Pandemic Populism

While there are hopeful signs that the U.S. economy can reopen and people can go back to work, this transitional phase is no utopia.

Almost 20 percent of the nation’s workforce has been applying for unemployment benefits since mid-March. Many are still laid off; stimulus money lags and others have suffered irrecoverable loss of income.

That means, among other things, that for millions of people it will be harder than ever to pay the rent. With approximately 43 million rental households in the U.S., the potential pain is staggering.

Enter Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In her latest act of radical, progressive populism, she’s been advocating a solution that will appeal to some poor and desperate people caught in a dilemma not of their own making: Rent strikes.

In a recent meeting of a tenants’ organization, she called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to cancel rent and mortgage payments at the state level and expressed support for those who do not pay rent because of the coronavirus crisis.

“When it comes to these rent strikes…people aren’t striking because they don’t feel like paying rent, they’re striking because they can’t,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “It doesn’t matter how many threatening messages a landlord sends … you can’t coerce people to do something they cannot do.”

AOC, as she is called, also urged support for her Minnesota colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar’s bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments. The bill would offer& total forgiveness& on these obligations starting April 1 until 30 days after the end of the federal state of emergency.

The measure would also create a landlord and lender relief fund to make up for the lost rent and mortgages.

That sounds fair; the tenants and landlords are both bailed out. Except that “total forgiveness” doesn’t extend to the landlords. Their relief comes with a condition: they must agree to freeze rents for five years, along with other conditions.

And in AOC’s message, the emphasis is on withholding rent, not on compensating property owners. She’s for rent strikes, not rental adjustments.

New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris (Dem.) made the priorities clear in speaking about his bill for rent forgiveness and financial relief for landlords:

“First and foremost we need to protect renters and tenants that are [in] desperate straits right now, and from that point forward, landlords who rely on that rent to pay their bills should be next up the ladder.”

How far that social distancing will go was not clear, but it suggests that landlords will have an up-ladder route to receive compensation. “No landlord left behind” might work about as well as “no child left behind.”

With all the legal conditions and caveats, the message that comes across when the term “rent strike” is used is unmistakable — an outright refusal to pay. There are even more radical voices advocating that tenants should withhold rent even if they have the means to pay (though apparently AOC doesn’t go that far, at least not yet).

But the tenant is bound by a contract. Even if the government were to sanction a rent strike, it would be immoral to deprive landlords of rents that are legally due them, or to coerce them into making concessions that unfairly penalize them. Not paying one’s rent is no different than hiring workers or taking groceries from a store without paying.

It is the height of irresponsibility for an elected official like Ocasio-Cortez to encourage people to break the law and not pay what they are morally obligated to pay, no matter what the rationale. What’s more, the landlord is also caught in the crisis, and must meet such obligations as mortgage payments and maintenance workers’ payrolls.

None of this means that tenants are without recourse. There are much better alternatives.

The federal government is already sending out checks to both employers and workers who are suffering financial damage in the pandemic. That alone is not enough, but it certainly helps.

Besides outright grants and loans such as the PPP program, the government could consider the expansion of already existing Section 8 vouchers, which are aimed at assisting the poor in securing decent housing.

Legislation that compensates landlords for any rent freeze or forgiveness must be full and fair, and not relegated to a begrudging afterthought.

Between tenants and landlords, voluntary agreements can be reached to ease the pressure; but only if it is really voluntary.

Elected officials should also be responsive to pleas for help from their constituents in these difficult times.

There are various ways to help people in a bind. Breaking the law should not be one of them, even if your elected representative says it’s okay.