Op-ed: A student renter’s case for a rent freeze

The beginning of April marks the first new month since President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak. With the start of the new month comes rent payments that millions of Americans are now unable to cover.

The number of people filing for unemployment skyrocketed during the last week of March, with over 6.6 million people filing claims. Unemployment insurance payments and the money from the federal stimulus package will only delay the crisis, not resolve it. Well before the COVID-19 outbreak, a 2017 Harvard housing report found that 38 million Americans spend more than 30% of their earnings on housing costs, a figure that has increased 146% in the past 16 years. These people were already one financial disaster away from losing their housing. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has left so many without a job, landlords cannot simply return to business as usual.

As one of many renters living in South Oakland, I am painfully aware of how hard coming up with money for rent is going to be in the coming months. Unless we want a massive increase in debt accumulation and homelessness — making even more people vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 — we need a nationwide rent freeze now.

The initiative by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to freeze foreclosures and evictions until the end of April on certain government-backed mortgages does not go nearly far enough. For one, it only applies to 8 million of the roughly 43 million rental households in the United States. As Tenants PAC treasurer Michael McKee points out, mortgage relief for landlords is appropriate, but relief for tenants is also needed.

A good start would be to follow writer Peter Gowan’s proposal for a national rent freeze, which would mandate “no increase in the price of rent over what the monthly price was in December 2019.” Gowan also argues that no evictions should take place for the entire duration of the crisis, and renters should be protected from retaliation for missing rent payments after the crisis ends. Everyone needs to feel assured that staying home from work will not result in homelessness. Otherwise, the risk exists that people will go to work while infected with coronavirus, quickening its spread.

We cannot allow the cost of housing to impede public health — the stakes are too high. It’s true that many landlords will miss out on money during this crisis. The same holds for most business owners. The difference is that landlords offer a commodity that means the difference between life and death for their renters.