While comfortable Americans are passing the pandemic studying their favorite restaurants' takeout schedules and strategizing Zoom techniques, tens of millions of our countrymen dramatically less fortunate are desperately trying to keep their families from being tossed into the street.
Jaimy Gonzalez of Chelsea, Massachusetts, is one of them. The El Salvadoran native immigrated to the United States 18 years ago. Since the pandemic struck, she has been unable to find work as a babysitter. She shares her apartment with three other adults and three children; the other adults are also out of work. Like millions of other households, Gonzalez's has been devastated by the pandemic, and like millions of other renters, she and her housemates, unable to pay the rent because of the economic collapse of the past four months, are on the brink of homelessness. Gonzalez recently told a New York Times reporter, "I was crying morning, afternoon and night thinking about how we were going to pay the rent, what we were going to do?"
For Gonzalez and so many others living in the most prosperous country on the planet, there is not yet an answer. The huge stimulus package passed by Congress in March provided a 120-day moratorium on evictions for tenants living in federally subsidized housing. That moratorium covered only about one-quarter of America's 44 million renter households, and its protections are set to expire later this month. The other three-quarters of renters have been dependent on a patchwork of state-enacted moratoriums, unemployment insurance and one-time government checks to stave off eviction. A study by analytics firm Amherst estimates that with the federal moratorium about to lapse; 20 state moratoriums having already expired and another 9 slated to follow shortly; and the official unemployment rate at 11% — not counting the severely underemployed — some 28 million renter families are close to having no place to live.
That is the reason for legislation recently introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, joined by several of her Democratic colleagues in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Protecting Renters From Eviction and Fees Act would shield renter households from eviction for nonpayment of rent until March 2021 — a year after the virus' onset. It would thus provide an additional eight months for those hit hardest by the global health crisis against which there is no defense, and those least able to sustain that hit and get on their feet. "Renters who have lost their jobs or had their income reduced shouldn't have to fear losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic," says Warren. "Housing is an absolute necessity to keep families safe during this crisis."
If there is a case against legislation that would protect tenants from eviction while fairly addressing the rights of landlords, it is difficult to apprehend. It is both unconscionable and self-destructive for the United States to abandon millions of its people to a fate consisting of not only homelessness but also hopelessness and hunger. Warren and her colleagues are dead right to confront the plight of low-income renter families who have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic, and to do so urgently.
"Every once in a while America reinvents herself," former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said in a July 4th statement. "How marvelous to think that (that reinvention) could be led by the outcasts and the despised and their sons and daughters." Cleaning up the national wreckage left by four years of President Donald Trump and restoring America to a path worthy of its forebears won't be easy. It will require the energy, and the civic and economic participation, of all Americans including those who have been left behind and are in danger of being jettisoned altogether. Protecting and boosting those families during a time of excruciating pain and profound need isn't merely the right thing to do. It is the smart thing.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.