We are now confronted with an emergency that demands on almost every level unorthodox or radical measures and policies.
We are now confronted with an emergency that demands on almost every level unorthodox or radical measures and policies. Richard Theis / EyeEm / GETTY IMAGES

On Monday, March 30, the Seattle City Council made it clear to the public and to leaders at the city, county, state, and federal level that it unanimously supports the cancellation of commercial and residential rent and mortgage payments for the entire course of the pandemic.

The resolution, which was sponsored by Councilmember Tammy Morales, is nonbinding—meaning, it does not change the existing law. It is therefore symbolic, but making its position known is all the council could do at this point of the crisis.

Governor Inslee, however, can "use emergency powers to impose an immediate moratorium on residential and commercial rent payments, such that no Seattleite should be required to pay rent during this health emergency or accumulate debt for unpaid rent." But power to "impose an immediate moratorium on residential and commercial mortgage payments" lies in the hands of the President. The difficulty is making those two parts—mortgages and rents—become one cancellation package.

The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has found something of a solution to the mortgage problem by striking a deal with four major banks, "Wells Fargo, US Bank, Citi (and) JP Morgan Chase." They have agreed to a "90-day waiver of payments for those that have been impacted by COVID-19." But this mortgage relief is only available to people who "have gotten sick from the coronavirus" and "people who lost jobs or had hours cut because of efforts to curb the spread of the virus."

And so, this is where we are now whereever you go in the US. The novel and very contagious coronavirus can only be stopped if a large section of the population is forced out of work and into homes. But the single solution we have for the public health crisis has few or weak or no answers for its massive economic consequences. It is in this light that I want to consider the moratorium on commercial and residential evictions.

Seattle Times reported on March 17 that "Seattle renters in fear of being evicted during the coronavirus outbreak may have a reprieve" because the City Council had "approved and expanded a moratorium on residential evictions ordered by Mayor Jenny Durkan." But this reprieve is unrealistic in two ways. For one, at 60 days (Durkan initially only wanted it for 30 days), it's way too short. And, two, it does nothing more than freeze the fears of renters. The moment the crisis is declared over, the evictions will be thawed and the fear will be renewed as if nothing had ever happened.

It is here we come to understand what is profoundly wrong with all of our key economic responses to the present crisis. They all want to return us to the way things were before COVID-19 killed its first American in Harborview at the end of February. But what makes no sense whatsoever to even a moment's worth of reasoning is the insistence that we go back to exactly the world that was so ill-prepared for a major public health (and its concomitant economic) crisis. But this is exactly all the moratorium on evictions says: When the time comes, the future will be reconnected with the past. But a world that's ready for a COVID-19 is not to be found in this past. It is only in the future, a fact made plain by the desperate situation the US (tax cuts for the rich at all costs) and Europe (austerity for the poor, no matter what) are now in.

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How should the future look after the pandemic? Much like the one we are now in, the one that appeared when the virus was finally taken seriously. The health emergency requires that the poor not be thrown out of homes, and that the poor have access to health services, and that the poor fully participate in the public health programs and policies. Social distancing only works if everyone, no matter what their race or class, is not excluded. A society that's initially structured by these principles will better manage health and economic challenges. But that's not the kind of society we find in the past. It has instead homeless people everywhere, lots of people without health insurance, and people without means or time to fully participate in society.

There is no way around the crisis but to be rational. One, we need to stay home, to disinfect every surface in our homes, and to wash our hands like crazy. Nothing else works at the primary, public health level. At the secondary level of economics, we are now very much on the way to the kind of depression this country has not experienced in 90 years. A part of the problem is we never really left the hospital of the Great Recession. The stock markets remained on life support, the conventional retail sector continued its decline, and wages never matched the rising costs of living. So, a large part of the debts accumulated during the housing boom of the last decade were dumped on the decade we recently departed. The recession that began in 2009 is very much still on the Fed's balance sheet, which is growing again because of a crisis in the repurchase markets that began in September, 2019. COVID-19 not only crashed a market that was already highly unstable but it also made the standard tools for post-crash management—interest cuts, tax cuts, bailouts—worthless.

We are now confronted with an emergency that demands on almost every level unorthodox or radical measures and policies (such as a 180-day moratorium on rents and mortgages). If those with power do not take bold action now, and, in the future, succeed in re-imposing on the post-COVID-19 world the pre-COVID-19 order, expect a scale of social misery that will make the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression look like life on a cruise ship.