Rent Cancellation: Social Protection in Uncertain Times

50167834446_19f4a27852_oKrystle Okafor–

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, interlocking structural inequities in health, employment, and racial justice have buffeted vulnerable populations. The looming “eviction apocalypse” sits at the nexus of these three ills. Black and Latinx people have the highest COVID infection, death, and unemployment rates nationwide. Mass evictions would only worsen this situation, preventing these households from sheltering in place and deepening the adversity they face.

As the latest federal stimulus package lingers in the Senate and the re-openings of states’ economies stall, activists have called for rent cancellation—the wholesale suspension of rent payments during the pandemic. It is neither a farfetched nor overblown proposition. Movements have made rent cancellation a central goal. Combined with precedential rent control cases, governments have the political and legal wherewithal to cancel rent. Further, social protection systems, institutional arrangements to insure against lifecycle and work-related contingencies, often evolve during times of crisis. If rent cancellation takes the form of a supply-side, landlord-facing debt relief program and is gusseted with tenants’ rights provisions, it could seize the moment, pass constitutional muster, and as I argue here, confer the necessary degree of social protection. Two arguments bear this out.

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