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As April 1 Nears and Coronavirus Crisis Continues, Demand to #CancelRent Swells

"It's unreasonable to expect thousands and thousands of people who lost their incomes to pay rent and mortgages on April 1st."

Grafitti that reads RENTFREEZE NOW! during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on March 22, 2020 in New York City.

Grafitti that reads RENTFREEZE NOW! during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on March 22, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)

With the coronavirus pandemic causing an economic crisis for households across the nation—and April 1 rent payments due in just three days—the call for a temporarily cancellation of rent has surged.

"I can't just pull $1,000 out of a magic hat," Angelica Rico, who was furloughed from her job in Southern California last week, told NPR. "So I am extremely worried about not being able to pay rent."

Rico is far from alone in such fears. The economic fallout of the ongoing pandemic is growing, with the nation experiencing an unprecedented number of unemployment claims.

And renters shouldn't count on landlords' goodwill to weather the storm.

Take for example Bowman Property Management, which manages properties in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Charlotte Observer obtained a copy of a letter the compnay sent to tenants noting the possible "hardship during this season in the form of medical or financial" tenants may have experienced. But, the letter said, "we want to remind you that the terms of the lease are in effect in good times and bad, and our expectation is that rent will be paid on time, with no questions asked." Renters can also expect to face late fees and possible eviction as consequences, the letter added.

Lawmakers passed a corporate-friendly economic stimulus package last week to help mitigate hte economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, but renters could stil be in dire straits. As Forbes reported Friday,

Renters have some eviction protection, but only if they live in a multifamily building or single family home that has a federally backed mortgage. Landlords cannot evict tenants of these buildings or charge any late fees, penalties or other charges for late rent payments.

Fair housing advocates say lawmakers have left renters shortchanged. From NPR:

Many cities say they're halting evictions if renters can't pay. But that's about it, says Laurie Goodman, co-director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

"There have been very, very little actions taken for renters," Goodman says. "And in fact, the renter population is far more vulnerable than the homeowner population because, on average, they're just much, much less affluent, and have much less in savings."

The oversight hasn't been lost on some lawmakers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that while state and local efforts to suspend evictions, like California's are welcome—the current crisis necessitates a rent moratorium. 

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden on Friday signaled support for three-month moratorium on rent.  "There should be a rent freeze. No one should be evicted during this period," he said at a CNN town hall

Biden's rival in the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), stressed the need for a rent freeze as well. Sanders wrote in a Saturday tweet that such a step was crucial "especially in states hardest-hit by the coronavirus like New York."

Sanders pointed to the call from New York state Sen. Mike Gianaris. (D) for a 90-day suspension on rent for people and small businesses economically hit by coronavirus cris. "Suspending rents is a critically important step to help New Yorkers survive this unprecedentedly difficult time," Gianaris said in a statement earlier this month.

Gianaris reiterated his call in a Twitter thread last Thursday.

In the absence of that kind of financial aid, landlords could be looking at the possibility of a widespread rent strike—an action major restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory already suggested it had a right to take.

Joshua Collins, who's running for Washington’s 10th Congressional District, talked to Teen Vogue about his push for a national rent strike. The need for the action, he said in the interview published Thursday, is clear.

Because people have very little money right now. People have their hours cut, or have been laid off entirely. And if you collect unemployment — if you're even able to get on unemployment — it's only a small portion of what you made before. People were already living paycheck to paycheck.

And that on top of that, if someone is doing some sort of payment plan for rent, I don't want someone to come out of this with an insurmountable amount of debt they can never pay off, right? If the student loan crisis has taught us anything, it's that even if it's only like $5,000 to $10,000, it might take a lifetime to pay off.

Some renters in Chicago are gearing up for such a strike. As the Chicago Tribune reported Saturday:

As of Friday night, an online petition had gathered more than 12,300 signatures calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to issue an indefinite freeze on rent, mortgages and utility payments across the city of Chicago. It also asks the Cook County Circuit Court to ban new filings for eviction or foreclosure.

Crafted by the Autonomous Tenants Union, the petition says the freeze should be in place "not for just 30 days, but indefinitely, for at least as long as a risk to public health remains." The call is backed by local officials including  by state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D).

"The moratorium we're calling for, yes, it is an extraordinary policy intervention," Guzzardi told the Tribune. "But this is an extraordinary moment."

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