Illustration for article titled For Lawmakers, Protecting Black and Brown People from a Recession Hinges on Passing Rent Protection Legislation
Photo: AP Photo (Andrew Harnik)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to pick apart black and brown communities at devastating rates, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters and other lawmakers are fighting fiercely to protect communities of color from one of the most devastating effects of a looming recession: losing their homes.

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As Politico reports, Waters, who chairs the House Financial Service Committee, is lobbying for billions of dollars in direct rental assistance in the next economic relief package Congress passes. Waters’ rescue package would ban evictions and funnel $100 billion in rental assistance to renters living in unsubsidized housing.

“I’ve warned everyone we must include my $100 [billion] plan to protect renters from evictions,” she tweeted last month. “I’m prepared to fight till hell freezes over to get it done!”

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Waters is among a group of lawmakers who have been fiercely advocating for stronger protections for renters in upcoming rescue packages to help them weather the dual storms of the coronavirus and widespread business closures. More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March—nearly 20 percent of the American labor force, CNN reports.

Black and Latinx households, already vulnerable to the coronavirus itself, found themselves disproportionately hit by the massive hemorrhaging of jobs that followed, as states tried to manage the spread of the virus by closing down non-essential businesses. This impacted the kinds of professions—retail and gig jobs—black and Latinx Americans are more likely to work in.

“The labor market is very segregated,” Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit National Employment Law Project, recently told The Root.

Black people are often in the lowest-paid jobs, the dirtiest jobs, the most dangerous jobs in our labor market. And that’s been true across history,” Dixon said. “Their labor is often undervalued and their jobs are more precarious than the jobs of their peers.”

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As businesses downsized, black and Latinx workers were also less likely to be able to telework than white people.

The results of that job segregation showed up in the early unemployment numbers. According to Politico, in March alone—before the height of the pandemic—the unemployment rate was 6.7 percent for black workers and 6.0 percent of Latinx workers. The unemployment rate for white workers was 4.0 percent.

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These rapidly increasing rates of joblessness, combined with housing insecurity and a substantial racial wealth gap, means black and brown Americans can face the kind of economic devastation similar to what they experienced during the 2007 financial crisis.

Politico, citing numbers from the online real estate database Zillow, reports that Black and Latinx households in major metropolitan areas pay a higher share of their monthly income on rent than white households do. Black and Latinx Americans are also less likely to own their homes than white people; according to the Census, less than half of black and Latinx people own the homes they’re living in (44 percent and 49 percent, respectively), compared to white households (74 percent). This is due in part to the 2007 crisis when black and brown people were forced out of their homes at higher rates than white people were.

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Those lower rates of ownership mean many black and brown families are locked out of the financial safety nets available to homeowners, like modifying their loans so missed payments are shuffled to the end of the mortgage.

“White residents are getting a better deal because they’re disproportionately homeowners,” National Fair Housing Alliance President and CEO Lisa Rice told Politico.

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The CARES Act, passed in March, offers a number of protections for homeowners, but relatively little for renters. It banned evictions from federally subsidized apartment buildings, “but that only applies to only one in four rental units,” Politico noted, leaving many low to middle-income tenants who find themselves without jobs or with drastically reduced hours in a lurch. Moreover, evictions protections don’t stop rent from accruing. And missed payments could not only result in eviction but lower credit scores that make it harder for people to find safe, affordable housing in the future, as well as build other kinds of wealth.

This has prompted several lawmakers, including Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), to call for outright rent cancellation for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. As the deadline for May rent approached, rent strikes also cropped up all over the country.

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Over the weekend, Cortez and Pressley pointed to the rent strikes as evidence that stronger protections are needed, touting Rep. Omar’s Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act. The bill would, the New York Times writes, “relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent, transfer mortgages to the federal government and allow landlords to recoup their rent costs—but only if they agree to a vast new regulatory program that includes a rent freeze and the inability to collect back payments.”

While Waters’ proposal doesn’t cancel rent, it does tackle a key part of any major legislation: education. From Politico:

Part of the problem with the existing eviction moratorium, according to housing advocates, is that it’s nearly impossible for most renters to figure out if the protection applies to them because they don’t know whether their landlord has a federally backed mortgage. Waters’ bill includes $10 million for HUD to “carry out a national media campaign to educate the public of increased housing rights” during the pandemic.

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Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is among those seeking an expansion of the existing legislation, calling for an immediate moratorium on evictions for all rentals, not just those subsidized by the federal government.

“[Communities of color] haven’t recovered from the last recession in terms of the loss of one’s home,” Lee told Politico. “we have a pandemic upon a pandemic.”

Staff writer, The Root.

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