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A three-story brick apartment building.
New York state tenants are crying out for a rent freeze amid coronavirus pandemic on April 1.
John Nacion/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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The coronavirus is exposing America’s housing crisis

Just as Americans are being instructed to stay home, it’s becoming one of the hardest things to afford.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

On March 31, about 300 tenants received an email from their apartment management company. The email listed resources for tenants struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic, but the sign-off message was clear: The rent is still due.

But whichever employee of Saturn Management, the Los Angeles property management company, sent the message to the 300 or so tenants across their various properties forgot to hide the email addresses of the recipients. Almost immediately, tenants started responding, replying-all.

“A few people chimed in saying they were down for a rent strike, and more and more people started chiming in,” Alex Mercier, a 26-year-old in Los Angeles who recently lost his job due to the coronavirus crisis, told me.

The email thread moved to a Slack channel, where people have been talking, organizing, and discussing ever since. Mercier said they’re still trying to figure out the best course of action. A rent strike for May is among the options, but they don’t want to do anything haphazardly, or anything that might jeopardize anyone’s housing situation.

Saturn Management declined to comment on the record but provided Vox with the follow-up email the company sent out this Monday, which apologized and acknowledged “that our most recent email from March 31st caused some confusion, stress, and anger for many of you.” The email said that “safeguarding your health and well-being” was the company’s first priority and encouraged tenants to reach out with concerns.

But the management company’s initial email had already created a bond among a community of people who’d just lost their jobs, people who worried they’d be next, and people who were just stressed about an uncertain future.

“We are a literal microcosm of things that are potentially to come,” Mercier said. “Because, what, 10 million in the country have applied for unemployment in the last two weeks? This is going to continue to grow, those numbers are going to continue to grow, the need will continue to grow, people’s situations — the dire seriousness of their situations — will be amplified.

“It’s important to know we’re all in this together,” he said. “It’s important that people understand what’s possible, what we can do together, if we have the numbers — when we have the numbers.”

As Mercier said, about 10 million unemployment claims were filed in the US in just the past two weeks, and that’s expected to rise as the economy remains shut down because of the coronavirus. And at a time when all Americans are being urged to stay at home, if not explicitly ordered to do so, having adequate shelter is literally a public health priority.

Many states and cities have put into place temporary eviction moratoriums — meaning landlords can’t forcibly remove people from their homes for lack of payment during this time — and de facto moratoriums exist in other states and localities because courts are closed.

But that is a temporary solution to keep people in their homes. It doesn’t solve the problem of where the money will come from to pay the rent. The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to real estate firms that analyzed data for 13.4 million renters, about a third of renters didn’t pay rent in April.

How to solve this problem more permanently is much less clear, given the complexities of the US for-profit housing system, an ecosystem that includes not just renters but also landlords small and very, very big, as well as banks and lenders.

Rent strikes, like the one Mercier and his fellow tenants are considering, are more of a tactic than an end goal. They’re meant to put pressure on landlords to make concessions for struggling tenants, and to force landlords to join in the pressure on lawmakers to get more relief to renters. (The federal government’s stimulus package includes some relief for people with federally backed mortgages.)

A rent freeze is another option, one that would at least prevent landlords from raising rent during the crisis. And some are pushing for governments to cancel rent altogether, at least until the immediate public health crisis around the coronavirus is resolved.

But both experts and advocates say the pandemic hasn’t created a housing crisis. It is merely exposing, and exacerbating, the problems that already existed.

“I think this moment highlights the precarity of people generally, and how important housing is to all of us,” Vincent Reina, assistant professor of urban economics and planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “And I think it highlights the limited safety nets we have in place.”

But because of the coronavirus, this crisis is now unfolding all at once.

The rent crisis is here now. But it should surprise no one.

Nicole, 33, worked in fine jewelry production. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, she saw 99 percent of her business dry up. She had to let her one employee go. She’s trying to figure out what to do next, but even if she can get unemployment assistance, she’s uncertain how long she’ll be able to meet her expenses on it.

Besides her rent, she has credit card bills, loans, utilities, food, car payments. “So that’s not going to leave me with much to hold me over then, right?” she said.

Her landlord, she said, declined to give her a break on the rent; she’d asked for a discount for two months until she and her roommate — a student, who also can’t afford to stay in their Los Angeles apartment if she’s not attending classes — figured out their situation. Nicole says she brings groceries to her elderly parents. Her mom has cancer and is therefore particularly vulnerable, and the idea of finding another roommate in the middle of a public health crisis terrifies her.

They have a plan: A friend of her roommate’s from Chicago has agreed to take over her roommate’s spot in May, though who knows if that will still make sense a month from now.

But the full rent is still due.

Versions of this story are playing out in cities across the United States. The country has now experienced the same amount of job losses it did during the Great Recession — but in the span of just two weeks. That strain will continue as cities and states and the businesses within them stay shut down or scale back, leading to pay cuts, furloughs, or layoffs.

