How the Coronavirus Pandemic Destroyed the Security of Housing Rentals.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Since then, many businesses have shut their doors and now millions of people are struggling to put food on their tables.
The U.S. unemployment rate is approaching 16 percent for May, with more than 38.6 million Americans filing for unemployment insurance benefits over the past two months.
While the mainstream media is reporting heavily on the economic turmoil brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic, many Americans are still unaware of how tenants across the country are being affected.
According to RENTCafe.com, an internet service that lists available rental properties, more than 100 million Americans live in rental units. Of those 100 million people:
The National Multifamily Housing Council found that 2.3 million households were unable to pay rent in April 2020 — which was a 135 percent increase compared to April 2019.
In light of this, many Americans feel the federal government should step in and cease all rent payments until the Coronavirus pandemic subsides.
On May 1st, tenants all across the country banded together in the largest coordinated rent strike in decades. The catch phrase #CancelRent has become a rallying cry among those trying to pressure federal and state governments to cancel rent and late fees compiled during the pandemic.
No one wants to be in the position of choosing between paying rent or buying food for their family. Eviction is a tragedy that can happen to nearly anyone in our country. So, isn’t it only common sense to suggest we should cancel ALL rent payments until our country fully reopens?
Well, not exactly.
You see, landlords are often common citizens like you and me. They use the money collected from tenants to pay for utility bills, mortgage payments, insurance premiums, repair costs, and property taxes associated with the building. Essential government services — such as firefighters, utility workers, and teachers — are dependent upon the revenue collected from property taxes. Canceling rent, without the help of the federal government stepping in to pay the bills, would actually devastate our economy in the long-run.
However, eviction is a real threat, and clearly one of the worst things that can happen to an individual and his or her family.
The eviction moratorium found in Section 4024(b) of the newly-passed CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) halted some evictions for 120 days after enactment. This law, however, only applies to buildings with federally backed mortgages or subsidized by the federal government.
As a result, the Urban Institute found that the moratorium only applies to 28 percent of all rental units, leaving tens of millions of Americans at the mercy of state and local laws.
Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) recently introduced legislation to cancel rent and mortgage payments nationwide in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to The Hill, Omar’s bill would cancel all rent and mortgage payments for Americans regardless of income, eliminate debt accumulation for renters and homeowners, and ensure renters will not receive negative impact on credit ratings or rental histories.
“The Coronavirus crisis is more than just a public health crisis — it’s an economic crisis,” Omar said in a recent statement.
The fact of the matter is that the Coronavirus pandemic is going to unleash a tidal wave of evictions across the country. Before COVID-19 ravaged our economy, landlords were filing over two million evictions a year, as per a report published by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
It is terrifying to think what the number of eviction filings will be once the United States completely reopens.
So, the big question for our country is: what can we do to mitigate the effects of this incoming tidal wave? What steps can we take to ensure our country remains economically vibrant heading into 2021 and beyond?
The first step is to pass a federal “right to counsel” law for tenants facing eviction. Unlike criminal court, defendants in housing court do not have a right to an attorney. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires the “assistance of counsel” for the accused “in all criminal prosecutions.”
Therefore, Congress must either pass a federal law requiring state governments provide an attorney for evicted tenants or pass an amendment extending the right to counsel to all civil cases — which includes formal evictions.
The Seventh Amendment codifies the right to a jury trial in civil cases “where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars.” Why would we extend the right to a jury trial to certain civil cases but deny evicted tenants the right to a lawyer?
According to data compiled by the Community Service Society, evictions dropped 11 percent in New York City after the City Council passed a “right to counsel” law.
Having an attorney represent your case can literally mean being homeless or having a roof over your head.
Furthermore, government and private enterprises must collaborate to inform the public about “implied warranty of habitability.”
According to LegalMatch.com, landlords in 49 states (with the exclusion of Arkansas) are essentially obligated to make sure premises are fit and habitable for human habitation and that they continue to remain fit and habitable throughout the duration of the lease.
The Rutgers University Law Review found that using this tactic in court stops evictions more than half the time. Yet, according to the same source, out of 40,000 eviction cases in Essex County, New Jersey, implied warranty of habitability was used only 80 times in 2014!
This is a truly precarious time in American history. The economic damage created by the Coronavirus pandemic has set the United States on a collision course with which we cannot avoid.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis found that U.S. real gross domestic product (GDP) decreased at an annual rate of 4.8 percent between January and March of this year — its sharpest decline since the Great Recession. According to the same report, household spending tumbled 7.6 percent while business investment sank 8.6 percent.
It is imperative we help tenants weather the storm. Otherwise, once the anesthetics wear off, this country is going to plunge in an economic depression not seen since 1929.
* Special thanks to Hasan Minhaj of the Patriot Act for inspiring me to write about this very important issue.
For more information regarding America’s eviction crisis, and for legal support, please visit:
Article written by Jett James Pruitt
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