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Fighting to keep a roof over your head in a time of economic chaos

Nearly 30,000 people in Thurston county applied for unemployment after businesses closed in response to the stay-home-stay-safe order. Thousands more were simply out of work and out of luck.

At first, rents were paid, here as in much of the rest of the country. Actions at the federal and state levels helped. Out-of-work people could use one-time stimulus checks, unemployment checks with a $600 bump; credit card draws, maybe some savings. Others didn’t get anything because programs were designed to exclude various kinds of work and various kinds of workers. They hang on by virtue of Governor Inslee’s moratorium on evictions. It is scheduled to end on June 4.

Can’t pay the rent

Government checks and the moratorium on evictions will end, but massive unemployment will not. The interventions only delayed the  need to reckon with the consequences of the pandemic. Many businesses won’t come back; whole industries will downsize or even disappear. Demand will decline and send ripples through the economy. People hit hard by closures during the shut-down will find themselves among the long-term unemployed. Without stable incomes, spending on consumption, on rent, on mortgages and everything else is in jeopardy.

COVID-19 produced conditions that were met with emergency measures to keep people in their homes. But the crisis in housing was only an extreme version of an existing problem. In Olympia, a majority of households rent, paying on average about $1200 a month. A job paying $15.00 an hour (above the Washington minimum of $13.50) nets less than $2400 a month. This is not a sustainable situation. Thurston Regional Planning calculates that 37% of households in the county are already “rent-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30% and up to half of their income on rent.

Won’t pay the rent

As we move into the summer and emergency measures fade, what will forestall widespread evictions in the months ahead? Will we meet the “new normal” with new approaches to housing—or is everyone on their own?

Starbucks, noting the post-emergency “new reality” told landlords that they would not pay: “Effective June 1 and for at least a period of 12 consecutive months, Starbucks will require concessions to support modified operations and adjustments to lease terms and base rent structures.”

Unlike Starbucks, tenants are fundamentally powerless when their economic situation changes for the worse. When they can’t come up with rent, a landlord, or the officer of a management company, might consider some kind of rent adjustment. It’s equally likely that they will pursue eviction. Even when tenants pay the rent, they are powerless when the landlord decides to raise the rent mid-lease, or to non-renew a lease in order to offer the property at a higher rate.

A recent editorial in The Olympian criticized Councilmember Renata Rollins for supporting an emerging rent strike movement. The editors offered “practical steps” for us instead. Things like contributing money for emergency housing; supporting subsidies for low income and density zoning—a favored scheme to boost investment in housing.

Market-oriented “replacements” like rental assistance and vouchers have failed spectacularly in recent years, with long waiting lists and no guarantee of stable rates.

The editors also said we should ask political candidates “what they will do to reform our housing market.” What have they done so far? Modest attempts to change the law in tenants’ favor don’t stand a chance. Olympia City Council members were asked to support an ordinance that would allow renters to pay hefty “move-in” fees in installments. That disappeared without a trace.

This year, legislators introduced several bills favorable to tenants. They would have capped annual rent increases at inflation plus 5%; let tenants leave with no penalty when the landlord increases rent during a lease; limited evictions to “just cause;” required a landlord accept an emergency rent payment within 14 days. Typically, these were opposed by the real estate lobby. They all died.

Laws that ensure landlords will be paid do pass. For example, in 2018 our legislature passed the Landlord Mitigation Program in which the landlord agrees to stay an eviction in exchange for funds from the state equal to the amount owed by the tenant—if the tenant signs an agreement to repay the money to the state.

Rent isn’t the main problem

The call for a national strike seeking rent and mortgage forgiveness is gaining ground because things are not going to get better without new arrangements that acknowledge the failure of the current system to serve most people well.

In order to change things, those whose stability is most threatened, who see the prospect of homelessness bearing down on them, are looking for a way to improve their bargaining power. Calling their representative and giving testimony to the City Council isn’t working. Renters hope that a movement to withhold monthly payments can put economic pressure on landlords and on state and federal officials to begin working on real changes. Changes that could be the first step toward a housing policy designed around homes as places to live rather than investments.

A rent strike is not, finally, about cancelling rent. It’s about taking this crisis as an opportunity to rewrite the rules; to open up a new world of social housing where a stable home is within reach of everyone. The pandemic revealed the many ways our system is broken, and the market that treats housing first as an investment and last as a home is one of them.

Bethany Weidner has been Editor of Works in Progress since 2017.

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