From Fighting Eviction to Cancelling the Rent
Thirty to forty million Americans are at risk of pandemic-related eviction as the various state, and local restrictions expire this fall, according to the Aspen Institute. A last-minute moratorium by the Trump administration on September 1 was supposed to postpone the evictions at least temporarily, but a stampede of corporate landlords are filing for evictions in Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere to get them done before tenants can become aware of the moratorium. Renters are already organizing eviction defense actions, including court or home blockades, in New Orleans, Chicago, New York City, and Prince Georges County, Maryland.
Many tenants understand that the moratorium is a thinly disguised Trump election ploy. “The Trump administration has been quick to celebrate the national eviction moratorium as his offering to working families,” said Tara Raghuveer of People’s Action. “But it must not be attributed to Trump. This is a victory for tenants.”
However, the moratorium, in any case, expires on December 31. This, at best, only delays the evictions until after Trump either wins or tries to steal the November election. Like every other Trump promise, the eviction moratorium is a lie. It does nothing to cancel or forgive the back rent, which would be necessary to stop evictions from happening. After the election, tenants’ leverage to win rent cancellation or any relief will be sharply reduced, especially if Trump wins or gets away with overturning the election results.
Causes of the Crisis
The COVID-19 eviction wave is revealing fatal flaws that already existed in America’s housing system before the pandemic began. The displacement of millions of Americans by digital production has caused the rise of a new class of contingent workers whose wages are so low and irregular that they no longer make enough money to afford to pay rent. At the same time, uncontrolled corporate speculation has driven those rents astronomically upward. Before the pandemic, there was already an eviction crisis, which has now thrown an additional forty-seven million people out of their jobs and created the looming “eviction cliff”.
This is not a crisis that will go away when COVID-19 is over, even if that takes several years. University of Chicago economist Steven Davis estimated that up to 40 percent of American jobs lost in April and May are likely to be permanently gone and that the number will only increase the longer the pandemic lasts.
Resistance to the eviction wave has taken the form of a fight for rent forgiveness or cancellation. So far, it has been blocked by a bipartisan united front of politicians protecting corporate property rights. The Democratic-dominated California legislature refused to even consider rent cancellation in the face of opposition by the California Apartment Association and Wall Street banks.
The most sweeping proposal has been the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, HR 6515, written in consultation with tenant organizations by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar in April. Omar’s bill would immediately forgive rents and mortgages without requiring repayment for all renters and all homeowners with a mortgage on their primary residence. Property owners and lenders would have the opportunity to apply for reimbursement from the federal government. In return, they would have to agree to not increase rent for five years, follow just cause eviction guidelines, and not discriminate against tenants based on their source of income, immigration status, conviction or arrest record, sexuality, or gender credit score.
The bill would further require Congress to fully fund the program based on need, to prevent it from running out of money like the federal Section 8 program or the pandemic Paycheck Protection Program. But despite favorable polling, HR 6515, like state and local rent cancellation bills, has also so far been blocked by the banks and corporate landlords.
What did advance were two $100 billion rent relief bills passed by Congress to prevent the eviction wave. The Senate and Administration, however, refused to act on either one of them. Rent relief has shortcomings compared to cancellation. The burden of applying for it falls on tenants, with the result that many fall through the cracks. The government would likely deny assistance to undocumented and other marginalized groups, and assistance would likely be delayed, as happened with the pandemic unemployment benefits.
Tenants are happy to take any rent relief they can get, but they have to be vigilant to resist any plan that leaves out the undocumented or discriminates against any other group of renters. The first step to winning the right to housing is to unite the movement. The Trump moratorium is actually a deliberate maneuver on his part to try to drive a wedge between workers struggling for economic justice, on the one hand, and for racial justice on the other. In fact, the two are inseparable. The summer Black Lives Matter uprising struck a massive blow against the historic ruling class tactic to divide workers by isolating and suppressing African Americans and other people of color. The victory was made possible by leaders who understood the deep interrelationship between racial oppression and economic exploitation. But Trump is desperately trying to strike back.
African Americans and Latinos are deeply, disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis generally, and the pandemic eviction wave in particular. Due to historical discrimination, Black and Latino homeownership rates are 44 percent and 49 percent, respectively, while that of whites is 74 percent. This creates a huge wealth gap that makes Blacks and Latinos dramatically more vulnerable to eviction and homelessness than whites. The strategy and tactics of fighting for rent cancellation have to recognize the disparities while at the same time understanding that billionaires exploit all tenants for their benefit. The growth of the new class actually means that more and more white workers are being driven down into an equality of poverty with workers of color.
Significant sections of the renters’ movement actively embraced and participated in the summer’s George Floyd rebellions and fought to unite the two movements. Since the 1960s and before, African American and Latino renters have played a leading role in tenant organizations all across the country, so resisting racial oppression necessarily elevates tenants as well. In New York, Ithaca Tenants Union members actively participated in both renter organizing and defund the police protests. In Boston, City Life/Vida Urbana joined the movement to redirect 10 percent of police funds to community needs, and New York’s Housing for All has been leading a campaign to fire city marshals who serve eviction papers.
“I don’t think we can talk about Black lives mattering without talking about eviction,” said Jenay Manley of KC Tenants in Kansas City, Missouri. “We need to talk about Black lives mattering before the point where we are brutalized or killed by police.”
One of the most important steps toward rent cancellation is to defeat Trump in the 2020 election. We cannot unite, and we cannot move forward unless we clearly repudiate Trump’s overtly racist and divisive tactics. But while we vote against Republicans, we should hold no illusions about Democrats. Defeating Trump will simply take the struggle for housing to the next level. Many Democrats are also allied with banks and corporations and conveniently blame Republican opposition for their own inaction. We can hold Democratic politicians responsible when they betray us and open the door for new leaders and even new parties to represent the battle for the needs of the new class.
HR 6515 sponsor Ilhan Omar was not only brutally, racially insulted by Trump, but she was attacked and even “primaried” by a wealthy pro-corporate Democrat while running for re-election. The fact that Omar won, as well as numerous new progressive candidates, is a tribute to the power of voting and the necessity of holding on to what limited democracy we have left in America. Without democracy, neither rent cancellation, nor rent relief, nor any renters rights of any kind will ever happen.
Rent forgiveness is not only an immediate, practical solution. It is an example, a precursor of the kind of housing system that modern technology makes possible. If digital printing can lower construction costs to practically nothing, it is time for humanity to find a way to create a system where housing is free. It is time to “decommodify” it, to separate housing and the land it rests on from the speculative corporate market.
“Decommodification” at scale will require more than regulation. It will require a fully cooperative economy. Building a cooperative economy requires a political revolution – one where the working class becomes the government, strips corporations of their private property (including land), and turns it over to the public for public benefit. The banks and corporations rest their case on the Fifth Amendment private property provisions, but when those provisions make it impossible for human beings to live, it is time for the people to throw them off and make new ones.
Published: September 28, 2020
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011