Saturday evening, Solomon Rajput, who is challenging Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., for Michigan’s 12th congressional seat, hosted a virtual town hall to discuss affordable housing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rajput advocated for the Rent Strike 2020 movement, which calls for the government to halt rent payments amid the novel coronavirus. The petition for Rent Strike 2020 has nearly 2 million signatures. Local advocates joined Rajput to discuss this petition, other issues facing the community and what residents can do to help those in need. 

Rajput opened the town hall by addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of affordable housing. 

“Times are changing and we have a whole new generation of leaders and we’re not going to be beholding the corporate interest any longer,” Rajput said. “We’re going to go out there and fight unapologetically for what needs to be done. I am excited to see what the future will bring and how much more equitable our country will become when people have access to housing.”

Resident Zachary Storey, an advocate for the homeless, spoke at the virtual town hall about his own experience with homelessness and how it fits into the 2020 Rent Strike movement. 

“I’ve seen a lot of local politicians say that they support essential workers, but they don’t on housing policy,” Storey said. “People who are working right now come into more contact with the possibility of getting the virus…we need to check our values and say that people of all income levels are important and needed in our city. I experienced homelessness briefly from mid-November to early January this past winter. I probably was the most privileged houseless person in that time and I saw a lot of the vast need in the community that I didn't know about.” 

Amber Fellows, former chair of the Ypsilanti Human Relations Commission, spoke about the importance of organizing to create social change. 

“Talking about these issues is the only way we are going to be able to organize towards the goals we want to see,” Fellows said. “It wasn't really until my own housing instability experiences that I was radicalized and compelled to talk about what was going on for me and what was going on for all my friends.” 

Resident Jessica Prozinski said she has been working to create rent freezes and assist tenants with McKinley Management systems in Michigan and across the country in the Traver Crossing Tenants Association.

“What really changes things is when we organize,” Prozinski said. “There’s real power in mass action and organizing — you can get things done.” 

Rackham student Tucker Burgin is also involved with the Traver Crossing Tenants Association and emphasized the importance of housing security at the town hall. 

“As someone who was radicalized not by my own housing insecurity, (but) instead by the horror show that is our national political stage right now. We’re all stuck at home,”  Burgin said. “Often there's not much to do other than look at your Twitter feed … I wanted to look for something I can do (that was) actually actionable.”  

Fellows discussed the barriers lower-income people face when finding housing in Ann Arbor, such as background and credit checks as well as references from previous landlords. 

“I’m starting to see that (housing) is completely inaccessible for lower working-class people in (Ann Arbor) not only because of their income restraints, but because of all the different checks and barriers there are to getting through the application process,” Fellows said.

Burgin added that the pandemic has created a need for an increased response to these issues.  

“One thing that's been made glaringly obvious through the pandemic is that housing security is directly tied to income security,” Burgin said. “The primary motivating factor behind the Rent Strike 2020 movement is that there are a record-smashing, huge number of people who are facing unemployment now and there has not been a response at the national level or in Michigan to stem that bleeding.”

Fellows emphasized the importance of investing in people, regardless of income level. 

“If we are orienting ourselves toward human need and potential, we need to invest in services,” Fellows said. “We need to (be) investing in housing for people of all income levels, we need to have robust support of basic needs, and that would be a radical change of how our governments are working for us.”

Rajput closed the town hall by highlighting the need to look out for vulnerable communities given the amount of financial resources the United States has.  

“We’re the richest country in the world and we need to start acting like it,” Rajput said. “We’re not a poor country that’s just barely getting by. We’ve got all of this money but we spend it on dumb stuff.  We spend it on tax breaks for corporations. we have a bloated military budget…we’re spending our money in so many ways that are not benefiting people.”

Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu

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