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An Eviction Moratorium Is Not Enough — Rent Must Be Suspended

What will people do when they’re expected to pay back rent after the crisis is over? Groups across the country demand an end to rent.

Image from the Instagram of the Free Lunch Collective, a mutual aid organization based in Portland, Oregon.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 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 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.

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 $1,5000 per month. Then you get laid off, like scores of other workers right now. Ok, you’re protected from eviction for the next 6 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 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.”

Tweet by AOC.

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 AOC is on board, tweeting: “Now that New York State has issued a MORTGAGE moratorium, we must also enact a RENT moratorium to prevent mass displacement.”

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.”

The current pandemic certainly sounds like that type of crisis. 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.

So let’s have an immediate suspension of rent during the COVID-19 state of emergency, and then forever going forward, too.