by Hannah Krieg
Tenants rights counselor Julissa Sanchez read from her phone at the Cancel the Rent Rally at Othello Park on the afternoon of Saturday, June 5 . She said it would be easier to read without her sunglasses on, because if she took them off, the crowd of a few dozen would see her smeared makeup. Sanchez had been crying.
“The eviction moratorium is great — it has prevented unjust evictions …” Sanchez said. “… but it definitely did not prevent the thousands of thousands of dollars of rental debt that our people are in.”
In response to the economic downturn at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on evictions of tenants unable to pay their rent. The moratorium was initially set to end April 17, 2020, but as the dual health and economic crisis continued, the moratorium was extended many times.
As of late March, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey estimates 211,000 Washington households to be behind on rent. Sanchez, who works with migrant communities in South King County, says the tenants she serves have reported rental debt up to $20,000.
According to the governor’s latest extension, the moratorium ends June 30. Rent is due next month.
Washington Poor People’s Campaign, Seattle’s Democratic Socialists of America, Radical Women, and other like-minded organizations came together to form the Cancel the Rent Coalition. According to Reverend Bianca Davis-Lovelace of the Washington Poor People’s Campaign, the coalition pushed two main demands at their rally this weekend: extend the eviction moratorium until 2022 and (as the name suggests) cancel the rent that has accumulated.
“Many people are asking us ‘Well, what about the landlords?’” Davis-Lovelace said. “If our local government can find money for policing, if our wider government can find money for the military, then they can find money for housing and homelessness … What are your priorities, Gov. Inslee?”
The event started at noon on June 5 and featured many speakers, including Nikkita Oliver, a candidate for Seattle City Council Position 9, and Shukri Olow, who’s running for a seat on the King County Council in District 5.
“People will say that canceling rent and mortgages is radical,” Oliver said. “Now, I mean it in the sense that Angela Davis said it: It’s about getting to the root, it’s about preventing a bigger crisis.”
An advocate from Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), told the attendees that she anticipates a “tsunami” of evictions when the moratorium is lifted. Each year, WHEEL stands vigil to remember the unhoused folks who died in public spaces or by violence. In 2020, the organization honored 139 people who died, compared to 112 the year before. With the looming evictions and limited shelter space, advocates fear the toll could be even higher this year.
In a description of the Cancel the Rent rally, Radical Women says, “The global impact of coronavirus has drastically accelerated the already urgent housing crisis in the U.S. This disproportionately burdens Black people, Indigenous people, and communities of color as well as people with disabilities, women, and children.”
Speakers at Othello Park returned to this theme repeatedly: COVID-19 has caused extreme economic strain on marginalized communities.
Sanchez says that she supports many migrant tenants who work in the service industry with hospitality jobs that did not have the option to work remotely as the world went into lockdown.
“The state shutdown [protected] us from a pandemic, but it did not protect us from an economic crisis,” Sanchez said. “And then [the state] had the audacity to pass all of this rental assistance, but you needed a fucking social security number to access it.”
Undocumented workers are not eligible for the unemployment benefits others have relied on since March 2020. Additionally, undocumented immigrants without work permits were left out of federal stimulus efforts.
As tenants begin to negotiate payment plans for their rental debts, Sanchez says some landlords are requesting a minimum of $500 a month on top of regular rent to begin the back pay.
“Before the pandemic, our gente were being displaced with a $100 to $200 rental increase,” Sanchez told the crowd. “Now, imagine having your current rent and then, más aparte, additionally, you are going to have to pay down an extra $500 in rental debt.”
Out of 11.6 million “Hispanic or Latino” renters polled by the U.S. Census Bureau in May, less than a third reported “high confidence” that they could pay their next month’s rent. Of the same sample, 1.4 million renters had “no confidence.”
Oliver noted the increasing wealth in Seattle, especially since it’s home to tech giant Amazon, which the New York Times reports has seen profits grow 220% during the pandemic. Oliver asked the crowd, “Where is the poor people’s bail out?”
“We are the poor people’s bail out,” they said. “… just as we’ve had a groundswell to support the No New Youth Jail Movement, to support the Defund Movement, we will have a groundswell from the grassroots up to cancel rent.”
Hannah Krieg is a Seattle-based journalist dedicated to news coverage that puts people first. Hannah enjoys writing about local and state politics, social issues, and anything that lets her talk with activists. You can find more of her writing at Crosscut, the International Examiner, and Real Change News.
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