Mass Tenant Displacement Due to the Pandemic
I wrote, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America (UC Press), to stop the pricing out of working people from progressive cities. My thesis was that progressive cities have an urgent need to change land use policies to stop the pricing out of the working and middle-class. The pandemic has made this truer than ever.
The paperback edition of Generation Priced Out was released today. It features a new twenty page preface that addresses Cambridge’s November 2019 pro-housing election victory, Habitat for Humanity’s expanded advocacy role, big wins for tenants in California and Oregon and other developments entering 2020.
But I did not anticipate the coronavirus crisis.
And while I hear people saying that COVID-19 has completely changed the talking points about the housing crisis, it actually confirms all of the arguments I make in my book. I write about over a dozen cities across the U.S. Because none of them built enough new apartments to meet job and population growth, the current coronavirus-caused rent crisis has put tenants across the nation at far greater risk.
That’s because a scarce housing supply benefits landlords, not tenants. We now see the outcome of policies that stopped cities from building enough new units: Landlords have a powerful economic motive to use people’s inability to pay rent due to the pandemic to evict them and replace them with higher paying tenants. This would not be the case if an abundant housing supply did not create such a disparity between the price of rent controlled units and current market rates.
Hundreds of thousands of rent-controlled tenants now face displacement from their longtime homes and neighborhoods.
Hundreds of thousands of rent-controlled tenants now face displacement from their longtime homes and neighborhoods. And this displacement will primarily occur in long gentrified neighborhoods which have opposed new housing.
Most of these neighborhoods ban new apartments, including 100% affordable projects. Working and middle-class residents only survive in these neighborhoods (like San Francisco’s North Beach, Los Angeles’ Westside, New York City’s SoHo, East Village or Park Slope) due to rent controlled apartments. The displacement of the remaining longterm rent-controlled tenants will eliminate these neighborhoods’ last vestiges of economic diversity. “Progressive” cities failure to legalize and build apartments in gentrified neighborhoods raises the stakes over mass tenant displacement due to the pandemic
I know from four decades as a tenants’ attorney how landlords seek to displace such longterm tenants. And now the economic catastrophe which makes rent payments difficult for millions facilitates this displacement.
The Movement to Cancel Rent
Preventing mass tenant displacement requires rent forgiveness. Otherwise, hundreds of thousands of tenants living in below-market rate rent-controlled units and potentially millions more will lose their homes.
Cities and states imposed eviction moratoriums which will prevent many tenants from soon losing their homes. But such moratoriums will expire once the economic shutdown ends. And when that happens, tenants will have to either pay past due rent or face eviction. Some cities have programs to cover one-time rent deficiencies for eligible tenants. But none of these programs has sufficient funding to cover the huge number of tenants now unable to pay rent.
That’s why a growing national movement to cancel rent payments has emerged. Two national coalitions held April 1 rallies to support this goal. In California, 140 groups on all sides of housing debates sent a letter urging Governor Newsom to order rent and mortgage payment forgiveness. Over 250 groups in the Healthy LA coalition are also backing such cancellation. Housing groups in New York and other states are waging similar campaign.
Elected officials in cities already impacted by widespread visible homelessness are strongly backing rent forgiveness. They recognize that mass evictions will make urban America’s homeless crisis even worse.
How can rent cancellation happen?
Plans to have landlords simply bear the cost of lost rent are popular with tenants but face steep political and legal challenges. Politically, I know of no state legislature that would impose all rent waiver costs on landlords. Nor would any current governor. Even if either did happen, such a rent waiver plan would face problems in the courts.
States could instead use the $160 billion in flexible funding from the recently passed stimulus to cover rental assistance. States could also fund rent forgiveness by providing landlords with longterm property tax credits equal to the lost rent. Landlord groups may not like the deferred payment approach but mass public pressure will give legislatures and governors no choice. Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin is introducing legislation today that would treat COVID-19 rental debt as consumer debt ineligible as a cause of eviction; it’s a clever idea that still faces political and legal obstacles.
The pandemic highlights the pre-existing failures of city housing policies. If you are looking for strategies to address the underlying crisis, check out the time-tested policies proposed in Generation Priced Out. The new preface includes lessons I learned since writing the book and highlights even more activists working hard to promote affordability.