Mass Rent Strikes Demonstrate That Housing Has Always Been a Racial Justice Issue [Op-Ed] - ACRE Institute

We need a national reckoning, and that includes local, state, and federal cancellation of rent and mortgages.​​​​​​​


Another month of rent is due—yet nothing has changed to support those who, thanks to COVID-19, have no income to pay it. May 1 is only the beginning of an inevitable trend of folks losing their homes. 

While there is money from stimulus bills finally beginning to be dispersed, it’s just super-charging our nation’s racial wealth gap and funneling money into White-owned businesses, leaving millions of Black and Brown folks to fend for ourselves. That’s why housing justice organizers across the country have announced a rent strike, and are calling on state and federal governments to pass immediate rent and mortgage cancellations. 

New research from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business shows that the first version of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), to no one’s surprise, didn’t go where the need was greatest. The loans, they wrote, “were disproportionately allocated to areas least affected by the crisis.” 

Guess who disproportionately lives in the hardest-hit areas and are getting COVID-19 at disproportionate rates? Yes, that would be Black and Brown folks. 

There is a second round of stimulus funding for individuals on the way, but it’s being distributed via the same methodology that didn’t work the first time. And one-time stimulus payments, primarily doled out so far to people with the resources to have active bank accounts, are barely even a bandaid on a bone-deep wound.

Some states have passed temporary eviction moratoriums, and the first stimulus bill included that protection for tenants living in federally owned housing. But housing in the United States is largely a privatized commodity with very little oversight. Even when people are covered under these eviction pauses, how are they supposed to pay back rent or mortgage bills in the months to come without steady wages? That’s just a recipe for accumulating debt and an untenable way forward. 

We need a national reckoning, and that includes local, state, and federal cancellation of rent and mortgages to ensure that the people left out of the stimulus aren’t also kicked out of their homes. 

Further, housing was already unaffordable for tens of millions of low wage essential workers—from grocery clerks to delivery drivers to hospital custodians—before COVID-19 hit. Now, those workers are risking their lives to keep their homes, while spiking unemployment—a third of workers in the United States are projected to lose their jobs as a result of the novel coronavirus—will leave millions simply unable to pay their rent and mortgages. The nation was already in a housing crisis, and now it’s clear that only bold structural solutions like treating housing as crucial infrastructure will start to fix it. 

The urgency of the moment is why housing justice organizers across the country are calling on state and federal governments to pass immediate rent and mortgage cancellations. The Action Center on Race and the Economy has developed and launched a national hub connecting housing justice groups to people in crisis through a new campaign called “We Strike Together.” The site compiles signatures into an online heat map to show, in real-time, where people are struggling to stay in their homes. 

The website also features organizing tools for tenants who need further resources to organize rent strikes in their communities. This concrete evidence of nationwide struggle shows that we need solutions that will actually help people who need it most. 

Housing is and has always been a racial justice issue, and the COVID-19 pandemic is throwing that into an even sharper light. More than half of the country’s 568,000 homeless population are Black despite the fact that Black people only make up 13 percent of the total U.S. population. And Black homeownership rates are at a 50-year low thanks to the continuation of predatory Wall Street lending practices, redlining and housing discrimination. The ongoing pandemic is making those numbers more dire daily, and our elected officials must act now to protect our communities. 

The only way to safeguard Black and Brown people is to cancel rent and mortgage payments now until there is a comprehensive plan in place to change America’s dismal housing situation. We are all supposed to stay home, but that’s not possible in a society structured to make it impossible to keep a roof over our heads. 

At the end of the day, the most urgent solution to the COVID-19 crisis—in terms of public health and safety, as well as the economy as a whole —is canceling rent and mortgage payments for those who can’t pay. We’re looking to our elected officials to make it happen. 

Maurice BP-Weeks is the Co-Executive Director of Action Center on Race and the Economy. He works with community organizations and labor unions on campaigns to go on offense against Wall Street to beat back their destruction of communities of color. 

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