COVID-19 Is Worsening a Housing Crisis That Started Long Before the Virus

Cancel rent.

If you haven’t been thinking those two words yourself, it’s likely that someone you know has contemplated it, or that you’ve seen them scrawled on walls in your city, perhaps on a flyer, posted online — maybe as a meme.

The coronavirus has pulled the rug out from under millions of workers over the last few weeks. An unprecedented 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March 14, but these numbers barely scratch the surface of the overall impact, as many full-time workers aren’t eligible for this benefit, and many have simply had their hours cut.

It’s because of this widespread, sudden loss of income that the call for the elimination of rent and utilities payments, a moratorium on evictions, and a cancelation of mortgages has begun to reverberate through countless vacant city streets and neighborhoods across the country. And despite being ignored by the propertied classes and most political leaders, there are many groups out there that have heard the call.

One of these groups is Right To The City Alliance (RTTC), an alliance of over 80 different organizations across the U.S. that started as a response to gentrification and the displacement of low-income, Black and Brown, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities — especially in historic urban neighborhoods. Right To the City Alliance recently launched the Beyond Recovery campaign, aimed at addressing housing justice not just during this acute crisis, but well into the future.

Truthout spoke with Kamau Walton, the national organizer for communications at RTTC, about the Beyond Recovery campaign and what coronavirus has revealed about the failures of our current economic system.

Robert Raymond: I want to get into the work that Right To The City Alliance is doing around housing justice in response to the coronavirus pandemic in just a bit, but first, I’m wondering if you could give us a more general introduction to the work that RTTC has been doing for the last decade?

Kamau Walton: We work with a focus on racial, economic and environmental justice. One of our first campaigns was the Homes for All campaign, which focused on housing and land. We work with folks who are organized around houselessness and who organize around tenants’ and renters’ rights — so people who are building tenant unions, pushing for rent control and pushing for the tenant opportunity to purchase buildings when they go up for sale. We also work with folks who are building out community land trusts and other alternative forms of housing that take housing off of the speculative market because we don’t think housing should be something that is an opportunity for profit. It’s a human right and everyone should have access to it — the only way we’re going to ensure that is to take it off of the market, because right now it’s used as a tool of capitalism — it’s something that is only accessible to a certain amount of people.

So, we initiated the Homes for All campaign because homes are the headquarters for safety and stability. Not having housing stability or not having a home impacts your ability to show up for your community and at work. It impacts your ability to be politically involved and engaged. We see very clearly that the renter class — renters across this country — are the people hit the hardest and the heaviest by the impacts of capitalism and the ways that society is structured right now. These are the people who are also impacted by a lot of other systems of oppression. So this is one of the most important groups to be engaging with, to be empowering and to be organizing with, in this moment and in the future.

Right To The City Alliance has just launched a new campaign that utilizes trans-local organizing (or building national power by focusing on local communities) to address many of the acute and chronic crises felt by communities across the country in regards to housing. You’re calling for the immediate cancelation of rent, mortgages and utility payments as well as a permanent moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, raids and sweeps.

Yes, the Beyond Recovery campaign was called for and shaped by folks who are on the ground across the country. We have members who are organizing in urban centers and also people who are doing more rural organizing. And in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost immediately as the economy dropped and folks began losing jobs and losing hours at work, there was an immediate call for rent strikes.

Right To The City believes that in order to build power and do work that is accountable to those on the front lines, a trans-local strategy is absolutely necessary. Trans-local organizing connects groups across the country, who have been fighting fiercely to protect their communities even before the coronavirus pandemic, [giving them] an opportunity to share lessons learned, resources and strategies with one another. This also helps to bring local and statewide fights out of isolation and incorporate them into the housing movement ecosystem on the national level.

There is brilliant work happening on the local and statewide level across the country — from the Florida Housing Justice Alliance (which includes RTTC member organizations Miami Workers Center, Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing, Community Justice Project and the Family Action Network Movement) that just won an eviction moratorium and is now pushing to cancel rent; to Reclaiming Our Homes in El Sereno, California, which is putting houseless people into publicly owned homes; to the Detroit People’s Platform working to get folks’ utilities turned on without putting them further into debt.

We’re also in support of all the folks pushing for decarceration and releasing folks who are in jail, prison or immigrant detention right now, because we know all of these things are needed to increase public safety. And right now, with the outbreak, we’re seeing which communities are being prioritized and which are being deprioritized. We need to be thinking and dreaming more widely about the world that we want to see after this, because the world as it has been — the status quo — has already resulted in thousands of people dying. It’s also resulted in even more people being pushed into crisis and not having access to the bare minimum of what they need to survive this moment, let alone to actually thrive and live stable, healthy lives.

It’s also important for us to hold true and strong to the demands that we are putting out there. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of co-optation of language and the bastardization of our demands. So in thinking about the eviction moratorium in Oakland, California, which is actually pretty limited, or in thinking about the ways that folks are talking about housing people who have been on the streets … [it] is still not happening at the [rate] that it needs to happen. I think it’s important that we continue to push not just for things that feel or look good in storylines, not just for things that sound good and make us feel comfortable, but that we’re looking for and seeing concrete, material shifts in the conditions for the people who are being most impacted by the coronavirus.

What would you say the coronavirus has revealed about our current economic system that was perhaps previously obscured or not as obvious to the general public?

One of the most important things that the coronavirus has revealed is who has the power to continue to keep this country running. At the core of it, it’s the working-class, low-income folks who keep the economy going. When they aren’t able to do their work in healthy and safe ways, it destabilizes everything. It really points to which people need to be invested in, protected and centered in the decision-making processes about what’s best for this country.

The crisis also calls into question what we mean by public health and what we mean by public safety when we see the impacts of COVID-19 on people who are forced to be in cages and who are forced into crowded shelter systems — people who have not been prioritized in society. It also shows that the demand of people on the front lines, from Black and Brown people, from workers, from single parents, from folks with disabilities, from queer and trans folks, from youth and from elders, is common sense. Folks have been calling for putting houseless people into homes, and there are enough homes to house the people that are living on the street — we already know that.

We depend far too much on the market to find the solution to things, but we know the market is only finding solutions for the folks who are profiting at the top. We know that if we lean on the market to find the solution, our folks are ending up on the streets, our folks are ending up in cages.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re pushing to envision a future that goes beyond just recovery from this moment, because we know right now with the increases in unemployment and loss of hours and people who couldn’t pay rent yesterday and definitely won’t be able to pay rent [next month], what we need to be striving for is not just to get back to where we were before the coronavirus popped up. This is an opportunity to push, to really ask questions and to also come together with your neighbors, with your family members, with your loved ones and co-workers to identify the things that folks need in this moment and how we can all come together to push for solutions.