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California Rent Forgiveness Shows It’s Possible to Shift Our National Priorities

Government — local, state and federal — can actually help us if we invest in people’s lives instead of wars.

Renters and housing advocates attend a protest to cancel rent and avoid evictions in front of a court house on August 21, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people have found themselves out of work, clinging to credit cards or a savings account, making use of the local food bank, and worrying about making the rent each month as the cash dried up.

The relief packages passed by Congress were a lifeline for many, from the checks to the extended unemployment benefits and, perhaps most importantly, the eviction protections for those who simply couldn’t make rent because there was no work. The peril was ever-present, even with that help; if that firewall fell and landlords were allowed to evict for unpaid rent, the avalanche of immediate homelessness could have quite possibly been a country-killing event. Untold thousands put out on the street in the middle of a lethal pandemic? Unspeakable.

Every time the nation has come to the expiration deadline for the last set of eviction protections, landlord coalitions pushed to have them end and renter’s groups pleaded to have them extended. To this point, they have been extended each time, but protecting people from the collapse of the economy has become another conservative plaything; a number of Republican governors have moved to slash unemployment benefits under the long-running racist, classist lie that relief money makes people not want to work. How soon until they try to apply that argument to rent?

On Monday, however, the state of California, responding to sustained pressure from organizers and activists, showed the country a whole new way to go:

Gov. Gavin Newsom says California will pay off all the past-due rent that accumulated in the nation’s most populated state because of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, a promise to make landlords whole while giving renters a clean slate…. California has $5.2 billion to pay off people’s rent, money from multiple aid packages approved by Congress. That appears to be more than enough to cover all of the unpaid rent in the state, according to Jason Elliott, senior counselor to Newsom on housing and homelessness.

While employment among middle- and high-wage jobs has exceeded pre-pandemic levels, employment rates for people earning less than $27,000 a year are down more than 38% since January 2020, according to Opportunity Insights, an economic tracker based at Harvard University. “The stock market may be fine, we may be technically reopened, but people in low-wage jobs — which are disproportionately people of color — are not back yet,” said Madeline Howard, senior attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

How deeply embedded into the national psyche is the capitalist ethos? If an announcement like this came under the headline, “Spaceship From Planet XQ41 Appears Above Sacramento, Pays All Rent, Departs Through Hole in Sky,” my level of surprise would have been pretty much the same. How long was I asleep last night? What country is this?

Bless my heart, it’s the United States of America, where government — local, state and federal — can actually help people if we choose to make doing so a priority. The federal government did so with the relief bills, states like California took their own necessary steps like this, and local governments along with activists labored mightily to keep as many people afloat as possible. Cries of “socialism” were muted for much of the pandemic, because even a Republican knows a boat with no bottom is going to sink no matter what Ronald Reagan or Grover Norquist have to say about it.

To be sure, California’s historically robust economy is one of the main reasons why this action was possible. “The most trusted measure of economic strength says California is the world-beater among democracies,” reports Bloomberg News. “The state’s gross domestic product increased 21 percent during the past five years, dwarfing No. 2 New York (14 percent) and No. 3 Texas (12 percent), according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The gains added $530 billion to the Golden State, 30 percent more than the increase for New York and Texas combined and equivalent to the entire economy of Sweden. Among the five largest economies, California outperforms the U.S., Japan and Germany with a growth rate exceeded only by China.”

Again, we return to the idea of priorities. President Bill Clinton amassed a huge budget surplus at the end of his second term, but it was all but gone by April 2001 because the Bush administration gave it away to its rich friends in the form of tax breaks. The rest of us — many of us, anyway — got $300 and a suddenly fragile national economy that was almost immediately knocked reeling by September 11. The rest of those funds, along with trillions more, were squandered on two failed wars that stole the economic future from a generation of Americans.

In 2001 and 2002, Congress passed Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to lay the groundwork for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The economic damage done by the money wasted on these bloody endeavors is almost impossible to quantify, but real enough to make California’s statewide rent amnesty seem a laughable fantasy, until it happened.

Last week, almost 20 years after its inception, the repeal of the 2002 AUMF regarding Iraq was passed by the House. Its ultimate demise will be voted on by the Senate on June 22. The far more muscular 2001 AUMF remains intact, but there is a groundswell of support for ending it, as well. Congress has to deal with its little brother first, and then we shall see.

Among many other shabby things, the combined 39 years given to those two authorizations were the sign and signal of our national priorities. The money spent on those wars left us uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19, as all the social and medical infrastructure needed to combat it was revealed to be cash-starved and withered to the point of collapse. Only when we embraced some “socialist” policy priorities were we able to pull back from the brink. Note well: Rep. Barbara Lee was right.

Newsom could have argle-bargled about “job creators” and pulled a Bush, using his state’s budget surplus as an ATM for the wealthy and corporations. Instead, thanks to pressure from progressives, he paid the rent and delivered billions in tax relief to small businesses affected by the pandemic. The fact that this is remarkable tells us all we need to know about how far gone our priorities have become, but more importantly, it tells us what we can accomplish if we choose to change them.

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