Coronavirus Calls for an Emergency Rent Freeze and Eviction Moratorium

It is indefensible that people should have to fear eviction during a health crisis. Coronavirus calls for emergency controls on the housing market now.

Hospital staff at the Norwood Hospital work to set up a tent from a trailer in Norwood, MA on March 11, 2020. David L. Ryan / Boston Globe via Getty

As the reality of the coronavirus takes hold globally, our capacity — or lack thereof — to deal with the crisis is suddenly a burning question. Housing security is a looming concern, and without a Homes Guarantee, many people are at risk.

Widespread availability of public and social housing, universal rent control, the abolition of homelessness, and a tenants’ bill of rights are necessary measures to protect people from predatory behavior by landlords and unjust evictions. But we do not live in that world yet, and emergency measures in the field of housing will be required to stabilize and protect people during the unfolding public health crisis of our time.

In a crisis where we suddenly need to work less, and so risk reduced paychecks or even layoffs, many renters are fearing eviction and even homelessness if they cannot make a payment. This needs to change.

Socialists and progressives can and should be demanding an immediate emergency program to stabilize people in their homes until the crisis has passed. Against the profits of landlords and developers, we must demand the basic measures to support public health, allowing people to take time off work without fear of eviction.

The measures proposed below should be considered in addition to, not as a replacement for, workers’ protection from layoffs, as well as guaranteed free and universal testing, treatment, and, ultimately, vaccines. We must also demand extensive paid sick leave. But without controls on the housing market, it is likely that pressures and fears will persist.

Comprehensive Housing Security

As a baseline, we need laws to guarantee people the right to remain in their homes for the duration of this period and its immediate aftermath. As a first step, we should impose a freeze on all rents, backdated to 2019, and a moratorium on all evictions, foreclosures, as well as a suspension of mortgage interest accrual on owner-occupied and rental housing. This will ensure people are stabilized in their homes for the duration of the crisis, regardless of whether they are working or not.

A nationwide rent freeze means no increase in the price of rent over what the monthly price was in December 2019. Any rent increases since then, or announced during the process of passing the law, should be rolled back to December prices. (If the tenancy began after 2019, the rent should be frozen at the lowest monthly value charged since the tenancy began). This should apply to single-family rentals and group house tenants as well. It must be universally applicable to all people renting housing, and should be applied on the basis of the unit or room rather than the tenant, so if somebody leaves a home voluntarily, the landlord cannot charge more than the previous tenant paid to lease it.

It must apply for the duration of the coronavirus crisis — potentially ceasing after a three-to-six-month period elapses, the clock starting once the total number of cases falls below one-third of its peak — and automatically resetting if the number of cases rises above that number again.

In order to prevent price gouging after this period, annual rent increases should be indefinitely restricted to the level of the local consumer price index or 3 percent, whichever is lower — as proposed by the Homes Guarantee campaign. This should remain the baseline for an extended period, ideally permanently.

Throughout the duration of the crisis (including the cool-off period), all evictions must be suspended. People should still be required to follow reasonable lease terms and pay the frozen rents if they are capable of doing so, but highly punitive sanctions, including evictions, should be off the table entirely.

These are the required measures in order to ensure confidence that staying home from work will not result in potential homelessness. If a less effective “stick” results in some people not paying rent they owe, that is a far less severe issue than people going to work with the coronavirus. In the aftermath of the crisis, in order to ensure no retaliatory evictions occur, tenants should be guaranteed that a tight just-cause eviction law will be imposed federally on a permanent basis, limiting the legitimate reasons for eviction to a small set of circumstances, proven in a court of law.

The government should offer to acquire properties whose landlords no longer wish to own them permanently at a significant discount, and convert them to income-based rents, capped at a percentage of tenant incomes, in order to ensure people who lose their jobs are still able to pay their rent without potentially clogging up the adjudication offices. They should also potentially establish a fund to compensate landlords whose tenants are not paying their frozen rents due to hardship. While landlords in general are not an especially sympathetic group, this would help to soften the blow for the more sympathetic actors who could otherwise sink the proposal. The backdated rent freeze ensures that this fund cannot be exploited by landlords increasing the rent to extract value from the government, which would otherwise be a serious concern. Applications for this fund should require proof that the property already meets all local housing codes and is safe to inhabit — any legally required repairs should be taken out of compensation.

Mortgage interest accrual on owner-occupied properties and occupied rental properties affected by the rent freeze should be temporarily suspended, and owners should be protected from retaliation for suspending payments during the period of the crisis (though they should be allowed to voluntarily continue paying if they choose). Foreclosures on owner-occupied properties should be suspended as well — including the suspension of processes in progress right now.

This is to further shift the cost of the crisis upstream from homeowners and petty landlords to banks and investors, who can, if necessary, access existing public resources created to ensure financial stability. My colleague Thomas Hanna at the Democracy Collaborative proposes that banks requiring a bailout should be permanently taken into public ownership as a condition of assistance.

These measures should blunt the overall impact of the crisis on working-class people — not just the poorest, but also middle and even upper-middle income earners who are potentially facing hardship or disease as a result of the coronavirus’s impact on their workplaces.

An eviction freeze should also extend to urgently prohibiting the closure of campus accommodation for current university students, and reopening those accommodations already closed. Many students who have already paid for their room and board are being forced out with nowhere to go. If centralized cafeterias are seen to be a risk, then alternative arrangements to provide a stable food supply to students must be found. Classes can and should remain suspended if needed.

People in prisons are likely to be at high risk, a result of densely concentrated populations living in often unsanitary conditions with already overstretched and underfunded medical facilities. Efforts should be made to rapidly reduce the population and to secure accessible and safe transitional housing for those who are freed. The same should go for immigration detention facilities — apart from the moral arguments, people crammed into camps and cages can exacerbate a public health crisis.

A serious risk is the concentration of the homeless population in often unsanitary shelters, hostels, and encampments. While these people need permanent accommodation of their own, a temporary solution would be to utilize the large stock of spare bedrooms and vacant homes to disperse the population into more sanitary lodgings until the crisis passes.

Vacant and multiple property owners, as well as those owning large homes with lots of extra rooms, should be expected to lift some of the burden of housing the homeless population (much of which is currently concentrated in shelters and encampments) in accommodations that are not conducive to the spreading of disease. Homeless people should be guaranteed a private room for the duration of the crisis period. A voluntary dispersed shelter program should be established, but if it is not sufficient, wealthier landlords and homeowners should be compelled to provide lodgings in the name of public health for the duration of the crisis. In the long run, permanent housing for the homeless population must be acquired or built.

As a movement, democratic socialists must demand that the costs of the coronavirus are not imposed on the working class. This demand has different applications for different sectors, but the measures proposed above would go a long way to securing this demand for working-class tenants and homeowners.

We can recognize that it is unlikely these measures will be implemented on the federal level right away — but federal socialist representatives should be advocating for them. At local and state levels, our elected officials should be following the example of San Francisco DSA supervisor Dean Preston, and doing whatever they can to implement these types of policies.