OPINION: Keeping People Housed; Keeping Small Businesses Alive

by Girmay Zahilay, King County Councilmember 

March 15 was one of the hardest days of my professional life. That was the day Governor Jay Inslee announced expanded limitations on large gatherings and closures of certain small businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Immediately after his order came down, my email inbox and social media channels were flooded with messages from terrified King County residents. I heard from restaurant owners saying the restaurants they had operated for generations were in jeopardy; barber shop and beauty salon owners wondering how they could continue paying their commercial rent; Uber drivers facing imminent financial demise. 

In the ensuing weeks, their fears became reality as hundreds of thousands were laid off across our state. The emails and phone calls escalated. People were now telling me that the loss of income had upended everything they had ever worked for. Renters were on the verge of eviction and homelessness. Small landlords, whose tenants had been laid off, lost the income stream they relied on to make their mortgage payments. Small business owners, who had lost months of revenue, would close shop forever.

Reading through only a sample of these correspondences, you can feel the anxiety jumping from the page.

The stay at home order was imposed and we had to temporarily shutter our business and let go of all our employees. As we own a non-essential service business, we have literally no income coming in, but the rent payments don’t stop. As my wife and I own the business and this is our primary form of income it is putting a major strain on not only our business, but also our personal savings. This is leaving our personal finances at grave risk. We have a one-year-old daughter and frankly we are scared of what the future holds or how much longer we will be able to hold on.

I am a Lyft driver making 3K or more a month but I have been completely out of work for exactly a month now. My wife is still working but if the federal govt doesn’t send us some money by the end of May there is no chance we will be able to pay our rent. If our rent is simply put off we will end up owing so much that we will never be able to catch up.

I can’t afford to pay my rent in May. I was laid off March 14th, and have received $0 in benefits from unemployment even though my claim was approved. It simply says I’m “disqualified” even though I’ve had the same job for 3 years and I know that I’m eligible. I can’t reach anyone via the phone or email at Employment Security after daily attempts. Please pass a freeze on rent in Seattle/King County it’s desperately needed!!

None of the messages I’ve received across the past several weeks have been critical of the shutdowns or stay-at-home orders themselves. Despite the sudden uncertainty in their own lives, people fully supported the actions taken by our governor. They know he and our public health officials have been some of the most effective leaders around the nation. 

I share their faith and, from a public health standpoint, it is clear that our State and local governments have been second to none. We should all be grateful for the thousands of lives their decisions have saved.

It is also clear that our solutions to the widespread economic hardship caused by effective public health decisions have been insufficient. The eviction moratoriums, small business grants, rental assistance programs, and federal stimulus checks do not go nearly far enough to keep Americans from financial ruin. Furthermore, as eviction moratoriums are eventually lifted, thousands of Washingtonians with little income and no savings will lose their homes and small businesses, deepening our pre-existing homelessness crisis and widening wealth inequality.

One of the most powerful steps we can take to secure our collective well-being is to cancel all residential rent, commercial rent, and mortgage payments during the coronavirus emergency. 

This act would ensure people stay housed during and after this public health crisis while saving thousands of small businesses. Small landlords who depend on rental income would benefit from actions to pause mortgage payments and delay property taxes. Enacting the Rental Property Relief Fund as proposed by the federal legislation, co-sponsored by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, would provide qualifying landlords the resources to cover lost payments. 

The cost of these actions pales in comparison to the cost of inaction: an economic free fall the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

The King County Council does not have the authority to halt rent and mortgage payments, but our State and federal governments do. That is why Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles and I have introduced a resolution calling on our highest levels of government to enact three solutions: 

1) Pause rent payments, 2) Pause mortgage payments, and 3) Establish a relief fund for small landlords to cover losses from cancelled payments.

As is true with all nonbinding resolutions, this proposal would have no legal effect if passed. Nonetheless, we must uplift and amplify the voices of our constituents. Through this nonbinding resolution, King County has the opportunity to join a larger national movement — a movement of local governments around the country asking their respective states and the federal government to provide the greatest forms of economic relief possible: keeping people housed and keeping small businesses alive.

Girmay Zahilay represents District 2 on the King County Council. 

Featured image: All In The Cut barber shop in Rainier Beach (Photo: Susan Fried)