While many billionaires have only gotten richer during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of renters, in California and throughout the country, are facing an economic disaster that may impact their lives for years to come. And perhaps decades, if federal and state elected officials don’t pass significant financial relief for renters.
“I’m living on a song and a prayer,” says Maria Sulprizio, a tenant in Los Angeles who’s racked up thousands in back rent. “How can I pay that back?”
Going into 2020, California’s 17 million renters had been increasingly slammed by the state’s ongoing housing affordability crisis. In 2019, according to Zillow, Los Angeles renters paid a staggering $39.1 billion to landlords. In San Francisco, renters handed over $16.4 billion, and San Diego renters shelled out $10.3 billion. Nearly 54 percent of California tenants are rent burdened.
Then the pandemic arrived, and renters like Maria Sulprizio saw their lives turned even more upside down.
Sulprizio worked as a chef at an L.A. restaurant. She was laid off in March of last year due to COVID-19 business closures. She received unemployment benefits, but that didn’t cover essential living expenses and the high cost of her apartment. A single woman, Sulprizio had to dip into her savings.
“Now that’s gone,” she explains.
Sulprizio paid a percentage of rent every month and desperately tried to stay out of debt, even selling her jewelry at one point. Now her back rent is piling up, and she owes thousands to her landlord. That figure will only rise in the coming months if federal and state governments don’t help.
“I just don’t see a way out,” she says.
Sulprizio is among millions of renters who have similar stories. According to Economic Roundtable, a research non-profit based in Los Angeles, middle- and working-class tenants in Los Angeles and across the nation are facing a devastating scenario.
“COVID-driven loss of jobs and employment income will cause the number of homeless workers to increase each year through 2023,” a new Economic Roundtable study found. “Without large-scale, government employment programs, the Pandemic Recession is projected to cause twice as much homelessness as the 2008 Great Recession.”
The research non-profit noted that employees of restaurants, retail stores, bars, personal services, social services, and education have been hardest hit by unemployment triggered by the pandemic. Now they face a perilous future, which includes an eviction tsunami that will fuel massive homelessness.
“Over the next four years,” Economic Roundtable reported, “the current Pandemic Recession is projected to cause chronic homelessness to increase 49 percent in the United States, 69 percent in California, and 86 percent in Los Angeles County.”
Black and Latino residents have especially struggled to pay rent and home mortgages during the pandemic, Harvard researchers found.
“While hardships caused by COVID-19 have affected almost all Americans,” the researchers wrote, “these impacts are felt unequally. Black and Hispanic households have been much more likely not only to contract COVID-19, but also to suffer from lost income and face housing insecurity as a result of the pandemic.”
A recent study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley concluded that renters need robust help. Without it, the nation as a whole will suffer.
“The recovery from the pandemic crisis is poised to be one of the more uneven in the country’s history,” the Terner Center noted, “fueling increased inequality and exacerbating preexisting wealth and racial disparities in housing. Ultimately, averting an eviction and foreclosure crisis in 2021—and the negative implications such a crisis will have on households, neighborhoods, and the U.S. economy—will require a bolder, multi-faceted approach led by the federal government.”
In California, Housing Is A Human Right, the housing advocacy division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is urging state legislators to extend the eviction moratorium well into 2021 and to use the state’s windfall to provide $5 billion in renter relief, which also helps small landlords.
“In the wake of COVID-19, millions of people are out of work and hundreds of thousands will lose housing without a $5-billion renters and small landlords survival package,” Susie Shannon, policy director for Housing Is A Human Right, said recently. “We call upon the governor and California State Legislature to do everything in their power to deliver the $5 billion needed to keep people housed.”
In addition, a coalition of human rights groups that includes The Shift, the Justice Initiative, and the Centre for Housing Law, Rights and Policy have laid out “Model Emergency Housing Legislation” for policymakers in the United States and around the globe. It emphasizes protection from eviction, rent freezes, financial support for housing providers, and emergency housing for the homeless, among other recommendations.
“Actions taken by states to ensure access to housing during the COVID-19 pandemic have been patchwork—these measures often protect some groups, but exclude others, and are legally mandated in some instances, but rely on voluntary agreements in others,” said Marguerite Angelari, a senior legal officer with the Justice Initiative, in a statement.
She added, “That’s why governments must take a comprehensive legislative approach to protecting the right to housing until the public health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19 is over.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, in fact, is an opportunity for policymakers to finally address housing affordability and homelessness crises that have raged in the United States and around the world for years. In the U.S., for example, tenants paid landlords an astounding $4.5 trillion in rent between 2010 and 2019, according to Zillow. People need help — and protection against predatory corporate landlords and greed-driven housing policies.
Speaking for many renters, Maria Sulprizio says, “We are left to our own devices. It’s stressful. We need to be taken care of.”