There’s no way around it: Sheltering in place is the only way to slow the spread of COVID-19. But social distancing demands a rare suite of opportunities and resources. Right now, millions of Californians living paycheck to paycheck, without the ability to work remotely, face impossible choices: stay home and risk losing everything, or make an income and risk spreading the virus? Pay for housing, or pay for food? When we finally “return to normal” and temporary relief efforts lift, responsible Californians stand to lose the very homes in which they sheltered. Unless we take action, the oncoming tsunami of evictions and foreclosures will eclipse even the darkest days of the Great Recession.
The solution is clear: we must cancel rent and mortgage payments in California. Here’s how we get that done.
First, we must acknowledge that fewer than one in three Americans can make an income working from home, and disparities break along racial and socioeconomic lines. Just under 20% of Black people and a mere 16% of Latinos have the privilege of working from home. For those without a college degree, that number is just 4%. While Unemployment Insurance claims have spiked to a record-high, surpassing the peak of California’s unemployment during the Great Recession, millions more have lost income with little or no recourse. Many will lose their jobs permanently.
Second, we must be clear that current policy in California provides no meaningful protection in the long-term. There is a temporary forbearance on mortgage payments for some — but not all — property owners. Those who cannot pay now must pay later. For renters, Governor Gavin Newsom’s “eviction moratorium” merely delays the inevitable. Anyone who can’t make rent during the shelter-in-place order will remain liable for back-rent, or face eviction after protections are lifted. Different counties across the state provide different grace periods before tenants will be subject to eviction. Mapping the legal patchwork the Governor has left to his 18 million renting constituents is disorienting, especially considering many lack the resources to secure legal representation.
Third, the current federal stimulus package won’t meet the needs of Californians. For Bay Area residents, a one-time payment of $1,200 will barely cover rent for a single bedroom.
Here’s what Newsom and the California Legislature need to do: Immediately issue an emergency declaration cancelling rent and mortgage payments for tenants and homeowners who have been hit by COVID-19 and/or its economic impacts for as long as the state of emergency is in place. And, if mortgage relief cannot be renegotiated with lenders, allow small landlords to deduct lost rent from their mortgage payments. This can be done using a simple, equitable formula: Total suspended rent payments, divided by total payments typically owed through the suspension period, multiplied by mortgage payments through the suspension period.
Under this formula, a landlord with a $5,000/month mortgage will have $15,000 of their mortgage forgiven over a three month suspension period if their tenants can’t pay any amount of rent. A landlord with the same mortgage and rent rate will be forgiven $7,500 over the same period if their tenants can only pay 50% of the rent.
While the California State Legislature has been out of session since March 16th, New York lawmakers remain hard at work virtually debating a bill to cancel rent and the above formula for mortgages. Here in San Francisco — where the Board of Supervisors has canceled its recess to continue legislating — Supervisors Matt Haney and Hillary Ronen recently held a joint press conference with other local elected officials from major cities to call for a federal and statewide rent and mortgage moratorium.
Even a month ago, the scope of this project might have sounded impossible, but the challenges of a global pandemic have unleashed our imaginations, and inspired dramatic solutions. Millions of Californians have retreated into their homes indefinitely. All but essential businesses have shuttered. Once bustling streets sit desolate. This time last year, the enormity of our action would have been unimaginable — the stuff of science fiction — but extraordinary threats demand extraordinary solutions. Now is the time to be bold.
Bending the curve is a collective project of unprecedented scale and urgency. San Francisco and California have led the nation in our public health response by taking early, ambitious action. Now we must again emerge as national leaders in our response to the coming eviction and foreclosure crisis. After years of local factionalism over housing, this common-sense policy should unite everyone. We need to keep people in their homes today, and ensure they don’t lose them tomorrow. Cancel rent and mortgages now.