By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
In one Golden Hill house, all eight of the residents have suffered loss of income since stay-at-home orders began. Five have lost their jobs entirely while another three have had their hours severely cut. They were unable to make April rent and do not know how they will pay for rent in May. The difficulties they are facing spurred two of the housemates to participate in a caravan calling for rent cancellation.
“I feel like we shouldn’t have to choose between paying rent with our unemployment check and buying food or necessities,” explained Veronica Marquez. “It’s impacted all of us personally.”
The protest on Saturday, April 25 brought together between 25-40 cars to drive through Downtown San Diego with signs calling for rent cancellation. It was part of a national day of action organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). Other groups in San Diego such as the San Diego Tenants Union have also called for a rent strike but were not a part of the caravan. Landlord groups including the Southern California Rental Housing Association have publicly opposed the rent strike, saying it would harm rental property workers and affect the housing supply.
Unlike other weekend protests against the orders meant to mitigate the damage of the pandemic, these protesters supported safety measures but want additional action to make it financially possible for people to stay home. They also tried to maintain social distancing by keeping households in separate cars and only having two designated people with PPE tape signs to all the cars.
“Rent takes up probably a third to a half of everybody’s income for one of the most essential things that we need to survive — a house, especially now during a public health crisis. It wasn’t hard to see that once people started being laid off, this became the central struggle,” said spokesperson Juliana Musheyev.
Rent cancellation means for a set amount of time, tenants would be rent free and not accrue debt. At no point would they need to pay back the missed months of payments, unlike under the eviction moratorium. This policy would, at least in proposals supported by PSL San Diego, also include mortgage cancellation so homeowners and small landlords would also have relief.
Currently, the only coronavirus-related rent protections in the City of San Diego are an eviction moratorium and suspension of late fees. Housing advocates are worried this will eventually lead to an eviction backlog amid San Diego’s already-present housing crisis once the moratorium is lifted, a worry echoed by Marquez.
“To expect us to pay several months’ worth of rent, when this is all over is sort of unacceptable. We’re not going to be able to come up with that kind of money,” Marquez said.
Other countries have already taken radical action during this unprecedented crisis. Italy forbade banks from accepting mortgages and Canada has instituted a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Many countries also have healthcare for all, whereas sickened Americans face potential hospital bills. The protest called for the government to go further in helping people survive the economic fallout of coronavirus.
“We want you to know that in the wealthiest country in the world, we know that this is possible. What we’re demanding, although it seems radical and unprecedented, we know that it’s possible because things that have happened in the last few weeks — we never thought they could happen,” Musheyev said.
Last week, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced a bill that would cancel rent and mortgage payments for a year with a relief fund for landlords. With the bill unlikely to be approved in the Senate or by President Trump, local organizers are calling on Governor Gavin Newsom to institute the policy in California.
“They’ve been forced to provide us with nominal protections like the moratorium on evictions. We are here today to express that this is not enough to protect people in unstable housing situations. More action is urgently needed,” said Anzy, a protest organizer, in a rousing speech to attendees before the caravan left. She chose to keep her last name off the record for fear of doxxing.
Nearly a third of Americans, 31%, did not pay rent between April 1 and April 5, according to data from the National Multifamily Housing Council. Since then, unemployment has only increased. With May here and another rent payment due, tenants stand to fall further behind.
More caravan protests are planned from other organizations on Friday, May 1.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.