Should you have to pay rent during a pandemic?

Should you have to pay rent during a pandemic?

Michigan activists are pressing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to cancel rent and other housing payments as the state’s eviction moratorium is set to expire. 

Photo: Rent Strike 2020 activists deliver petitions with 230,000 signatures to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office, calling on her to cancel rent payments. Courtesy of the Solomon Rajput’s Congressional campaign in the 12th District.

It’s a straightforward problem: As more people in Michigan become unemployed due to the novel coronavirus and its effect on the economy, more people will be unable to pay rent. That’s a growing concern for housing activists as a statewide moratorium on evictions is set to expire at the end of the week. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order on March 20 to enact the moratorium, then extended it another month in April. Though it blocks landlords from evicting tenants — even as some have tried — it doesn’t give renters a break on rent, or protection from evictions in the near future if they don’t pay while the moratorium is in effect.

Groups across the state this week have pressed officials for continued, and stronger, relief from housing costs. Detroit Eviction Defense, a housing justice group, organized a car caravan protest in the city Wednesday to call for an extension of the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, as well as cancellation of all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis. 

“Massive amounts of people are losing their jobs and income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, at a rate and speed not seen since the Great Depression,” the group said in a statement. “This is leading to thousands of people not being able to pay their rent and mortgage payments.”

Around the same time, NextGen Michigan, the local chapter of a national progressive advocacy group founded by former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, organized a “Cancel Rent” call-in to Michigan state officials with similar demands as the caravan protest, in addition to calling for a moratorium on utility shutoffs.

“Someone who has the capital to invest in a second property has more resources than a renter and is a lot more equipped to navigate a complicated financial process with a bank than a renter is,” Eden Zimak, an organizer with NextGen Michigan, told WDET.

And they’re not the only ones in Michigan asking for the cancellation of rent, mortgages and utility payments. On Tuesday, the group Rent Strike 2020 — a coalition that includes Michigan Youth Climate Strike, the University of Michigan chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America and others — made those demands, delivering petitions with 230,000 signatures to Whitmer’s office. 

Over 1 million residents in the state are currently unemployed, and lapsed housing payments are on the rise. A recent national survey from Apartment List found that 31% of respondents missed all or part of their housing payments in May — up from 24% in April. 

Without an extension of the eviction moratorium past its May 15 expiration date, housing advocates worry a spate of eviction filings will follow. Detour reached out to Whitmer to ask about the potential for extending the moratorium and did not receive a response.

A policy brief released in May by the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions pointed out that housing instability was already a widespread problem for families in Detroit before the crisis, with children under 18 at the greatest risk of losing their homes (based on 2017 data). The brief recommends short-term policy interventions including extending eviction moratoriums, establishing grace periods for back-rent payment, waiving late fees and increasing financial assistance for renters.

COVID-19 has also forced landlords to confront a difficult set of questions. Should they evict tenants for nonpayment? Forgive unpaid back rent? Work out deals for reduced rent? It’s unclear how many landlords would choose to begin eviction proceedings, which can take months, at a time when it will be a challenge to find replacement renters. 

But under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress, homeowners with a federally backed mortgage can get forbearance if they’ve faced financial hardship. The law provides an avenue for those property owners to pause or reduce mortgage payments through July 25. Renters in properties with federally backed mortgages and some other housing situations supported by federal funding are also temporarily protected from eviction during this period, and landlords can’t charge them late fees

Jon Zemke, who owns 12 rental properties in Detroit, is strongly against a rent cancellation. “Mortgages are only part of the overall cost of running a rental,” he wrote by email. “Landlords need to pay property taxes, insurance, utilities, contractors, maintenance, etc. I need to provide a safe, quality home for my tenants. That’s non-negotiable. I have a moral obligation to make sure my rental property is as much of an asset in its neighborhood as the owner-occupied house next door.”

Zemke also said that a rent strike would hit him and other small-scale landlords the hardest. “The whole house of cards falls apart if landlords like us can’t collect rent.” He added that he will “absolutely not” evict anyone for non-payment during the pandemic.

But whether or not other landlords will be lenient to struggling tenants or whether the government will intervene is what many will be wondering as another month’s rent payment date approaches.

Find more stories about how Detroiters are navigating the COVID-19 epidemic here.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.