Faith calls us to forgive rent debt

By Hatem Bazian, Joanna Lawrence Shenk, Laura Rumpf and Zarina Kiziloglu

By Hatem Bazian, Joanna Lawrence Shenk, Laura Rumpf and Zarina Kiziloglu

As leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities in the Bay Area, we call upon state leaders to support all renters and small landlords devastated during the pandemic. Lawmakers took a good first step by extending the statewide eviction moratorium to June 30 and by providing some rental assistance with the passage of Senate Bill 91, but more is needed.

The Torah tells us, “There shall be no needy among you — therefore I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land.” This is our collective responsibility. Our congregations are doing what we can to support those in need, but a systemic crisis of this scale requires a systemic response.

Lawmakers must now develop long-term solutions to address the mounting rental debt looming over tenants. Californians are currently more than $3.7 billion behind on rent because of work closures and job loss during the pandemic. The latest federal stimulus package gave California $2.6 billion for rental assistance, but that won’t cover every struggling renter or small landlord. By the time California receives its next round of federal stimulus funding, that mountain of debt will grow. Our lawmakers must prioritize the needs of those most harmed by housing instability when filling that large and growing gap. Our collective health and economic recovery depends on it.

The Prophet Muhammad taught Muslims to forgive the debts of those struggling with poverty. The reward for the one who forgives debts is God’s forgiveness. In other words, the one who gives, also receives. If we ensure that the renters most impacted by the pandemic can stay in their homes long-term, our collective reward will be a healthy California—where people can shelter-in-place, take care of their families, and we can move quickly to end the pandemic’s deadly toll.

Christians accept that God’s presence is continually arriving in the world to undo injustice and liberate those who are oppressed. The hardest-hit renters right now are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and Latinx. These communities have already faced the worst COVID infection and mortality rates, and now the worst of COVID’s economic effects. This is an injustice we must collectively work to undo.

The extended eviction moratorium and rental relief are important steps, but the next step toward restructuring a broken system, is to protect every struggling renter and small landlord from losing their home during the pandemic and its aftermath. We need our state lawmakers to open their hands, forgive our crippling debts, and create a more just housing system now.

Professor Hatem Bazian is chair of the Northern California Islamic Council, co-founder and Professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College, and a lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Reverend Joanna Lawrence Shenk is pastor at the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, co-producer of “The Iconocast” podcast and author of The Movement Makes Us Human and Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship.

Rabbi Laura Rumpf is rabbi at Peninsula Temple Beth El.

Zarina Kiziloglu is a leader with Genesis of the Tri-Valley and former Board Member of Muslim Community Center – East Bay, as well as a Housing Commissioner for the City of Pleasanton who recently obtained her Masters in Public Policy at California State University – East Bay.

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