Should rent be suspended during shelter-in-place?

The class of 2020 is expected to face unpredictable challenges that most graduates wouldn’t even know how to prepare for as the stay-at-home order continues to lockdown everyone except essential employees. I am graduating this June, but I’m not only considering what I’ll do to make ends meet, but also thinking about where I’m going to live. However, since COVID-19 has practically stopped the Earth’s rotation, I have become increasingly worried that I may not be able to find a job, or even worse, find a place of my own. I’m not only concerned about the University of Washington’s graduating class, but all others as well.

My girlfriend, who just finished her senior year at the University of Puget Sound this last December, mentioned to me that landlords are asking different questions than they used to. Along with financial background checks, some are now starting to ask applicants if they have ever not paid their rent, willingly. The unessential worker — which may have a different definition with each person — is forced to stay home, sometimes without pay. This creates a showdown between building owners and tenants.

The suspension of rent and mortgage payments is a movement that acts as the rope in the tug of war between the renters and rentees. On one hand, there is the average person grasping for some sort of stability ever since their stable income had been ripped from them. The other hand presents the landlord, who also needs to eat, pay bills, and maintain some sort of normality during the stay-at-home order, as well as fulfilling financial obligations to their banks and business partners. Both sides are leaking financially, but who will stay afloat? And more importantly, who is in the wrong?

Let’s entertain the thought that if you aren’t an essential worker, you have to secure some sort of payment to pay for your living expenses. This means accepting a large pay decrease and living off of the virtually unlivable minimum wage. It seems unfair that someone like a commission-based salesperson has to start working a job at McDonald’s to pay their bills. But should there be any leniency due to unforeseen circumstances? 

It’s unlikely that the average person was setting aside money just in case there was a global outbreak. But what are the landlords of the world supposed to do? It would be just and kind to suspend rent payments for those in need, but what about their own payments? Landlords, while depicted through social media posts as ruthless and indifferent toward the collective struggle of making ends meet, are also part of it. If we expect the landlords of the world to practice good charity, are we even fixing the problem?

I think that whatever issue is tearing the world apart, neither side can ever take a step toward the middle. We are often fetishizing our ideals, making them extremely polarizing and completely unrealistic. You can’t live for free, and you can not expect money from people who don’t have any. It would behoove us all if we could meet in the middle.