Paying rent during this crisis holds jobs and keeps communities safe

Paying rent during this crisis holds jobs and keeps communities safe
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We’re all gripped by the latest news about the devastating effects of COVID-19. As dangerous as the coronavirus is for those who are directly impacted, all Americans will feel the economic impacts of effectively shutting down cities across the nation to try to contain its spread. Federal, state and local government officials have told people to stay home. Yet, while this is going on, some are threatening a rent strike that would imperil the safety and stability of many communities if it materializes.  

Mass layoffs understandably have created fear for millions of Americans who aren’t sure how they will pay the rent, buy food and access health care. Fortunately, the Trump administration and Congress recognized the need to provide financial relief to millions of Americans whose income has been disrupted by COVID-19.  

The disaster relief package recently signed into law includes expanded and enhanced unemployment insurance coverage so that most workers, including freelancers, are eligible for roughly 100 percent of their pre-crisis salaries. Just as important are additional efforts to have unemployment benefits available to people who remain employed but have had their hours curtailed. These groups usually are not able to access this safety net.

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On the surface, these measures will provide people and businesses a pause to steady themselves, stay in their homes and remain afloat during this national emergency. They were designed to allow the economy to function as normally as possible during the crisis. But what happens if financially-impacted renters opt not to use the substitute income they’re provided to pay their rent — especially if they mistakenly think that eviction moratoriums suggest they don’t have to? 

Worse, what happens if individuals whose income has not been affected stop sending rent checks? Beyond the personal ramifications for renters on credit reports if they do not pay what’s owed, the ability of property owners to continue to adequately house the 43 million Americans who rent a home could be put at risk. 

The vast majority of rental housing providers are small businesses that rely on rent payments to cover their financial obligations — their own mortgages, utilities, taxes and payroll. The dominoes that could fall would be devastating. About 17.5 million people directly and indirectly employed by property owners and management companies stand to lose their jobs if rents stop flowing. Property owners also would lose their ability to sustain essential safety and maintenance services that renters need. 

Then consider the health care workers who deserve to have clean, safe homes to return to when their courageous work on the pandemic’s front lines is done. The same applies to the brave first responders, those working at pharmacies and in grocery stores, and many others who are keeping us safe and our shelves stocked with food and necessities.

Rental property owners understand the unique nature of this crisis. They know that it will take time for federal financial relief to make its way to struggling households, and they are ready to work with anyone affected by COVID-19. They may freeze rent increases, waive late fees and work out payment plans to help renters weather the storm. 

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Renters can stop a potential housing catastrophe by committing to do their part — pay their rent — especially those who are fortunate enough to maintain employment. We can keep millions of people working and communities across the country operating safely just by paying rent. It seems simple, but it is critically important to be good neighbors in these trying times.

Americans have a unique ability to rally in the face of hardship. There is something profoundly patriotic about simple actions of accountability in hard times. We all need to dig deep, work together and support each other to overcome this crisis. 

Doug Bibby is president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, an organization of more than 1,500 member firms involved in the multifamily housing industry.