By the most optimistic estimates, we likely have one to two months left until the current wave of Coronavirus will die down to the point where the federal, state, and local stay-at-home orders can start to be rolled back, allowing many Americans to return to their jobs. Since the national emergency declaration on March 13, over 22 million Americans have become unemployed as a result of “non-essential” workers being laid off. Despite the sharp spike in layoffs, millions of Americans still have to pay their rents during these months of isolation. The lack of sympathy for tenants by landlords has turned out to be one of the most pressing economic threats to American citizens during this crisis.
As of 2017, 78% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck, so a vast majority of the workforce simply cannot afford these layoffs while maintaining financial stability. The stimulus checks that the Trump Administration has sent out to laid-off workers are a step in the right direction, but it is still not nearly enough for many Americans to get by. The $1200 stimulus check makes up a little under a month’s worth of pay ($1,256.67 on average) for those making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but this is not enough for most Americans. The reason the stimulus check falls short for so many is that the federal minimum wage is relatively low. Twenty-nine States, as well as the District of Columbia, have minimum wages that are higher than the federal government’s, due to higher costs of living in those areas of the country. For example, Chicago’s minimum wage is currently $13 an hour, which would add up to $2,288 for the month of March. The $1000+ gap between this figure and the amount in the assistance check is demonstrative of the financial struggles that so many Americans are facing, despite the government aid.
It’s already hard enough for American renters, even without this crisis. A general rule in personal finance holds that you should spend no more than a third of your income on rent. However, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 47 percent of US renters spend a third of their income on rent and 25 percent lose more than half of their earnings to their landlords. Additionally, the center also found that 57% of renters could not afford an emergency expense exceeding $400.
Congress can, and should, pass a moratorium on rents for those financially burdened by the Coronavirus pandemic, as many political leaders have already called for. The federal government has already passed a 120-day moratorium on evictions from affordable and public housing, and many states have passed or are considering some form of rent relief. Full compensation should be offered to smaller landlords who own only a few properties, but organizations with hundreds, often thousands, of properties should at least proportionately bear the cost.
American renters were already struggling financially. Now, it’s time for Congress to act to save the livelihoods of tenants, and to keep millions from becoming homeless as a result of this health crisis.