If You Can’t Pay Rent This Month, You’re Not Alone

Natalie Gontcharova

As you’re probably painfully aware, today is May 1 and rent is due. Yet millions of Americans aren’t able to pay because of mass coronavirus-related layoffs, hour reductions, and pay cuts. In the past six weeks, over 30 million people have filed for unemployment, a figure that makes this the worst joblessness crisis in U.S. history. Keeping in mind that most Americans don’t have enough emergency savings to last three months, it feels cruel to force people to pay rent month after month amid a cataclysmic crisis, when there’s no income coming in.  

Beata Dul, 24, was laid off as a publicist from a travel PR firm in late March. She had just moved into an apartment in North Bergen, NJ, and said she doesn’t have much in savings since this is her first job. While New Jersey is letting tenants pay rent with a security deposit, she said rent forgiveness is what she ultimately needs. 

“I didn’t expect a total loss of income, so the uncertainty of what is to come and when I will find another job that aligns with my career path is a bit scary,” Dul told Refinery29. “I believe that having something statewide and nationwide in place for people who have lost their jobs would help not only with the financial burden, but the mental stress as well.” 

According to real estate firms that analyzed data for 13.4 million renters, about a third of tenants didn’t pay their April rent, reports The Wall Street Journal. Some of them will be temporarily protected from eviction or able to pay by forfeiting their security deposit. But these are temporary solutions, and a burgeoning movement nationwide is calling for a more comprehensive measure: #CancelRent.

This movement is gaining popularity in the large cities that have been disproportionately affected by the rent crisis. From L.A. — where the City Council recently failed to pass various measures to protect renters — to Philadelphia to Chicago to D.C., tenant-rights organizations are holding strikes.

But, little has happened on the legislative level to address the scope and urgency of the problem. Some states, like Massachusetts, have passed temporary eviction moratoriums, which many view as simply a BandAid. In other places, people don’t even have that protection: In Kansas City, MO, 75 families faced eviction by conference call yesterday, according to Tara Raghuveer, director of housing justice group KC Tenants, who is calling for an eviction ban and rent forgiveness. 

“People are donating plasma, skipping meals, not sleeping, taking out payday loans, maxing [out] credit cards, leaving prescriptions unfilled, all to pay rent,” Raghuveer tweeted. “During a global pandemic. In the richest country in the history of the world. It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Today, New Yorkers started the largest coordinated rent strike in nearly a century, standing in the rain with signs and calling on the state to cancel rent for the duration of the crisis, freeze rent, and re-house New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. Much of the action is being coordinated by Housing Justice for All, a New York-based coalition of tenants and housing activists. Over 13,000 people have committed, through an online pledge, to refuse to pay rent in May. There are 5.4 million renters in New York City alone, which is about two-thirds of the population. 

New York state has suspended evictions until summer, but has so far resisted other rent relief measures. State lawmakers, including assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who has been particularly vocal on the issue, have proposed a package that would waive or suspend rent and allocate funds to help support small landlords.

“For the people who have lost their jobs and the small businesses that have been forced to shutter, this is an immediate crisis — their income has been cut off, but rent is still due on the first,” Niou told amNY. “Our action to help them needs to be just as immediate.”

On the federal level, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others have been urging Congress to go beyond the one-time $1,200 stimulus checks when it comes to economic relief, calling for state and federal rent cancellations during the pandemic. 

Omar has proposed a bill called the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which includes full forgiveness of missed payments with no impact on renters’ or homeowners’ credit scores, a relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders, and efforts to increase affordable-housing availability. Co-sponsors include “Squad” members Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, as well as Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Mark Pocan, Veronica Escobar, Jesús “Chuy” García, and Grace Meng.

“People can’t pay. You cannot coerce someone into doing something that they cannot do. There is no money in the bank,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “People need to feed their kids. We cannot be evicting. We need to be making sure that we are passing policy that allows people to stay in their homes.”

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated many cracks in our systems, showing that our nation has huge systemic vulnerabilities and rampant economic instability. But it’s really all part of the same problem: We lack a meaningful social safety net, and politicians only throw crumbs at the problem without providing the far-reaching solutions needed.

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