COVID-19 Generates Housing Takeovers and Rent Strikes
The coronavirus crisis has shifted the debate about housing and homelessness in America overnight. In February bipartisan plans to force homeless people into mass shelters were gaining traction, both locally and nationally. By the end of March, the narrative shifted completely to one about providing hotel rooms for homeless people and rent forgiveness for tenants. What happened? COVID-19 has dramatically exposed and sharpened the fundamental antagonism underlying the housing crisis and the massive housing movement that has arisen as a result.
The system was already collapsing, based on the rapid expansion of the new class of workers discarded by the tech economy. This new class already had no money (or not enough money) to pay rents that are unaffordable in virtually every American city. In an instant COVID-19 has increased the number of unemployed by over thirty million people. One-time stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits may help some people temporarily, but many are not receiving them. It is plunging millions of families into a long-term survival crisis in a relatively short period of time.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the government was moving rapidly down the road of isolating, criminalizing, and incarcerating homeless people as the solution to its housing problem. After complaining that homelessness is “disgusting” and reduces property values, in 2019 President Donald Trump expressed his intention to use police to raze tent cities and force homeless people into government facilities. In December, he confirmed his plan by appointing Robert Marbut as head of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. Marbut is known as the “Joseph Mengele of the homeless” for his cruel experiments and his philosophy that the solution to homelessness is punishment, not housing. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said that the solution was to “uncuff law enforcement so that people can be removed now and placed in transitional places.” (Fox News 12-30-19).
Although the rhetoric used in Democratic Party areas was less openly fascistic, the reality of the plans being developed was equally harsh. California Governor Newsom established a Homelessness and Supportive Housing Advisory Task Force. It began to push for a “right to shelter” law that would require cities and counties to build large shelters, and then require houseless people to move into them, whether they wanted to or not. Plans were debated, such as the Citizens Again scheme by Duane Nason to build an entire city for 150,000 homeless people in a rural area and house them in a socially segregated setting.
If there is any positive aspect to the COVID pandemic, it was that these immediate plans were temporarily derailed. The immediate public health emergency caused many cities to stop their draconian sweeps of encampments. Since houseless people, by definition, could not shelter in place, they were especially vulnerable to only not contracting the coronavirus, but to spreading it among the larger population. Some cities even installed toilets and wash stations in encampments for the first time in decades, because they figured out that they could not order people to wash their hands if they have no water.
In the meantime, COVID-19 is creating a rental housing time bomb that threatens to blow up the entire for-profit rental system. The Turner Center for Housing Innovation estimates that some 50 million people live in households that will not be able to afford to pay rent, because of virus-related job or income loss. Some 43 percent of them were already “cost-burdened,” paying over 30 percent of their income for rent, even before the pandemic.
Even for those eligible to receive unemployment payments, including the temporary $600 a week federal benefit, many would still be unable to afford rent. And millions of people were not eligible for unemployment pay at all, while millions more were unable to access it due to overloaded state office systems.
The result is a spontaneous pandemic response that is altogether new. Tenant groups across the country have called for a rent strike, organizing car caravans, socially distant demonstrations, and actions at corporate landlord offices. Hundreds of localities have enacted eviction moratoriums, to prevent people from being thrown out of their housing in the middle of the pandemic.
Necessary as these moratoriums were, none of them included provisions to protect people from massive accumulated rent bills when the crisis is over. The reality of the situation is that millions of renters will be part of the “rent strike,” whether they choose to or not, because they simply will not have the money to pay.
The rent strike is not primarily aimed at individual owners, and in fact leaders are calling for suspension of mortgage payments as well as rent. It is a political strike aimed at the government. If the government can order people not to earn income due to the COVID emergency, it can order landlords not to collect rent. It led to a bill that was introduced in the New York state legislature calling for suspension of rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis.
It also inspired Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to introduce a similar bill at the national level, calling on the federal government to cover any losses by landlords. A letter to Gov. Newsom, calling for suspension of rent and mortgage payments in California, was signed by over 140 housing organizations, including Housing Now, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Housing is a Human Right, Homes for All California, Tenants Together, PICO California, and others.
“The state must call on banks and lenders to suspend mortgages providing financial relief for homeowners and landlords,” the letter stated, “including supporting non-profit housing providers to remain sustainable, and, in turn, for all of their tenants. Mortgages and rents should be suspended and forgiven immediately and continuing for the duration of this crisis, including a recovery period after the state of emergency is lifted.”
Some organizations have called for a $100 billion rental assistance bill instead of rent cancellation, but that would impose undue burden, stigma, and restrictions on tenants who apply for it, whereas rent cancellation would require landlords to apply for reimbursement instead.
Vacant Units for Houseless People
Numerous proposals were offered in March and early April to address the COVID crisis by housing homeless people in some of the hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms left vacant by the collapse of tourism. Homeless people have demanded the right to escape shelters described by the Center for Disease Control as coronavirus “tinderboxes,” and to shelter in place in the empty hotel rooms.
On March 19, the ACCE wrote an “Open Letter to all California Leaders.” “For the sake of humanity,” it stated, “everyone who wants to be brought indoors needs to be brought in immediately. All publicly owned property and vacant units – including luxury units – need to be opened to house currently homeless people.
“No punitive action should be taken against unhoused families who move into vacant structures to protect their health and the public’s health. We demand the government and utility agencies to turn on the electricity, gas and water and make sure they can be healthy and safe there – including those that have moved into the state-owned properties in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles.”
The housing takeovers and rent strikes are the foundation for a new and unprecedented stage in the housing movement. They are abandoning incrementalism (slow small reforms), because the crisis is too big for small solutions. They represent an aggressive new approach to organizing and to bringing demands into the political arena. They are transforming the inability to pay rent from a personal problem into a social force. They are bringing people who have been historically powerless into a confrontation with the levers of power. The coronavirus is throwing houseless people and low-income tenants into a common struggle. If renters fail to secure rent cancellation, they will become homeless themselves.
COVID-19 has transformed the national debate because, like Hurricane Katrina and other life-threatening disasters, it exposed (once again) the inhumanity and unsustainability of the private property system. Life and death crises demand community solidarity and the distribution of necessities based on need. Revolutionaries are called to strike when the iron is hot: we need to act now to teach that the system actually creates a permanent emergency for millions of people, requires permanent replacement of the private property system with a cooperative economy, and requires a revolutionary organization dedicated to making sure that it happens.
A cooperative economy would be built on the foundation of public ownership of land and the abolition of speculation. Free land and low-cost construction will make housing practically free. The aim of the rent strike is not just surviving the pandemic, but a social transformation that will provide not only housing for everyone, but the free distribution of all the earth’s abundance to all its people. RC
July/August 2020 Vol30.Ed4
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011