Feeding your four children or paying your landlord. If you don’t have enough money for both, what would you choose? For the Rodriguez family in south Minneapolis this isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s a dire reality. Despite the flippant and misinformed reactions of policymakers on display in last week’s article in MinnPost, forgoing rent isn’t a “hashtag” or a “stupid decision” or a political statement; it’s personal survival.
Even before the current crisis, the Rodriguez family, like so many others, was working hard but barely making ends meet. At the end of 2019, Mr. Rodriguez, the owner of a painting company, wasn’t paid for a two-month job, pushing the family past the financial brink. Just as they were starting to catch up financially, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and, essentially overnight, all of Mr. Rodriguez’s jobs for the foreseeable future were canceled. When April 1 arrived, the family was faced with an impossible situation so many others — both renters and homeowners — are facing again this week: There was simply not enough money to pay the rent and buy daily necessities, like food for their four children.
No other choice
The Rodriguez family didn’t decide to forgo their rent. They simply had no other choice. And they didn’t take that choice lightly. They wrote a letter to their landlord, explaining their situation but, instead of patience and empathy, the management company responded with threatening emails and paternalistic demands that the Rodriguez family turn over a stimulus check that they haven’t received. Now, adding to the fear of getting sick, the stress of schooling at home and the daily anxiety around when and how Mr. Rodriguez will be able to work again, the family is panicked at the prospect of homelessness. And that fear is pervasive. “The kids don’t understand what’s happened,” Mrs. Rodriguez says.
What’s happened with the COVID-19 pandemic requires a response that transcends political gamesmanship. The unbearable circumstances thousands of families now face across the state has revealed the so-called constraints of a broken and inequitable housing and economic system for what they are: intentional decisions from policymakers about who and what is prioritized. In this moment, those intentional decisions will quite literally decide who survives this epidemic — physically and financially.
Now is a pivotal and telling moment.
Rents and mortgages are due for millions of Minnesotans, and, from painters in Minneapolis to meat plant workers in Worthington, the most marginalized communities are bearing the untenable burden of frontline exposure to a deadly disease and economic devastation from the loss of jobs and income. Elected officials at the state Capitol have the power and agency to do more than wring their hands at the depth of the challenge and point fingers at activists for somehow complicating their self-important political antics. They can and must put people like the Rodriguez family at the center of their response by making sure that, for the duration of this crisis, rents and mortgages for those unable to pay will be forgiven.
Temporary safeguard will be effectively erased
We have already seen bold action from our state leaders. Thanks to Gov. Tim Walz, a moratorium on evictions has kept countless families in their homes these past two months. But that minimal and temporary safeguard will be effectively erased when the order expires and hundreds of thousands of people who have lost income will face months of back-rent — that they simply cannot pay. As those workers and families fight to regain their financial footing, they will bear the burden of an eviction record that dramatically restricts their rental options and not nearly enough in the bank to pay a new security deposit. Without rent forgiveness or cancellation there will be no chance at recovery for those hit hardest by the pandemic.
What we are proposing isn’t a fringe notion. Local city council members have written to state leaders in support of rent and mortgage forgiveness, and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar has introduced federal legislation that would would cancel rent and mortgage payments during the COVID-19 pandemic and establish a fund to finance the purchase of private rental properties by not-for-profits, public housing authorities, community land trusts and state and local governments.
State leaders have called on activists to trust that the urgent needs of tenants will be met by a hypothetical rental assistance package. Even before COVID-19, nearly 600,000 households across the state were paying more than they could afford for housing, and the need for Emergency Rental Assistance across Minnesota is projected to grow to nearly $700 million by December 2020. The resources our federal, state and local governments have dedicated to housing have never been nearly enough, and current proposals at the Minnesota Legislature for $30 million or even $100 million for rental assistance are absurd in the context of the actual need. Even layered with local resources — like Minneapolis’ Emergency Gap Financing, which is only able to meet the need of 20% of qualified applicants — rental assistance is simply not a viable or realistic solution for the present moment, let alone the months ahead as the pandemic continues to ravage the economic stability of our communities.
The question before Walz and Minnesota lawmakers is whether they want to intensify the cost of this crisis for poor and working-class people — to ask the Rodriguez family to endure relentless pressure from their landlord while agonizing over how they’ll feed their children — or put forward a rent and mortgage cancellation policy that protects all Minnesotans. Paltry rental assistance and half measures will lead to a deepening housing crisis and leave us all more vulnerable to the economic recession ahead. Safe, secure and dignified housing is an inalienable human right. If we don’t address this crisis at the scale that is required, we will not be One Minnesota, but rather, one divided by our collective failure to address basic human needs.
Jennifer Arnold is the executive director of Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters for Justice). Nelima Sitati Munene is the executive director of African Career, Education and Resource Inc. (ACER).
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