country.

Maria Zamudio is organizing director at Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, a member of Homes for All and Right To The City Alliance.

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