The reality of this unfurling rental crisis is not lost on politicians. Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has put forward a bill that would cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis; the congressional rescue bill suspended evictions for federally backed rentals, though some building owners are not following the law; a number of cities and states have also imposed eviction moratoriums. And thousands of private businesses—landlords, real-estate investors, banks, housing trusts—are working out provisions to cut or delay tenants’ and mortgage-holders’ bills.
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Canceling rent, radical though it sounds, would help low-income families keep their head above water, stabilize the housing market, and reduce the depth of the recession. But in some ways, even that radical-sounding demand is too small. This is not just a sudden housing crisis. This is a sudden housing crisis that has collided with a slow-boiling, structural housing crisis. Even before the viral recession hit, high housing costs were leading to homelessness, long commute times, food insecurity, and diminished household savings. The rents were too high. They are too high. And now the government must do something about it.
Just a few months ago, the American economy was arguably as good as it had been since the 1990s or even the 1960s. The unemployment rate was at a historic low. Growth was good, if not great. Wages were rising across the board. Even so, an affordability crisis was gripping tens of millions of low-income, middle-income, and even high-income families: The cities fueling America’s innovation and growth had severe housing shortages, caused in part by decades of underbuilding and overly restrictive zoning policies. That led to soaring home prices, benefiting wealthy homeowners but shutting millions of younger Americans out of the housing market and driving up rents.
As of 2018, 44 percent of renters in New York paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent; 22 percent paid more than 50 percent. But the problem extended far beyond superstar cities on the coasts. Suburbs, rural areas, cities in the Midwest and the South—they all had their own affordability crises, driven by a combination of wage stagnation and increasing housing costs. Across the country, a larger share of low-to-middle-income families were rent-burdened in 2018 than in 2011, with 21 million households spending 30 percent or more of their earnings on rent and utilities.
Even during the good times, two in five Americans and three in five renters could not have come up with $400 in an emergency, Federal Reserve data show. How can such families pay their landlords in the lightning-strike cataclysm of the pandemic? “The rents have increased so much with gentrification,” Lena Melendez, a rent striker based in Washington Heights, in New York City, told me. “Just one month’s rent can be too much, because the market rate is unsustainable. Even with unemployment, the $600, and the stimulus checks, it won’t be enough,” she added, referring to federal relief measures.