Democratic 'Squad' members join growing chorus of calls to '#CancelRent' during coronavirus crisis

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. has added her voice to the rallying cry to cancel rent as millions suffer economic strain due to the coronavirus pandemic.

When various states instituted lockdowns and stay-at-home orders in March, homeowners and renters worried about how to pay their rent or mortgages when April 1 arrived. The uncertainty gave rise to scattered movements demanding a rent strike, and now, the "#CancelRent" movement is asking for sweeping changes -- including no back payment for unpaid rent.

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Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is a firm supporter: in a video posted Monday, she encouraged her base to embrace the movement.

“We know right now, especially with the pandemic, with COVID-19, housing is one of -- if not -- the biggest stress point and crisis point that families are now encountering as a result of this shock to our economy,” she said in a statement.

“It’s not that it’s impossible to do and it’s not that we can’t do it. We lack enough politicians with [the] political will to actually help people who are tenants and actually help people who are mom-and-pop landlords," she added.

President Trump initially ordered a freeze on evictions and foreclosures until the end of April, and governors and mayors across the country instituted measures extending that date even longer, but none of the orders canceled rent outright. Even if a person doesn’t pay their rent, the rent accumulates, meaning that when the orders expire, the bills must still be paid.

Over the course of April, around 30 million Americans filed for unemployment as closures and lockdown measures forced many companies to furlough or cut their workforces. The economic strain has become so severe that, in some places, people line up for hours to receive a food handout.

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The #CancelRent movement has gained significant support on social media, with #CancelRent trending and protesters holding online video rallies.

In a comment to The New York Times, Tara Raghuveer, director of the Homes Guarantee campaign of People’s Action, indicated that the goal may not be to actually see rent canceled -- the action may be unconstitutional since it would require the government to cancel contracts and alter bank operations. Instead, Raghuveer sees a political potential in the movement.

“Rent is not being paid, and the organizing strategy is figuring out how we rally around that and politicize it for our benefit,” Raghuveer said.

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Landlords are concerned that if rent is not paid, then the landlords themselves will struggle to cover their own expenses, such as property taxes or building maintenance. Some have said that up to one-third of renters already aren't paying their rent.

However, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has introduced a bill to cancel all rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic. The bill -- co-sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., among others -- aims to establish full rent forgiveness, as well as a relief fund for landlords and mortgage owners.

“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,” Omar said on her website.

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“Congress has a responsibility to step in to stabilize both local communities and the housing market during this time of uncertainty and crisis. In 2008, we bailed out Wall Street. This time, it’s time to bail out the American people who are suffering.”