In the wake of the housing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, housing justice advocacy organizations and tenants are calling on California leaders to freeze rent, put a moratorium on all evictions, and allow unhoused people to move into empty units.
“Rent and mortgage payments must be frozen as long as people are unable to work because of COVID-19, and any rent and mortgage debt accumulated during this time must be forgiven,” reads an open letter that Alliance of Californians for Community (ACCE) addressed to California’s leaders.
A poll conducted by NPR and PBS taken on March 13 and 14 showed that 25% of people making 50,000$ or less in the United States had already lost their job or had their hours cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the percentage of lower-income people who’ve lost work is likely much higher in California and over a week later, where Governor Gavin Newsom put a statewide “shelter in place” order in place.
Since a state mandate has prevented so many people from working, advocacy groups and tenants claim renters can’t earn money to pay rent. The state mandate requires residents to “stay home or at their place of residence” except for essential jobs, shopping for essential items, and outdoor exercise. Advocacy groups say that unsheltered communities present a public health risk during the pandemic, but some have suggested that empty housing units, empty publicly owned buildings, and hotel units could be used to house the unsheltered.
“For the sake of humanity — everyone who wants to be brought indoors needs to be brought in immediately. All publicly owned property and vacant units — including luxury units — need to be opened up to currently homeless people,” reads ACCE’s letter.
On March 20, a coalition called Housing Now! sent a similar open letter to Newsom making almost the same demands as ACCE’s letter, though the letter stopped short of advocating for housing people in currently empty units. Around 150 California organizations signed the letter including Causa Justa / Just Cause, East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, and California YIMBY.
Around 25 California elected officials signed the letter including Berkley’s Mayor, Jesse Arreguin, and Oakland City Council member Nikki Fortunato Bas and City Council President Rebecca Kaplan.
While housing justice advocacy groups have called on leaders to change policy, groups of residents are confronting power directly by moving into vacant housing units and/or preparing to refuse to pay rent through rent strikes.
On March 14, an unhoused man and two families moved into a vacant home in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles. On March 18, a group of unhoused and housing insecure residents who call themselves “Reclaim Our Homes,” moved into 11 more homes in the same area. CalTrans owns all 12 homes and planned to destroy them to extend the 710 Freeway, but the agency has left them empty even after their plans fell through in 2018.
On March 16, Station 40, a multi-racial working class collective who’ve rented their home in San Francisco for 17 years announced they are going on a rent strike.
“Now more than ever, we refuse debt and we refuse to be exploited. We will not shoulder this burden for the capitalists,” the collective wrote in an open letter, addressing their rent strike.
Bay Area Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC), a group of Bay Area tenants who organize into tenant unions that then make demands on landlords has released a statement called “Rent Suspension Now!,” which also calls for a rent freeze. The statement acknowledges that though Alameda County Sheriff’s office has committed to currently not enforcing evictions, there must be a guarantee that evictions related to current lost wages not occur in the future.
“During the crisis, rent must be completely forgiven; there should be no expectation to pay it now, or ‘back pay’ it in the future. Nobody should profit from this crisis,” TANC’s statement reads.
TANC is currently accepting members. Tenants who want help unionizing can join TANC at baytanc.com/signup/.