April 13 (UPI) -- Although the federal government has ordered several safeguards for the U.S. economy and Americans facing hardship, one segment of the population feels its facing a serious problem that hasn't been fully addressed -- no money for rent.
The coronavirus emergency has cost millions of workers their jobs, and millions more are expected to join them in the coming weeks. Amid those mass layoffs, rent came due last week for the first time since the crisis caused nationwide closures and restrictions.
State and local officials have moved to provide some help, like barring landlords from evicting tenants. Under the varying rules, some states barred evictions for a few weeks while others are in place for the duration of the lockdowns.
Similarly, some governors have banned all evictions and others suspended them strictly for renters with coronavirus-related hardship.
Nowhere, though, are there measures that require landlords to cancel or forgive missed rent payments. That means, in most cases, many will be responsible for several months of back rent once the emergency moratoriums are lifted.
A growing national movement is calling for more help. Tags on social media, such as #CancelRent and #RentZero, are becoming more popular, and "rent strikes" are being organized from coast to coast, asking elected officials to step in.
In New York City, for example, tenants at a Brooklyn apartment building began a strike after many lost their jobs. The 1234 Pacific Street Tenant Association said it staged the protest in hopes that it would persuade property owners to share their renters' burden of responsibility.
"Everyone is aware of the inevitable choice that will result: Do I pay for my rent or my groceries?" the group said.
New York "Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo is advising us to stay inside, but many of us can no longer afford our homes," the association added. "He has provided no plan for what happens after the pandemic ends and the eviction moratorium is lifted, other than 'We'll see.'"
The tenants support a bill in the New York Legislature that seeks outright rent forgiveness for 90 days for residential and small business tenants. It also would provide some relief for small property owners.
"We believe that housing is a human right," the tenants' association said. "Too often, it is treated as a particularly lucrative commodity to be traded on the market. We are now in a moment where most New Yorkers are experiencing the housing insecurity many of us were already living with before this crisis.
"We refuse to go hungry or without medical care in order to pay rent."
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have called for rent forgiveness in New York and California. Biden advocates three months of forgiveness, while Sanders, who left the presidential race Wednesday, had favored the proposed New York law.
Further, advocacy groups on the West Coast are urging California Gov. Gavin Newsom to include rent cancellation as part of a forbearance period he has negotiated with major banks.
However, all efforts to provide such full protection for renters have met with little success. Without it, some fear, a substantial wave of homelessness in the United States is expected once accumulated back rents come due.
In Minnesota, the state Legislature has approved a $500 million coronavirus relief bill, but lawmakers omitted a request to include $100 million in direct rent subsidies to landlords.
Without such assistance, housing advocates say, a cascade of evictions will likely come in a few months -- and will affect not only low-income renters, but the mostly "mom-and-pop" landlords who serve them.
Anne Mavity, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, projects the crisis will sock landlords with $173 million in lost rent and potentially displace 85,000 renters in the state.
The $2 trillion relief package from Congress will include at least $1,200 stimulus payments to most Americans without children -- plus $500 per child to those who do -- but Mavity said that's a short-term measure for a longer-term crisis.
"The entire economy is not just going to turn back on a like a light switch. It will take time, and so I think the horizon for how long folks will need support to pay their rent is going to be a lot longer than we might be prepared for right now."
Mavity cautions, however, that "rent forgiveness" is not the magic answer, because ripple effects from millions of dollars in missed rent payments would impact the entire housing and financial infrastructure. She instead proposes subsidies for landlords.
"What we really need is a way to get those rents paid," she said.