Today, millions of renters and homeowners struggling to endure the economic calamity of the coronavirus pandemic confront a Faustian choice: pay their housing costs, or instead feed their families. It didn’t have to be like this, however — and it’s not too late to put human rights before corporate greed.

Many who are still working (or who have accumulated savings) will write their monthly check. Most pay a corporation, property management firm, or bank.

Some — either because we recognize the power of collective action, or simply because they don’t have a choice — will join others around the country challenging a system that doesn’t care whether working people can meet their basic human needs.

We are part of a growing rent strike movement across the United States.

Shahid standing in front of the State of California building.
Joining the San Francisco May Day caravan to support the suspension of rent, mortgage, utility, and debt payments until after the coronavirus pandemic has cleared.

A rent strike is a long overdue response to the for-profit housing market and repeated public bailouts of banks, which are best positioned to bear the costs confronting struggling workers and their families.

The 2008 financial crisis was precipitated in large part by predatory lending by banks and financial institutions, which received billions of dollars in government bailouts. Everyone from Bernie Sanders to journalists, academics, artists, students, and activists across the country noticed that renters & mortgage holders received no help at all.

Banks receiving public funds — if not Congress — should have bailed out homeowners and renters. Congress should have put in place regulations to keep people in their homes. The housing market would have stabilized.

None of those things happened.

Instead, taxpayers bailed out the banks, most of which escaped the financial crisis unscathed. Rents continued to escalate, homelessness reached record levels, and real estate speculators made fortunes. Meanwhile, countless investment homes remain mostly vacant, misused as getaways for jetsetters — or even sitting vacant while the owner awaits market opportunities.

We should learn from that regrettable history, rather than repeat it today.

These are not new concerns. In 2011, tens of thousands of us responded to the 2008 bank bailouts by occupying public spaces in cities across the country.

Americans are still hurting.

Food security is threatened. Food banks are struggling since restaurants that normally donate surplus ingredients are closed. Meanwhile, the needs are growing: when I volunteered with the SF/Marin Food Bank at a pop up pantry in the parking lot at Mission High School, the line to pick up groceries stretched around the block. That was a month ago, and unemployment claims have skyrocketed since then.

Healthcare, too, is a challenge — especially during the pandemic. Millions of Americans with employer-based medical insurance lost coverage after getting laid off. Many, especially gig workers and the unemployed, couldn’t afford it even before.

A car participating in the California State Building with "cancel rent" posters
A participant in today’s caravan outside the California State Building at McAllister & Van Ness

Unlike 2008, Congress has at least included some relief for working class Americans in bailouts responding to the 2020 pandemic. That shift reflects the influence of House progressives and the Squad, which didn’t enter Congress until 2018. Meanwhile, thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders, the CARES Act also includes a substantial expansion of unemployment insurance to finally include gig workers and self-employed workers.

But the one-time payment of $1200 enabled by the CARES Act doesn’t go nearly far enough — for those who will receive it at all. It’s an improvement over the 2008 bank bailout, but doesn’t come close to meeting the challenges confronting millions of financially precarious Americans today.

The last thing our economy needs is a wave of renters and homeowners forced into bankruptcy or homelessness. Thankfully, the CARES Act includes 180 days of mortgage forbearance, and California has declared a moratorium on evictions. But those measures only delay the market forces confronted by renters and homeowners, who remain responsible for growing balloon payments in the near future.

Rent & mortgage payments were a struggle for too many San Franciscans even before the pandemic. Those whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the emerging depression stand with their backs to the wall.

That’s why I support a federal freeze and forgiveness of all rent and mortgage payments throughout the duration of the pandemic, embodied in Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act. San Francisco is our nation’s most progressive city. We deserve a voice in Congress who will support it, rather than the interests of corporate landlords.

Congress may have failed to respond to the emerging housing crisis, but renters and homeowners confronting the costs of this pandemic are far from alone. Our allies include thousands of Americans with us in the streets (while keeping social distance) today — and thousands more silently participating in the largest rent strike in our nation’s history.

Protest sign: It's time! Our Pandemic Priorities (I) People over Profit
My favorite sign from today’s caravan in San Francisco