The blog of the Urban Institute
May 5, 2020

When People Can’t Pay Their Rent, What Comes Next?

In many cities across the country, renters are striking. Hoping to call attention to the desperate need for help, they have refused to pay their landlords—some because they cannot, others in solidarity. 

Although striking will not provide any long-term relief—and may jeopardize renters’ financial stability and the stability of housing markets—these actions point to the urgent need for rental assistance. New data from a nationally representative survey of nonelderly adults conducted between March 25 and April 10 show renters were struggling to pay their bills early in the pandemic. Nearly half of renters ages 18 to 64 (47 percent) reported experiencing material hardship in the past 30 days, meaning they couldn’t pay their rent or utilities, were experiencing food insecurity, or couldn’t afford needed medical care.

Among those hardships, it’s clear that the saying “the rent eats first” was holding true. Although roughly 14 percent of renters did not make their full rent payment or paid late, more than one-third were facing food insecurity.

People of color are facing greater difficulties paying rent and other bills, likely because of the disproportionate job loss in their communities. Hispanic and black renters were more than twice as likely as white renters to report being unable to pay their full rent or paying late in the past 30 days (20 percent and 21 percent versus 8 percent). These effects will only further entrench racial disparities if people are left without help.

Considering the grim economic conditions, the hardships families were facing have likely gotten much worse. This survey provides some foreshadowing of what’s coming: roughly 42 percent of working-age renters were worried about not being able to pay their rent for the next month.

What’s more, a cliff is looming—federal eviction protections and many local protections are set to expire in June. Additional unemployment insurance benefits, which provide an extra $600 a week, are also set to end in July, and applicants are already facing major barriers to accessing these benefits.

Even before the pandemic, the country was facing a housing insecurity challenge—nearly half a million people homeless on any given night, millions living doubled up and in overcrowded situations, and 11 million low-income households severely rent burdened. Millions were eligible for housing assistance but didn’t receive it because the program was woefully underfunded. This was all during a decade of economic boom and significant wealth accumulation.

Policymakers aren’t short on evidence-based solutions to these problems. We know what works, but the political will to fund rental assistance is what we need now.   

Rent strikes, a movement to build that political will, aim to gather and demand attention to the issue. These strikes could cause significant ripple effects across the housing market, furthering instability for landlords and owners, including small property owners and affordable housing developers, who may face foreclosure on their mortgages, creating market instability, perhaps even calamity. Some recent analysis of New York City shows these strikes could hit smaller landlords and vulnerable neighborhoods particularly hard. And all this could extend the time needed for the country to get back on track economically.

The potential ripple effects make rent strikes a risky move. But they may raise awareness about the urgent need for government action.

To put an end to the strikes, federal policymakers could respond by providing relief emergency rental assistance.

What comes next is up to them. 

We updated the notes of both charts to highlight the statistical significance of the results (updated 5/8/20).

Philadelphians joined with protesters across the country to call for the cancelation of rent during the economic shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, pointing out that housing is a human right and calling for housing for all in a caravan protest through Center City and around City Hall in Philadelphia, PA, on April 25, 2020. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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