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Cancel rent during coronavirus? Rep. Ilhan Omar says yes

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The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act would provide national housing relief throughout the crisis

Aerial view of dense apartment buildings. Shutterstock

Many Americans are currently wondering if they’ll be able to pay rent. One legislator believes, as long as the economy is disrupted by the coronavirus, they shouldn’t have to worry.

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, announced today during a virtual press conference, would move beyond many of the rent relief measures being introduced by cities and states, and provide nationwide full-payment forgiveness. The bill would guarantee no negative impact on the credit rating or rental history of any renters or homeowners during the length of the crisis, and the legislation also includes a relief fund for landlords or mortgage holders to cover losses from cancelled payments. In addition, the bill would create a fund to fully finance the purchase of privately owned rental property by non-profits, public housing authorities, cooperatives, and community land trusts, to help increase the amount of available affordable housing.

“We must take major action to protect the health and economic security of the most vulnerable, including the millions of Americans currently at risk of housing instability and homelessness,” says Rep. Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota. “Congress has a responsibility to step in to stabilize both local communities and the housing market during this time of uncertainty and crisis.

The bill is cosponsored by a number of progressive Democrats including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Pramila Jayapal, Mark Pocan, Ayanna Pressley, Veronica Escobar, Jesús “Chuy” García, and Grace Meng. It does not as of yet include exact figures for the size of the relief fund, though it would be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Omar’s rent forgiveness legislation comes as tenants across the country struggle to pay rent due to unprecedented job losses stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. The National Multifamily Housing Council released a report showing that 12 percent fewer Americans paid rent in April than they did in March, and many tenant groups and organizers are considering rent strikes leading into May 1.

Omar has previously been very active around housing reform and legislation. Her Homes for All Act, introduced last November, proposed a radical $1 trillion investment in upgrading and expanding the nation’s public housing stock. It has since been included in the People’s Housing Platform, a slate of housing legislation pushed by progressive lawmakers including Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad.

Such bills have been proposed at the local level in San Jose, California and New York, and have been met with fierce opposition by the landlord industry. Many property owners, especially mom-and-pop landlords, have voiced concern that any rent forgiveness plans that don’t compensate property owners will make it impossible for them to pay their expenses and mortgages, and will lead to larger problems in the financial and banking industries.

“Due to layoffs and mass unemployment, even more renters are making choices between food and rent, accruing debts, and at risk of being forced from their homes,” says Tara Raghuveer, People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee Campaign Director, in a statement. “The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act offers the only solution that can meet the scale and depth of our immediate needs related to housing, and establish a new framework for long-term recovery.”