Whether you believe life imitates art or vice versa, life seems to be imitating art pretty crudely right now. A global crisis, desolate streets, the race for a cure...we’ve seen it all before in countless dystopian films, books, and TV shows. What all of these fail to address, however, is the economic fallout of a pandemic. The United States is currently experiencing a crash on a scale never before seen; stores and restaurants are shuttering, and millions of Americans are being left without work. Worst of all, the most vulnerable among us are continuing to be charged for rent—even though they have no source of income.
After food and water, a safe place to live is one of the most fundamental human needs. But as a record-high 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, it’s clear that many tenants can barely afford to feed their families, much less pay for utilities and rent. In the US, 78% of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck and 69% have less than $1000 in savings; only 30% of the unemployed receive benefits per the national average, and those benefits last for a maximum of just 26 weeks in most states. The numbers tell us that something needs to be done—though the relief package just passed by Congress will certainly alleviate stress for a lot of people, it will only delay the inevitable unless state lawmakers freeze rent payments for the duration of this pandemic.
Take New York City for example, where two-thirds of the population are renters. Governor Andrew Cuomo is allowing homeowners affected by COVID-19 to forgo their mortgages for 90 days and enacting a statewide shutdown of pending and current eviction proceedings. It’s a good start, but what happens when the 90 days are up and tenants still can’t pay? Workers are putting themselves and others at risk by continuing to go into non-essential jobs, because they simply cannot pay rent otherwise. If one of the biggest, most progressive cities in the country is struggling to protect their low-income citizens, how much more dire is the situation in suburban or rural areas? Some towns at the epicenter of the pandemic in Washington haven’t even placed a moratorium on utilities yet, and when water gets shut off because homeowners can’t pay, how are they supposed to wash their hands—the only thing proven to help quell the spread of the virus?
I’m not here to lay out a step-by-step plan for how this would work—nor am I qualified to do so—and I know that there is no simple solution to this problem. But I do know that if our lawmakers come together to create some sort of plan for repayments after all this is over, if they can find some way to show grace to those who can’t pay their rent right now, it could save hundreds of thousands of people from homelessness. Those of us who are privileged enough to have security and resources should do everything in our power to protect those at risk of losing their jobs, homes, and livelihood. Whether that be through signing a petition, contacting your senators, or even donating to a local relief organization, your seemingly small contribution can make a bigger difference than you know.
You can track your state’s response to COVID-19 HERE and find a rent freeze petition in your state HERE. Resistbot can help you find out who your senators are and contact them about this issue. And if you are in a position to help financially, HERE are some organizations working to provide aid for vulnerable people.