Rent Zero: Activists push for expanded support during pandemic

Freezing evictions, expanded homeless aid, and immediate cash assistance to name a few

Police cops sheriff officers in an empty apartment signing eviction order with keys next to them
Deputies in Virginia from the Henrico County Sheriff's Department process an eviction on July 12, 2018. The tenants had already departed and the deputies, after checking the unit to make sure it's empty, watch as the owner changes the unit's locks. Courtesy of Virginia Mercury.

With April 1 upon us, renters across the state and country are riding into a period of unease. For many, the sudden spread of COVID-19 wiped out their work schedules and paychecks as restaurants and other businesses closed by government order. Despite relief efforts at the state and federal levels, renters across the country are still struggling. That’s why a new grassroots movement is demanding a full rent freeze during the pandemic.

Tiana Caldwell, a leader with the organization KC Tenants in Kansas City, knows the struggle all too well. “I was laid off last Friday,” said Caldwell on a video call on March 26, “my husband Derick is also out of work. Last week, I was sad and scared and ashamed, but now I’m angry. I’m angry that by no fault of our own, but rather because of a cruel racist economy, my family is being pushed to the brink.” Last year, Caldwell’s family experienced homelessness for a six month period., “I can’t do that again,” she said.

She feels a “homes guarantee” is needed in what Caldwell describes as “the richest country in the world.” A nationwide Home Guarantee Campaign is pushing for affordable housing for those in danger of homelessness — a goal that goes beyond the eviction suspensions that are in effect during the pandemic in some states, including Wisconsin.

While Gov. Tony Evers suspended evictions last week, his order does not release tenants from paying their rent. “Evictions and foreclosures pose a direct and serious threat to the health and well-being of Wisconsinites,” said Evers. “Ensuring they are able to keep a roof over their heads and those in social services can prioritize assisting those who currently do not have shelter is critically important.”

At the federal-level, President Trump has signed a $2 trillion a COVID-19 relief package. Individuals who make less than $75,000 per year will receive a $1,200 check. Couples who make less than $150,000 per year and file their income taxes jointly will receive $2,400. Jordan Haedtler, a former member of ACRE (Action Center on Race and the Economy), points out other positive aspects of the package including $4 million for homeless assistance, $3 million in some renting assistance for low-income individuals, a temporary suspension of student loan payments, along with hundreds of millions in assistance to “front-line” regions of the country battling COVID-19.

Haedtler feels although the relief package didn’t go as far as some would have liked, it can be used as a solid base for what Rent Zero activists want. “We have a long road ahead to keep fighting,” he said during the virtual meeting. “Many housing groups, like People’s Action, were pushing for significantly more homelessness assistance,” said Haedtler. “You know, $1,200 for every American below a certain income bracket is nice but, given the scope of the recession that we’re about to enter, economists widely agree that ongoing direct stimulus is really needed.”

He’s also concerned about “unbanked people,” who may be hard to reach. Many housing activists have spent the last decade studying what made the last recession such a painful experience for the majority of  Americans.

Sophia Lopez, organizer with Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Sophia Lopez, organizer with Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Sofia Lopez, another ACRE member on the call, said the current situation created by COVID-19 can be demoralizing. Not only for renters who don’t know how they’ll pay their landlords, but also for activists pushing for change. Lopez urges anyone joining the Rent Zero movement to always remember someone they’re fighting for to help keep the spark lit. The campaign has a slew of federal demands including:

1) Immediate cash transfers to poor and working people

2) Zero out all mortgage and rent

3) Enact a nationwide eviction and foreclosure moratorium

4) Ban utility shut-offs and restore services to homes

5) Provide homes and expanded services to homeless people

6) Provide immediate assistance to affordable housing residents

7) Ensure a just and green transition post-pandemic

“Millions of people are losing their income and financial security right now,” said Lopez. “We’re asking for $2,000 cash payments for every person, including adults and children to start, to be repeated on an ongoing basis starting at six weeks if people can’t return to their jobs.”

President Donald Trump has extended COVID-related national guidelines until April 30. Health officials in Wisconsin feel that the state may reach its peak for COVID-19 cases within a few weeks, although no one knows when things might stabilize enough for people to return to work.

Tara Raghuveer of People’s Action said that a suspension on rent and mortgage payments should continue once the pandemic ends and into the recovery-period.

“This means no rent payments, no late fees, and no debts,” said Raghuveer. “And to us this is the best option. It’s actually better than a rent freeze, which would simply freeze rents at their current levels and it’s definitely better than just rental assistance, which would likely be needs-tested. It would be very likely to leave people out, and we think that it puts too much burden on the tenants and could be thought of as a bail-out for the landlords.”

Rent-zero activists feel it’s important to push for a national, wide-reaching eviction moratorium despite efforts at the state-level to do so. Activists involved in the Rent Zero and Housing Guarantee movement continue to get calls from people who say they’re still receiving eviction notices. In addition to a comprehensive freeze on evictions and foreclosures, the courts that enforce them, and the markets which profit from them, Lopez says activists are also demanding “steep penalties for violators who exploit this crisis as an opportunity to kick people out of their homes.”

Many states are also banning utility shut-offs, but activists want to take it a step further. Rent Zero activists are also calling for an expansion of services to include gas, water, electricity, cell phones, land lines and internet access.

“Regardless of ability to pay,” said Raghuveer, adding that citizens should also be free of back payments and late fees during these times. “I want you to imagine for a second someone who’s water was shut off just before the pandemic,” she said, “they need their water turned back on actually. It’s not just a matter of not shutting off someone’s water now. The people who’s water was shut off before the pandemic hit need their water turned back on both to keep themselves healthy, and to keep us all healthy during this public health emergency.”

Activists and organizers are both challenged by the scope of what they hope to accomplish, and the curve-ball COVID-19 threw at social interaction. Because no one can meet in groups, and most places are closed, the ability for activists to organize and push back is severely hampered. Virtual meetings, social media, and other alternatives are quickly becoming a norm. Adapting is crucial, and some wonder whether there’s anything in history activists can draw from in order to gain a foothold against the barriers created by an unprecedented pandemic.

Raghuveer feels there’s “no better opportunity than this,” for activists to expand their strategies and become “internationalist” in their thinking. “That’s also related to the homes guarantee,” she told Wisconsin Examiner, “this call for social housing, 12 million new units in the US, it seems really radical here. But in places around the world there are historic examples of social housing projects that have been successful for 100 years. So we really have to look around us to see both what that looks like now, and how it was won, and learn from that organizing.”

Tabatha Yelos, a Los Angeles-based organizer with Ground Game LA, reflects on what it took to get the New Deal passed. If thousands of strikes occur in a single year, with only 365 days, that represents a massive and unified organizing effort. “It’s all part of fighting for the same thing at the same time,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “We need to work on getting Homes Guarantee at the national level, we need to work on fixing our policies on the local level too. Just keep organizing.”