As bills pile up for food, health care, and utilities, the rent (or mortgage) can sometimes be the hardest expense to pay, especially in cities like New York or Los Angeles where the cost of living is already high.

This crisis, though, is not unfamiliar to many Americans. Of the country’s approximately 43 million renters, more than 40 percent are already considered “rent burdened,” spending more than 35 percent of their income on housing and utilities, according to US Census data.

Cea Weaver, a campaign coordinator with Housing Justice for All, a coalition of New York State advocacy groups pushing to cancel rent and immediately rehouse homeless people in vacant housing, told me that, weeks ago, it was already apparent people were one major life event away — like a parent getting sick, a car breaking down, a job loss, or a medical emergency — from not being able to afford housing.

“What’s happening now is that that life event is happening to everybody at once,” Weaver said. “And it’s happening across the country.”

The increased economic pressure people are facing is also colliding with the critical public health imperative that everyone stay home. This is already a catastrophe for homeless people or people in unstable housing. Now, in a matter of weeks, the country’s best tool to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus — sheltering in place — has also become the thing that many people suddenly can’t afford to maintain.

“Eviction equals death,” Julian Smith-Newman, a member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, a member-funded housing advocacy group, said. “That’s never been more obvious than at this moment and in the public health crisis that we’re living in.”

And the informal safety nets that can sometimes help people through difficult stretches are not necessarily available right now. It’s a lot harder to stay on a friend’s couch temporarily, or move in with older parents, because of how the virus spreads, and who is vulnerable. Moving is still happening (many states have designated movers and storage facilities as essential services), but even downsizing apartments or finding an extra roommate to split the bills with becomes far more precarious during a global pandemic.

James Stockard, an expert in affordable housing at Harvard University, said that people losing their housing now would be disastrous. “More people would be in the streets or doubling up with their relatives,” he told me. “Every other solution to your housing, if you don’t have shelter in your own apartment, is going to bring you into closer contact with other people. And so it’s going to make the pandemic worse.”

Lawmakers and state officials do seem to recognize that keeping people housed is critical, which is why many states and localities have adopted eviction moratoriums, either instituted by lawmakers or put into place by the courts, which are shut down in many places. The federal government has also issued a 120-day eviction moratorium for tenants in federally subsidized housing (or with federally subsidized mortgages).

These eviction moratoriums vary in length and strength between states and localities, and in many cases do not mean that tenants can’t be evicted after these moratoriums expire. Some places are trying to strengthen those protections: New York state, for example, is trying to outlaw evictions for nonpayment for anyone unable to afford to pay their rent during the moratorium’s 90-day period, plus six months after.

But none of these measures really stop the rent from being due eventually. And for people who’ve lost their jobs or had their incomes cut, it will be even harder to catch up. That will be amplified the longer this economic crisis goes on. “Once that moratorium is lifted,” Jesse Connor, an organizer for Autonomous Tenants Union in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, told me, “it’s just going to drop on people.

“For renters, if there’s no wavier on payment, it’s all just going to land on people, and we’re going to have a huge eviction crisis once this is over and we get through this crisis,” he added.

Connor said people are weighing tough decisions — for example, whether they should try to get a job in a grocery store, even if they or someone they take care of is immunocompromised, making them more at risk of the coronavirus.

Eviction moratoriums, though, provide at least some protection against the immediate public health crisis. Mary Cunningham, vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute, said a national moratorium that covers all renters might be more effective than the patchwork of states and localities.

But she also noted that they’re still not a solution to millions of Americans being unable to afford rent this month or the month after. “They are pauses or postponements; they’re not forgiveness.”

Cancel rent? More money? The solutions aren’t so simple.

Residential renters aren’t the only ones who are struggling right now. Commercial tenants — small and big — who are not essential businesses also might not be able to make their rent payments.

But it doesn’t really stop there, not the way the US housing system is structured. Landlords may start to feel the fallout, too, specifically those who rely on that rental income to pay mortgages or utility bills. Landlords may have more resources — they own a valuable asset in real estate, after all. And the CARES Act, the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package passed by Congress late last month, offers landlords forbearance on federally backed mortgages during the crisis.

But forbearance is also just a postponement of payment, and many can’t kick the can down the road too far, Cunningham said. “So with landlords being unable to pay their mortgages, then you have lenders essentially not being able to pay out their investors in mortgage-backed securities, so the whole entire housing system is connected.”

That could have broader implications for the economy, as anyone who lived through the 2008 financial crisis might remember. And while many advocates say this shows exactly why the US for-profit housing system is so broken, that system also likely isn’t going to change before the next rent payment is due.

Which is why, at least for the short term, policy experts say governments need to provide more robust assistance to keep people economically stable and in their homes in the first place. Some experts suggested that housing subsidies or really just more cash would ease the financial burden, so renters don’t have to choose between paying rent and buying food.

The $2 trillion stimulus package helps, including by increasing unemployment benefits and by offering many American households one-time cash assistance, which for households making $75,000 or less per year comes out to $1,200, with additional money for kids.

