You can’t make rent disappear

This is Shutdown Corners, a newsletter about how coronavirus is reshaping urbanism

The announcement sounded to good to be true. The federal government, though the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control, via an executive order that tweaked the power to protect against disease, announced a new federal eviction moratorium yesterday.

It was especially shocking to me since I’d just written a feature about the eviction crisis for Gen Magazine. Tenants across the country, many of whom who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus and currently have dwindling prospects to get them back, have faced the strain of covering rent and the possibility of getting kicked out of their homes during a pandemic. Some estimate up to 40 million American might face evictions during this crisis. A federal eviction moratorium, or any action at the federal level since stimulus talks collapsed, is something advocates have been talking about for months.

Then, of course, I looked at the details, and read the responses from housing advocates:

  • National Low-Income Housing Coalition: “A uniform, national moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent is long overdue and badly needed. As we have said for five months, the very least the federal government ought to do is assure each of us that we won’t lose our homes in the middle of a global pandemic: the administration’s action would do so and will provide relief from the growing threat of eviction for millions of anxious families. But while an eviction moratorium is an essential step, it is a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed. This action delays but does not prevent evictions. ”

  • The National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord organization:An eviction moratorium will ultimately harm the very people it aims to help by making it impossible for housing providers, particularly small owners, to meet their financial obligations and continue to provide shelter to their residents.”

  • National Housing Conference: “The order does a good job of explaining in great detail why we must address this growing crisis. Unfortunately, it does nothing to solve it. It merely kicks the problem down the road to January, when the weather will be colder and more people will be experiencing even greater crisis. There is broad agreement across the housing industry that the only real solution to this crisis is federal rental assistance.”

Let’s be clear: it’s good news that people won’t get evicted for a few months. It’s especially cruel to lose your home, and that goes double during the holiday season. And it’s very true that housing and health are intimately connected, and should be recognized as such.

In short, this is a classical example of kicking things down the line (I imagine the Dec. 31, 2020 expiration date isn’t a coincidence). There’s no rent relief mentioned in conjunction with the moratorium, suggesting that renters, after four more months of doing what they can to pay bills and keep a roof over their head, will just have four more months of back rent to pay (a study from July found U.S. renters already faced $21.5 billion in back rent). Landlords will have four more months of trying to pay the mortgage without any support (and they will without a doubt sue, claiming this order is broad overreach). There’s a reason the HEROES Act, passed by house Democrats in May, contained $100 billion in rent relief: rent doesn’t disappear, nor does the landlord’s responsibility to pay the mortgage.

This, of course, follows the president’s earlier executive order around evictions, a bold declaration that amounted to basically nothing: the National Housing Law Project examined the legality of such a move and concluded he could have ordered HUD Secretary Ben Carson to enact a moratorium for federally backed mortgages. But he did not.

This is the kind of financial “leadership” exhibited by someone who has added trillions to the national debt and personally declared bankruptcy multiple times. This is the housing “leadership” exhibited by someone who hasn’t substantially addressed the lack of affordable housing, who makes blatant appeal to residential segregation, and whose signature legislative accomplishment, a tax cut, reduced the effectiveness of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a bedrock of affordable housing finance.

A self-proclaimed real estate mogul should, at the very least, understand how rent works. Much like you can’t wave away a crisis in racial justice and policing by repeating LAW AND ORDER in all caps, you can’t solve a long-standing affordable housing crisis accelerated by a pandemic by simply declaring rent is temporarily canceled. If you’re truly concerned about the issue, act when Congress is in session and use your bully pulpit to bring attention to it (Trump only mentioned eviction or evictions on Twitter twice, while talking about his toothless August executive order).

I want to reiterate that a moratorium is a good first step that does help, but only goes halfway; a combination of rent relief, rent forgiveness, and landlord support, according to many advocates, is what’s really needed right now. Someone who understood the pressures cities are facing would be demanding that Congress act on those ideas right now, and would be using this order as a cudgel to demand that lawmakers make laws. Right now, I’m not hearing or reading anything of the sort.

Reading list

  • I like to think of Jeff Andrews, Curbed’s excellent data journalist and my former coworker, as, among many other things, the crotchety, hype-destroying critic real estate writing needs. His epic takedown on the “cities are dying genre” is so satisfying.

  • I can’t stop thinking about cell phones in trees after reading this story about Amazon delivery drivers hanging smartphones from branches to help game the system and get assigned orders. Any politician who gives public money or tax breaks to Amazon from now on should have every tree in his or her yard covered in old phones.

  • Just starting to read the Capturing the Police package by the Verge and already love it.

  • I was very happy to write about restaurant rent and lease negotiations for Eater in August, a story which may have one of my favorite quotes (from one of my own stories) of all time: “My gut tells me that the real estate market in New York is shark-infested waters, and the landlords who grew up and do business in these shark-infested waters have to be sharks themselves. You can’t reason with a shark. ‘Maybe you shouldn’t eat that seal, there aren’t many of them.’ No, they’re going to eat the seal.”

Thanks for checking out Shutdown Corners, a newsletter written by me, Patrick Sisson, a freelance writer in Los Angeles covering the trends, tech, and policy shaping our cities. Please consider referring to a friend, and if you were sent this, please subscribe yourself. Send any tips, feedback, suggestions, or questions to patsisson@gmail.com.