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Renters are calling on state and federal lawmakers to freeze rent requirements for tenants as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the past week, several state governors have negotiated with major banks to impose 90-day grace periods for mortgage holders and dozens have committed to not evicting tenants while under a stay-at-home order.

But fewer measures have been put in place to protect renters, despite some calls for action from liberal political leaders.

Tenants Together, a housing nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, and other advocacy groups are calling on California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to attach a rent freeze to the mortgage grace period he negotiated with major banks.

They have also criticized the eviction memorandum he approved last Friday, noting that it only bars sheriff’s departments from enforcing evictions, but doesn’t require landlords to accept late rent or negotiate a payment program after the orders are lifted.  

Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, noted that mortgage holders were told to stop paying mortgages as they refinanced during the 2008 financial crisis. Some did this but were still able to collect rent from tenants in properties.

“People would ask: if they’re not paying their mortgage, then why am I paying rent?” Arreola said. “We’re really concerned about history repeating itself in that way … Pausing mortgages is important, but those benefits should be extended to the tenants living in those properties.”

According to the Urban Institute, renters are less likely than mortgage owners to have a “rainy day fund” and made significantly less income annually. The think tank also noted that temporary eviction relief “even if widely available, is inadequate because the renter still owes the money and cannot make up lost wages.”

Arreola said the same deals made to mortgage holders should be extended to renters.

“We want any kind of deals that are made to mortgage holders — be it a memorandum or grace period — that those same benefits be extended to renters,” Arreola said. “To expect people to be able to pay their rent right after the emergency orders are lifted is unrealistic, and it’s setting people up to be evicted.”

In New York, the state with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., state lawmakers are working on a bill that would suspend rent payments for citizens and businesses who became unemployed as a result of the pandemic. New York Senate Majority Leader Sen. Michael Gianaris (D), introduced S8125A last week and the bill is currently in committee as the Statehouse navigates remote legislating. 

On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), called for a rent freeze in the city, saying the crisis is “only comparable to the Great Depression.”

Both Democratic president candidates — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden — have called for rent freezes amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I would make it a rent freeze for at least the next three months. Freeze it and forgive it,” Biden said during a CNN town hall last Wednesday. Sanders threw his support behind the New York Senate bill, adding we “must build on the important work @sengianaris and others are doing to make this happen.”

Rental assistance has won comparably little attention in Washington to other issues.

The $2 trillion coronavirus relief measure signed into law last week includes $7 billion for affordable housing and homelessness assistance programs, and $10 billion for airlines grouded as a result of the virus.

The Labor Department released data on Thursday showing that initial jobless claims rose to 3.28 million the week of March 15-22, an elevenfold increase over the previous week, and nearly five times the highest level on record.

Cea Weaver, spokesperson for tenant coalition Housing Justice for All, a housing advocacy group based in New York, said the roughly $400 million in housing aid going to the state does little to alleviate the financial burden on New York tenants in a city that was already fighting a steep battle with homelessness. 

“We’re facing apocalyptic levels of homelessness and evictions if they don’t take action,” she said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill de Blasio Gavin Newsom Joe Biden

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