Rent strikes are bad for everyone
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With April rent due for tens of millions of households across the U.S., the prospect of a national #rentstrike has been trending in news coverage and on social media. Especially as the Department of Labor reports 10 million workers filed for first time unemployment benefits in the last two weeks, many households find themselves experiencing unexpected financial hardship, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to cover their rent payment.

Supporting households that may not be able to pay for groceries, let alone their rent, should be a top priority for lawmakers and policymakers. We need to ensure stable housing for all as a national health priority and moral imperative. Emergency rental assistance will help renters and ensure apartment owners have the resources needed to maintain the health and safety of their properties.

A collective movement to voluntarily skip rent payments, however, is something entirely separate from providing targeted assistance to those who need it and, more importantly, could jeopardize the stability of a housing market left seriously shaken by COVID-19.

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Apartment owners depend on rent to keep buildings safe and clean

With the National Rental Home Council estimating the cost of offsetting missed rent payments resulting from COVID-19 to be as much as $10 billion each month, a national rent strike could unnecessarily strain an already burdened housing system.

Rent payments are the main source of revenue for property owners, particularly for small and mid-sized ones, who are responsible for paying a property’s monthly mortgage payment and paying essential staff and services that are more important than ever in the midst of this unprecedented public health crisis.

From more frequent cleanings of high-traffic common areas to disposable resources to keep the property sanitary, such as gloves or hand sanitizer, and staff to manage day-to-day building operations and emergencies; many property owners are seeing their expenses increase daily. The resources provided by these expenses are essential to keeping tenants and their neighbors safe.

Renters who have not experienced hardship should continue to pay rent

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With eviction moratoriums now imposed at the local, state and federal level, some renters that have not experienced medical or financial hardship and remain able to pay their rent appear to be considering skipping their rent payments. The choice to electively skip rent payments could create devastating consequences for those renters with the necessary financial means available.

While it may help conserve cash in the short-term, it could jeopardize a renter’s long-term financial stability and housing. These renters will not qualify for rental assistance provided by Congress and as soon as eviction moratoriums are inevitably lifted will face the insurmountable burden of months of unpaid rent, and find themselves without a home. Participating in a rent strike is like drinking poison and expecting your landlord to die.

Support for renters affected by COVID-19 is urgently needed

Millions of households find themselves in legitimate need of assistance as a result of COVID-19. Renters that have lost their job or are unable to work because of illness and cannot pay their rent – either because they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits or because their benefits are too low – will eventually qualify for relief to cover their rental obligations.

In addition to congressionally-provided rental assistance, property owners have a central role to play in supporting tenants that – as with many aspects of COVID-19 preparedness and response – centers around clear communication. It’s incumbent on property owners to proactively reach out on a regular basis throughout the crisis; they should not wait to engage their tenants until rent is missed or an emergency occurs. Property owners should act as a resource, providing guidance on what steps tenants experiencing hardship should take and regularly connecting on property safety measures. A proactive and transparent approach to communications will also help renters feel comfortable to reach out to their property owners when issues arise.

A call to action

A far cry from divisive rent strikes, this crisis demands that everyone – renters, property owners, lawmakers and policymakers alike – work together towards the collective good and safety of all.

Ideally, Congress and regulators will act quickly to make rental assistance available to all renters who need it in the form of a certificate that can be easily used as cash by property owners. Although assistance programs will need to address issues such as renters falsely claiming hardship, support cannot come soon enough. Until then, however, multifamily property owners must assume their position at the frontlines of the fight to keep millions of Americans safe and healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak.

David Dworkin is president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, the oldest housing advocacy coalition in the United States. Founded in 1931, NHC is an alliance of housing leaders including builders, realtors, investors, housing advocates and developers, both for-profit and nonprofit.