In a pandemic, the last thing people should be worrying about is paying their rent or mortgage.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just threatening people’s health. The pandemic is threatening people’s livelihoods and, increasingly, their housing security.
Six Bay Area counties made the challenging but responsible decision on Tuesday morning to issue a shelter in place mandate. All non-essential businesses, including many retail, arts, and food service establishments, are closed. Small businesses are shuttering and workers aren’t getting paid.
Most Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. With the average price of a San Francisco one-bedroom now at $3,690, when hours get cut, people can’t afford to pay their rent.
In order to keep people in their homes, we can’t just suspend rent and mortgage payments for the time being. They need to be completely forgiven.
Renters who don’t have cash on hand to pay rent this month certainly aren’t going to have cash on hand to pay double next month or, god forbid, triple the month after.
With the shelter in place order in effect through April 7, workers aren’t just going to lose out on hours before their rent is due on March 31. They’ll also be affected through April. With businesses shuttering due to the economic crisis and others scaling back, many workers will struggle with unemployment for much longer.
“This crisis will last well beyond the state of emergency,” said Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “We’re talking about a massive shift towards housing instability.”
The primary objection to forgiving rent payments through the duration of this crisis will, of course, be from landlords. Opponents will wax poetic about the plight of the small-time landlord losing out on essential income.
This, of course, ignores the fact that many of the 65% of San Franciscans who rent live under corporate landlords such as private-equity firm Blackstone. Since 2008, these corporations have gained a larger share of rental units across the country, which they operate for exorbitant profit.
But homeowners still paying a mortgage, including landlords, should not be at risk of losing their homes either. Both rent and mortgage payments need to be forgiven. The banks which issue mortgages already received bailout funding in 2008. They can afford to take the hit.
Alex Lantsberg, an owner of a two-unit building in San Francisco where he lives with his family, is voluntarily giving his tenants a refund on part of this month’s rent. He says that if his mortgage payments were forgiven, doing without rental income would absolutely be doable.
“There are other costs [associated with being a landlord], but not having a mortgage more than compensates for those,” said Lantsberg.
In San Francisco, where rents are higher than anywhere else in the country, rent constitutes the majority of many tenants’ monthly expenses. Rent forgiveness would make a huge difference in the lives of most tenants.
Will Greenberg, a non-profit employee living in the Outer Richmond, is worried about his economic stability over the next two months. Though his income has thankfully not been affected by the pandemic, a family member who he provides for was laid off this week.
“Rent forgiveness would give us all breathing room to support our friends and family,” Greenberg said.
If we don’t protect working San Franciscans from eviction and foreclosure, the results could be devastating. The number one cause of homelessness today is “loss of tenancy”—in other words, eviction. Setting tenants up with rent they can’t pay is a recipe for failure to pay evictions down the line, inevitably leading to a rise in homelessness.
Already at least 8,000 people in San Francisco are experiencing homelessness. Half of the United States’ homeless population lives in California; we are the state with the highest homeless population in the country.
Some elected officials have stepped up to help tenants, but the suggestions that have been proposed so far are insufficient.
Supervisor Dean Preston has been working around the clock to shut down The City’s “eviction machine” as the COVID-19 crisis has rapidly evolved. As of writing, the sheriff isn’t enforcing evictions, the Superior Court has stayed eviction lawsuits by 90 days, and most nonpayment evictions are banned in The City. Preston’s office aims to shut down all other evictions as well, such as Ellis Act or owner move-in evictions.
Assemblymember Phil Ting introduced AB 828 in the California Legislature Friday. It would ban evictions and foreclosures through the end of California’s state of emergency and 15 days afterwards. The bill allows tenants to set up payment plans to repay their rent. If tenants can show documentation exhibiting economic hardship, their plan can be extended through 2021. This bill won’t be heard until the Legislature’s reconvening, which at this point is set to be April 14.
Neither of these solutions forgive rental or foreclosure payments.
Now is not the time for half measures. In the face of global crisis, we’re at a crossroads. We can continue the status quo of prioritizing bailouts of the rich and powerful, or we can take the politically challenging step to stand up for working people’s most basic right to housing.
“We need to not just protect the most vulnerable from health emergency, but from economic devastation,” said Varma. “We have the possibility to do that—if we act now.”
Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.