But that might not be enough now, and definitely not enough a few months from now, given the unprecedented economic crisis. Cunningham said she thought Congress missed an opportunity to fully give people what they need to get through the crisis. “A $1,200 stimulus check, particularly in high-cost areas where the pandemic is most concentrated like New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, is not enough to pay the rent,” she said.

Beyond more generous cash payments, assistance could come in other forms, including direct housing assistance like emergency vouchers or grants awarded to tenants. Chicago, for example, is offering people who are unemployed because of the coronavirus grants of $1,000 to go toward rent or mortgage. The grants will be awarded via a lottery system, to be given to 2,000 Chicagoans. The problem with a system like this, though, is that it’s not universal, and it’s limited in scope.

And then there are the calls to cancel or forgive rent payments altogether for a period of time. Those calls are growing louder and louder, from tenants, from activists, and even from some lawmakers. A bill introduced in the New York state legislature would forgive rental payments for 90 days for both residential and commercial tenants. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has called for both a rent and mortgage freeze in Congress’s next stimulus package.

But a rent cancellation, and a rent cancellation only, is much harder to do because of what it might mean for landlords.

“Forgiving rent for those who don’t need relief will make the crisis worse. And doing so without providing a clear path of relief for small property owners will destabilize housing for millions of renters,” said Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), which represents the owners and operators of more than 400,000 units of rent-stabilized housing in New York City. “This is why giving direct relief to renters in need through vouchers is the best way to weather this pandemic.”

Many housing advocates recognize that any freeze on rent payments would also need to extend to mortgages. The Autonomous Tenants Union has a petition calling for the freeze of rent, mortgage, and utility payments (along with other demands, including housing for the homeless). RentStrike2020, a national organization, is calling for a two-month pause on rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection everywhere, with the threat of a rent strike.

The LA Tenants Union is also trying to organize en masse for a rent forgiveness program, starting by giving tenants letters to give to their landlords informing them they will not pay for the month. The group is demanding, among other goals, a two-month rent forgiveness program, to be extended if the crisis continues.

Again, this wouldn’t be a deferral of payment, it would be an erasure. This sounds good in theory, but it might be harder to execute in practice. Even if rents are forgiven, not all landlords have federally backed mortgages, which means it’s not guaranteed private lenders would get on board. And a lot of those mortgages are bundled and sold as investments, and, as CityLab pointed out, many of those investors are things like pension funds.

Which means the money is likely going to have to come from somewhere — whether directly into renters’ pockets to help get them from month to month, or somewhere on the back end to bail out the rent and mortgages that won’t get paid.

But advocates who are pushing for these rent freezes made clear that they think the entire system is broken — that housing is a human right and that, if anything, the coronavirus crisis is merely making that even clearer.

Tenants need help now. But policymakers should look ahead to the next crisis, too.

As endless as this coronavirus crisis may seem right now, it will eventually end. But the flaws in America’s housing system will still be there.

“We were in a national crisis before the Covid pandemic,” Reina said, “and there’s no reason to believe that this pandemic, and short-term fixes associated with it, will solve the problem that existed beforehand.”

This is partly why housing advocates across the country are taking such a strong stance.

“Actually returning to normalcy does not look good to anyone,” Smith-Newman of the LA Tenants Union told me. “That’s an interesting shift that I think is happening. People are now asking, ‘How then do we achieve this thing that we’ve always been saying: that housing is a human right?’”

For Smith-Newman, the answer is the mass socialization of housing, which would include such steps as the government taking over vacant properties to house homeless people.

Other experts agree that there is definitely a bigger role for the government or nonprofits to play that would ease some of the pressure on our housing system.

“In the long run, what we need is more housing that is not in the hands of for-profit owners and developers because those individuals — not evil people at all, just normal, regular capitalists — don’t leave money on the table,” Stockard, the Harvard professor said. “Whereas nonprofits and public agencies who own housing stock have a value system which is closer to that of a resident than to that of an investor.”

Stockard said this is a longer-term goal, not something that could fix the emergency we’re in now, but one that might ease the pressure of the next crisis.

Yet experts also said there are options that don’t necessarily involve the wholesale remaking of the system but that could help remedy housing insecurity both during and after the coronavirus crisis. For instance, the government could invest more into programs that offer housing vouchers, such as Section 8 (where the government pays a portion of a tenant’s rent, based on income).

Right now, the waitlists for programs like Section 8 are extraordinarily, almost absurdly, long, and they’re limited. But beefing up protections and expanding access to these initiatives would help keep people in the houses or apartments they already have, and prevent people from reaching the point of crisis, such as facing eviction or homelessness. The easiest way to do that is to keep people in the houses or apartments they already have.

Which is why rent strikes like the one percolating in Los Angeles and in other places across the country may make a difference, whether or not they achieve the immediate goals of rent forgiveness. Tenants are organizing, and exposing just how unprepared our housing system is for this crisis, and the next.

“I think it’s important that the message relayed is that we can do anything, we can restructure and build any society we want,” Mercier said. “We are working together and agree that we need to protect those that are most vulnerable.”


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