Our bills are due on May 1 — where is Congress?

Our bills are due on May 1 — where is Congress?
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"I spent all of our money on food. [...]That’s all that I could do. For a family of five with no income, we didn't have enough for anything else." 

Carly Eaves of Santa Fe, Calif., was describing the choice she had to make between paying her utility bills or feeding her family after she lost her job due to COVID-19. With the phone lines at her electric utility, Express Energy, clogged, Eaves couldn’t even apply for the deferred payments plan on her electricity bills, so the company cut her power. 

Many more are facing losing their home entirely. Lowell Hickman, a tenant association vice president in Washington, D.C. who recently lost his job, said that residents in his building “are now coming to me more and more and asking ‘What do we do? Are they going to do a rent freeze? What happens when this is over? Are we going to pay back rent?’” 

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The tenants’ questions deserve serious answers from the political system. Even in cities like Washington, which have an eviction and utility shutoff moratorium in place, people face a mounting burden of debt related to the economic shutdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents in at least 20 states benefit from some form of utility payment abeyance; and many of those lift on May 1. 

On that day, it will be business as usual for the utility companies but not for their customers, more than 26 million of whom have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15. At a time when households more than ever need secure housing, water to wash their hands, electricity for their kitchens and bedrooms and internet to stay connected to loved ones, millions are in jeopardy of losing all of that — with potentially deadly consequences.

This threat looms because Congress failed to respond to this massive housing and utility crisis in its most recent round of stimulus funding in late April. Up to now, much of the financial relief from the federal government has been funneled through employers instead of directly to residents to meet their material costs. Even the direct aid, such as stimulus checks issued through the Internal Revenue Service or a boost to unemployment benefits, is delayed weeks or months for people who don’t have bank accounts or can’t get through swamped or deliberately hobbled unemployment agencies. As a result, millions of workers either missed out or were left out.

The next round of stimulus relief must include clear protections for households recuperating from the economic damage of this pandemic, including a nationwide moratorium on rent and mortgage payments and an end to utility shutoffs, including for the undocumented. 

Across the United States communities have been calling for action. In early April a car caravan circled the downtown plaza in Minneapolis demanding rent cancellations. Organizers are readying for potential rent and utility strikes. Tenant and housing justice organizations have called for a nationwide cancellation of rents and mortgages.

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Some policymakers have listened. Minnesota Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid MORE (D) on April 17 introduced an emergency rent and mortgage cancellation law that meets tenant demands. When over 800 groups called for a moratorium on utility shutoffs and late fees, and reconnections for those already disconnected, 110 Congressional leaders joined the call to action, urging their fellow federal lawmakers to include a utility shutoff moratorium in the next aid legislation.

The patchwork of moratorium policies instituted by cities and states is not enough. We need comprehensive action at the national level. 

What does that look like? In addition to a national moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs, it also means zeroing out rent and mortgage payments and canceling utility debt. It means using vacant properties to provide permanent homes for unhoused people and reconnecting those who have already been disconnected from critical utilities like water and broadband. 

These would address short-term, acute needs. The road to repairing the economy must also tackle the underlying chronic problems with our housing and basic service systems. There was a housing affordability crisis in this country well before the pandemic. We need a Homes Guarantee program that would build millions of units of social housing accessible to anyone.

Similarly, critical utilities are not only unaffordable but also deeply underinvested, and in some cases, polluting our communities. We need a Green Stimulus that puts people to work rebuilding our basic services in a way that addresses our other large, impending crisis of climate change.

Today, we need policies that will ensure that people can stay in their existing homes and keep their essential services as the current health and economic crisis continues. Tomorrow, we must rebuild America to serve the working class, not the billionaire class.

Johanna Bozuwa and Peter Gowan are researchers at The Democracy Collaborative, with Bozuwa specializing in energy and climate and Gowan focusing on housing and labor policy.