COVID-19 & Housing Relief: If You Can’t Work, You Can’t Pay Rent. Period.

The District is dealing with an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. A historic number of Washingtonians have lost their jobs and have no idea when they’ll be able to work again. More than 66,000 DC residents have filed for unemployment insurance (UI) to replace a portion of their income, though only a third of those claims have been processed. Thousands more cash workers and undocumented immigrants are excluded from unemployment and the accompanying $600 Federal benefit. These new employment numbers compound an ongoing housing crisis that District leaders have stoked for decades. DC’s housing policy – giving taxpayer dollars to wealthy developers – has produced an artificially inflated housing market driven by corporate greed and marked by economic racism.  Paying rent in DC, which strained nearly half of DC renters under normal circumstances, has become impossible for many. It is essential that we lift the economic burden of survival from the shoulders of everyday people and place it on the large developers and institutional banks that are receiving taxpayer money to carry it.

DC’s eviction moratorium will not protect anyone when the ban lifts. DC already has one of the highest rates per capita of homelessness in the nation; we cannot afford to send more people to the streets. To prevent a wave of evictions when the courts reopen, DC must enact comprehensive rent and mortgage forgiveness for all people experiencing an economic hardship for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and for one month post emergency. Rent cancellation is gaining steam around the country. The DC Tenants Union and NY State Senator Mike Gianaris are pushing for similar reforms. Advocates in New York and Philadelphia are organizing a rent strike beginning May 1st, and just today, Representative Ilhan Omar introduced a bill in Congress to cancel rent and mortgage payments during the crisis. Helping people with the most to lose first isn’t radical – it’s common sense.

Furthermore, all essential workers risking their lives for the rest of us during this crisis should receive the same benefit. These workers are at increased risk of developing health issues related to the pandemic, yet ironically are paid some of the lowest wages in the District. The crippling cost of illness in America due to our broken healthcare system should not be borne by the people on the front lines of relief effort.

Multi-million dollar developers, and the banks that hold their mortgages, should absorb the costs of lost rents. These developers, many based outside of DC, have already received hundreds of millions of dollars in local taxpayer subsidies. It’s these corporations, not individual people, who should be negotiating repayment. Further, there are existing mechanisms in place for large developers to borrow money with favorable deferments and repayment agreements to cover rent losses. The financial institutions lending this money are receiving trillions of public relief dollars from the Federal government. Our taxpayer dollars are propping up this corporate safety net – we should be protected in return. The District needs to decide once and for all whether corporations losing revenue is worse than human beings losing their homes. Finally, the District must create a mechanism that allows small landlords to apply to the local government for lost rent relief. Federal relief money should be directed to those people and small businesses who need it most. Poor and working-class people are bearing the health consequences of the pandemic; corporations must bear the economic ones.