From The Daily: The need for statewide rent and mortgage relief measures

Sunday, April 12, 2020 - 12:07pm

The economic fallout created by COVID-19 is already enormous. With an expected long recession to follow once relative normalcy resumes, many renters either already have or will lose their source of income. As a result, calls for rent strikes and collective action to pressure landlords into waiving rent fees are spreading. Though the current era of economic despair brought by social isolation is unprecedented, tenants should consider the consequences of rent strikes — and shy away from them. Instead, renters should urge their governors and representatives to show more transparency in their decision-making processes behind rent forgiveness, freezes and eviction suspension executive orders. 

The COVID-19 crisis has caused a drastic increase in unemployment as businesses close their doors. As such, many University of Michigan students have lost campus or non-essential jobs. Moreover, many others will not receive any funds from government stimulus because they have been claimed as dependents by others elsewhere. In addition, students living off-campus were strongly urged by the University to return home, meaning rented properties are now largely unoccupied. In this time of uncertainty, tenants and landlords alike are under immense financial stress. To mitigate these hardships, there must be a governmental incentive to allow for these missed rent payments. The city of Ann Arbor along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer must freeze rent and mortgage payments until after stay-at-home orders have dissipated. In this case, tenants will have the ability to regain a source of income and, in turn, the ability to pay off the rent. 

Michigan’s current eviction suspension order lasts until April 17. This date is rapidly approaching, and unless Whitmer signs an extension to the order, landlords will be able to resume eviction processes for non-paying tenants. However, based on current projections, the COVID-19 crisis will most likely last far beyond April. As such, stay-at-home orders may continue into the summer months, meaning tenants with non-essential jobs may be without income for the foreseeable future. Such tenants may see the organization of a rent strike as appealing, though this movement could ultimately be more damaging than helpful due to the usually hostile relationship between tenants and landlords. Rent strikes are extremely difficult to coordinate, especially during a pandemic when in-person organizing efforts and face-to-face meetings are out of the question. With stay-at-home orders mandated and social distancing efforts, even if tenants managed to organize a rent-strike, the legal action many tenants may face after the COVID-19 pandemic could be financially devastating. 

Leigh Higgins, an attorney at the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, urges tenants to try to arrive at a compromise with their landlords, whether that be payment plans, late payments or the temporary waiving of eviction notices. This stems from the fact that even though landlords cannot legally charge late fees for rent or other payments while their geographical region is under a state of emergency, once the courts open back up, landlords could retroactively take legal action in the form of evictions or mediation of their lost compensation. Additionally, if tenants must withhold their payments due to the current state of emergency that the pandemic has implemented and the landlord ultimately decides to evict in a few months, this eviction record could be incredibly detrimental to the individual for years to come. 

An eviction record can sabotage an individual’s ability to secure housing or financial aid for years unless the respective record is sealed. This is because landlords can easily search for a potential tenant’s name, as eviction records are publicly accessible. Higgins adds that many landlords simply make their decision based on the presence of an eviction record alone, not taking the time to dig deeper to see if the case was dismissed or not. Unfortunately, this signifies to landlords, many times without any form of further investigation, that the prospective tenant isn’t trustworthy, reliable or a good option to inhabit their property. Further, advocates for legislation to seal these records argue that judges may not be sympathetic after the pandemic when the goal of the tenants was for landlords to cancel rent instead of the traditional fight to improve living conditions. For these reasons, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board believes that the best course of action for Ann Arbor residents is to reach out to the landlords and express their concerns while also contacting Whitmer and other representatives in hopes of a transparent plan of action and timeline regarding rent and mortgage payments for the state. 

Drastic times call for drastic measures and exceptions. Unfortunately, landlords are not going to forgive rent payments without city or state-wide measures. This leaves it up to the tenants to either attempt to organize a building or property-wide strike or to reach a sense of compromise with the landlord for payment plans, payment reductions or optimistic cancellations in this dire time of need. Many tenants, especially those of lower socioeconomic status or individuals who already lived paycheck-to-paycheck, may not have the privileges to work from home or to be, in any sense, comfortable without normal income. Therefore, for many renters, the ability to pay rent is contingent on their ability to work and accordingly, the end of stay-at-home orders, which is predicated on the resolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This is a very complex issue, as is everything impacted by this crisis. In order to make progress in the right direction, local and state government officials must step up to make sure both tenants and landlords have collaborative and legal tools in place to recover from this emergency.