Despite mass business shuttering and layoffs, skyrocketing unemployment claims and orders to stay inside, the rent is still due for Washingtonians as the coronavirus outbreak and response spreads.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on evictions statewide, but for many advocates, it doesn’t go far enough. They’re worried that when the moratorium is lifted, landlords will move to push people out, and that many will end up homeless.
“We’re definitely having conversations about what to do,” said Amy Tower with the Tenants Union of Washington State.
There have been no binding requirements for landlords to enter into a payment plan with tenants if renters are unable to pay. Further, there has been no orders from the state suspending mortgage payments for homeowners or small landlords.
Tower said housing activists have been discussing how to proceed, and what policies to push for. There are a number of ideas, including freezing rent to prevent increases, suspending rent payments or pushing for more rental assistance from Olympia.
It’s something activists across the state are thinking about, including Megan Capes, with the Tacoma branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, who said the eviction moratorium isn’t sufficient to protect people.
“It’s not enough, especially when a lot of us working people are going to be put into rent debt,” Capes said. “That is a huge, huge concern.”
The DSA is advocating for rent, mortgage and utilities payment suspension. It would essentially stop these payments until the outbreak passes. In the long-term, Capes said the state should enact just-cause eviction law and lift the ban on rent control. But for now, the goals are more immediate.
“If these measures aren’t taken, I’m very concerned about the impact on working people and especially working families that are already trying to make ends meet,” Capes said.
Unemployment claims doubled last week statewide, numbers that haven’t been seen since the peak of the 2008-2009 Recession. Nonprofits are bracing for a groundswell of assistance requests, and economists are predicting another deep recession stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.
The Economic Policy Institute estimated the outbreak could cost 3 million jobs nationwide by summer, some 400,000 more than were lost during the entire year of 2008. Nationally, Moody’s Analytics reported some 80 million jobs are at some level of risk.
For Seattle’s City Council member Kshama Sawant, the city’s moratorium on residential and small business evictions was a win for grassroots organizers.
“There’s never been a more important time for workers to organize than right now,” she said.
But she’s calling for even further relief, including a ban on evictions stemming from the coronavirus outbreak that could last up to 24 months, and mandating payment plans be implemented between landlords and tenants. There’s also a call for a ban on foreclosures to help protect renters, homeowners and small family landlords.
To help make workers who have been impacted by the shutdowns, Sawant is pushing for a $500 million a year tax on big businesses.
More extreme measures could be on their way. Sawant said there have been calls from around the state for a rent strike.
Tower said local governments have historically been wary of leveraging their power fully to address issues like the homelessness or housing affordability crises. This outbreak could change that.
“Whether or not we like it, I think it is shaking up the conception of ‘Is housing a human right? Is shelter a necessity? Should everyone be guaranteed a home and a roof over their head?’” she said. “…There’s going to have to be a pretty massive shift of how the government conceives of how we’re using land, and what it means for the community.”