The US is facing an eviction tsunami. We must cancel rent before it’s too late

It’s already started. A majority of US states have resumed evictions, or are allowing them despite the worsening pandemic. As many as 40 million people nationwide face eviction due to inability to pay rent. In comparison, the 2008 foreclosure crisis saw the loss of 10m homes. Now, millions – seniors, people with disabilities, parents and

It’s already started. A majority of US states have resumed evictions, or are allowing them despite the worsening pandemic.

As many as 40 million people nationwide face eviction due to inability to pay rent. In comparison, the 2008 foreclosure crisis saw the loss of 10m homes. Now, millions – seniors, people with disabilities, parents and children – are at risk of homelessness. Eviction preys disproportionately, in many places overwhelmingly, on Black women and people of color, deepening savage racial inequities.

It’s not too late to stop this unprecedented “eviction tsunami” and repair the damage, but we must act boldly.

The tsunami is no accident. It’s the result of landlords’ lobbying and lawmakers’ decisions. Even before the pandemic, 20.5m households were struggling to pay rent. On May Day, thousands of renters across the country launched protests demanding the government cancel rent. Instead, Congress has spent trillions bailing out the largest corporations, including private equity landlords who profited exorbitantly from the pain of the foreclosure crisis and its aftermath. Now landlords have ramped up eviction filings in anticipation of expiring eviction moratoriums, while tenants have yet to receive unemployment benefits they’ve been approved for.

From New Orleans to Kansas City, Los Angeles to New York, renters are shutting down eviction courts, blockading evictions and fighting to extend eviction moratoriums. They’re meeting their needs for shelter and creating stopgaps against homelessness where decision-makers have failed. But we need more than stopgaps that defer displacement to a later date.

Cancelling rent and mortgage payments is the most effective solution to the mounting debt and mass displacement threatening working-class communities, communities of color and low-income households during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. This means passing laws that eliminate the obligation to pay rent, late fees and missed payments accrued during the pandemic. Concurrently, mortgage debt must be forgiven or granted forbearance. Additional relief should prioritize at-risk landlords and providers of permanently affordable housing – while large corporate landlords should be taxed to help foot the bill.

Cancelling rent and mortgage payments acts immediately to match the true scope of the problem.

We must protect renters universally by canceling rent for all renters, regardless of income, employment or immigration status. This eliminates applications, proofs of eligibility and waits for relief. By protecting all renters, we swiftly aid the most marginalized among them. Universal rent cancellation promotes race, gender and economic justice because of who renters are: mostly working-class or low-income, and disproportionately of color. In contrast, requiring renters to apply for assistance means that huge swathes of people fall through the cracks.

Rental assistance funds have reached only a tiny fraction of the millions who are struggling. Houston ran out of its $15m rental assistance fund just 90 minutes after applications opened; Los Angeles’ proposed $100m relief fund would cover less that 14% of those on the brink of eviction; and in Chicago more than 80,000 renters applied for just 2,000 available relief grants. The administration of rent relief is excluding undocumented people, those who are unbanked or informally employed, rural households and anyone who faces barriers navigating the application system.

Rent relief funds alone cannot resolve the renter crisis aggravated by the pandemic. They don’t fix the fundamental causes behind our lack of housing affordability: decades of rampant real estate speculation and increased reliance on for-profit developers to produce housing, alongside drastic cuts to the public and nonprofit production of housing that is permanently affordable. Since 2000, the proportion of newly built units at the luxury end has more than doubled, while those renting for under $850 a month halved. To truly address the housing crisis, we must limit rents and massively fund social housing that is permanently affordable.

After the foreclosure crisis, the largest private equity landlords scooped up foreclosed homes. Government policies enabled and rewarded these bad actors. In 2020, they’re again poised to acquire distressed properties en masse. We can stop this. Rather than subsidizing corporate landlords and banks that have stripped wealth from our communities, we must cut them loose.

First, by pairing rent cancellation with mortgage debt cancellation, we can stabilize whole communities: renters, homeowners and small landlords, too. Additional relief can prioritize needy landlords who maintain affordable rents and comply with tenant protections; public funds should selectively subsidize socially responsible landlords.

Second, strong eviction moratoriums, halting every aspect of all eviction processes except in cases of imminent threat to health and safety, must be enacted and extended. Failing to pay rent during the pandemic must be permanently eliminated as a basis for eviction – as San Francisco has done and California legislators are in the process of doing with AB 1436.

Finally, we must redirect copious public resources towards creating social housing. After the foreclosure crisis, the Federal Housing Administration sold 98% of foreclosed properties to Wall Street landlords at bargain rates. This time, we must shift ownership from for-profit corporations to nonprofit community control, including permanently affordable resident cooperatives, community land trusts and public housing. We must house the unhoused, rather than criminalizing homelessness. And we must limit large corporate acquisitions, whether through outright prohibition, eminent domain or laws granting public entities, nonprofits and tenants the first right of purchase.

This broader vision is what housing justice organizations mean when they demand, “Cancel Rent, Reclaim Our Homes.” Along such lines, the Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s visionary federal bill (HR 6515) seeks to build a more just housing system, by pairing rent and mortgage cancellation with an acquisition fund to create social housing. New York and Illinois legislators have introduced bills to cancel rent and mortgages state-wide. Momentum continues to build.

Affordable housing providers like Jane Place in New Orleans and Push Buffalo in New York have voluntarily canceled their tenants’ rent. But we need government action to cancel rent and mortgages systematically, giving these good samaritans relief for lost rental income, while leveling the playing field against the corporate landlord giants. Large corporate landlords sit on more than $470bn of tax breaks including from the Covid-19 stimulus. They must give back by funding relief and social housing.

It all starts, though, with giving low-income communities of color a fighting chance at staying in their homes. We must listen to those most affected. It’s past time to make the practical – and transformative – demand for rent and mortgage cancellation a reality.

  • Lupe Arreola is executive director of Tenants Together in California, a statewide coalition of tenant organizations and an anchor organization of the national Homes for All campaign and the Right to the City Alliance. Amee Chew, PhD, is a Mellon-ACLS public fellow who works in housing policy. Together, they have collaborated with national housing justice organizations on OurHomesOurHealth.org

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