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The following is a guest statement by Cancel the Rents Boston, a collective of activists and residents organizing to fight against housing displacement exacerbated by COVID-19, anchored in the heart of Roxbury.
An estimated 337,900 jobs have been lost in Massachusetts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The city of Boston has 38,872 confirmed COVID cases as of Dec. 28, and also has some of the highest rents in the country — a close third behind New York City and Los Angeles. Despite this, Governor Charlie Baker has made no efforts to cancel rents and mortgages.
The federal government has extended the national eviction moratorium until Jan. 31, 2021, but a moratorium only delays the problem. Millions of tenants in the U.S. were already being threatened with eviction because of unaffordable rents before the pandemic. Now, it’s estimated that 50 million tenants suffered virus-related job or income loss with 40 percent of them in low-income households.
Waves of mass evictions have already begun. When the moratorium is lifted, months of back rent will suddenly be due. If we haven’t had funds to pay our bills so far, how are we expected to pay for almost a year’s worth of rent when this meager band-aid solution is ripped off at the end of January?
Congress fails to provide necessary funding
The stimulus bill recently proposed by Congress currently allocates $500 million in rental relief funding for Massachusetts, but there is a catch. One of the only options for tenants unable to pay rent is to apply for RAFT, a state fund which has only distributed $15.5 million in aid since April despite being pumped up with $100 million dollars by the governor. This massive discrepancy prompted a group of Massachusetts lawyers to issue a letter to the governor calling out the systemic failures of the program and the bureaucratic hurdles tenants face when trying to obtain the funds. RAFT issued a public statement on Nov. 25 acknowledging there is currently a backlog of nearly 8,000 RAFT applications. With this in mind, it is uncertain how much of these rental relief funds will actually reach the tenants who need them most.
The federal government is only providing $25 billion in relief funds while tenants already owe an estimated $70 billion in back rent due to the pandemic alone — yet Congress somehow found $696 billion to fund the Pentagon. Instead of allocating money towards basic human needs like housing, the government is putting the funds we need to survive towards endless war and occupation abroad.
COVID magnifies Boston’s existing housing crisis
Boston’s current housing crisis is characterized by rapid gentrification, displaced residents, and a growing homeless population thanks to absurdly high rents and racist housing practices. Tenants who were already struggling have been pushed past their limits due to the government’s negligible response to COVID-19. More than 14 percent of Massachusetts renters are behind on payments, a statistic that includes disproportionately high amounts of Black and Latino households.
Roughly half of all Boston renters are considered “rent burdened” by the Department of Housing and Urban Development standards, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their incomes towards rent. It is no surprise that 70 percent of market-rate eviction filings occur in Black and Latino neighborhoods like Roxbury. Similarly, these neighborhoods have the highest concentration of both COVID-19 cases and “essential workers.”
There are 2,300 people without homes in Boston, while more than 24,000 housing units sit empty. Historically, Boston has used the power of eminent domain to displace residents and make way for luxury units. Why hasn’t there been a call to use this power to house people during a public health crisis?
In addition to rent debt, tenants are struggling to pay utility bills like electricity, gas, and water. Internet monopolies like Comcast are taking advantage of people who are working from home by imposing internet fees without any improvement to service. What is stopping these services from being guaranteed for the duration of the pandemic?
The federal stimulus bill will give some residents a one-time payment of $600. For most Bostonians, this only covers a fraction of monthly rent. Undocumented residents will be completely barred from accessing this payment. Deportation is the most violent form of eviction, and many undocumented people may fear retaliation from a landlord if they get behind on payments.
These problems are the result of a capitalist economic system that puts profit over human life. This is not a failure of the system, but a function of it. Even when the economy is supposedly booming and there is no pandemic, working people struggle to pay skyrocketing rents. When housing is commodified, the profits of landlords and banks are put before the right to a safe and decent place to live.
Cancel the Rents: together, we can stop evictions in Boston
In Roxbury, a mass campaign called Cancel The Rents Boston formed in response to this ongoing housing crisis. CTR participated in several national days of action to demand the cancelation of rents and mortgages by organizing local car caravan protests in the spring. Since then, we’ve knocked on hundreds of doors using COVID safety precautions to educate our community about their legal rights to protect themselves against evictions and invite our neighbors to join us in the struggle.
We refuse to accept high rents, displacement, homelessness and gentrification as “normal.” As tenants, we fully understand the scope of this problem and the role of the government and economic system in creating it. Landlords, developers and the United States government will never “give” working people the guaranteed right to housing; that right will only be won through our collective struggle as the working class.
Cancel the Rents Boston demands:
1. Governor Baker: cancel all rents and mortgages for tenants, homeowners, small landlords and small businesses for the duration of the pandemic. No accumulation of rent debt!
2. National Grid and Eversource: cancel all gas and electricity payments retroactively to the start of the governor-mandated state of emergency. Governor Baker: make high speed internet a public utility. End all water payments.
3. Governor Baker: use power of eminent domain over vacant buildings, homes, hotels, and all appropriate structures to house the homeless or people in precarious housing situations, including the undocumented and victims of domestic violence.
4. Full citizenship rights for all undocumented immigrant workers and their families. Deportation is the most violent form of eviction.
CTR Boston has been holding public outreach sessions on Saturdays at 194 Blue Hill Ave., and we are now transitioning to online meetings in light of increasing COVID cases and cold weather. We work together to train tenants on their rights, strategize on how to collectivize tenant power, and conduct outreach to build a broader base of worker power in the heart of Roxbury. Join us as we demand that the state cancel the rents and mortgages, and make the banks pay!
You can reach Cancel the Rents Boston at CancelRentsBoston@gmail.com or (617) 858-1522
On Facebook and Instagram: @CancelRentsBoston