Rent is due and Yuna Karaberis, 26, is anxious.
In early March, she lost her job at a Seattle catering company, one of the industries hit early in the local COVID-19 crisis. They told her and her coworkers that there wouldn't be shifts until June, at least. According to Karaberis, her catering work was under the table and, as a result, she can't receive unemployment. Karaberis hasn't had an income for a month.
She and her five roommates won't be paying rent on April 1 for the house they rent on Beacon Hill.
Across the country, people are feeling that same crunch.
This city has already implemented an eviction moratorium. Gov. Jay Inslee has implemented an eviction moratorium for the entire state of Washington. And the Seattle City Council just passed a resolution calling for a suspension of rent and mortgage payments.
An actual suspension would be welcome news to Karaberis, but when it comes to real money owed, the city council's resolution is purely symbolic. Despite the moratorium, an eviction for failure to pay rent would still go on someone's record even if they weren't physically evicted. Plus, rent would still accrue and build into debt that would need to be paid off once the moratorium is lifted. And, landlords, who rely on rental payments to pay their mortgages, are still asking their tenants to pay up with the money many of them don't have. Some 53,000 tenants in the Seattle-area alone spend half of their paycheck on rent, and another 57,000 spend at least 30 percent of their check for rent.
Karaberis was one of the hundreds of people who emailed the Seattle City Council asking them to do something, anything, to stop rental and mortgage payments. I got the records of those pleas through a public records request to the city. Here are some snippets:
From the Central District: "I am in very real jeopardy of not making my rent payment on time. I am fearful of an eviction and fearful of what this may do to my credit rating."
From Ballard: "The economic toll threatens to outweigh the toll of the virus itself."
From Beacon Hill: "Our landlord has refused to make any accommodations to waive, reduce, or make a repayment plan for rent. Regardless of accommodations, the burden of back-paying rent in the future will be an unmanageable burden."
From Capitol Hill: "My community is afraid of landlord retaliation."
From an Uber driver: "True, they have asked landlords not to evict at this time or to shut off power, but who wants to get to that point?"
From West Seattle: "My restaurant-working partner has been laid off due to COVID 19 and we have no way to
meet all of our bills. We've been living paycheck-to-paycheck for years, and despite the fact that my family (with 2 kids in elementary school) have been renters of the same house for years, we will receive no help from our landlords during this crisis."
"Renters can’t accumulate thousands of dollars in debt to our landlords," Karaberis said. "We’re already living paycheck to paycheck."
On Monday, Councilmember Tammy Morales introduced a resolution asking Governor Jay Inslee to ask federal legislators and the Trump administration to freeze rent increases and to suspend mortgage and rent payments. It's about all the city council can do.
Councilmember Dan Strauss added an amendment calling for the cancellation of property tax and insurance payments as well.
The resolution passed unanimously. Though the resolution is a purely symbolic action, there was some hesitance from Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez.
Pedersen was concerned about the "legal issues" around completely forgiving all rental and mortgage payments and not requiring people to accrue debt. If "people are getting other relief, would we want to then suspend the payments that are due?" Pedersen asked.
Morales calmly responded, citing the "trillion-and-a-half-dollar windfall to the financial sector" from the federal government. "It's important that we do what we can to help our constituents who don’t benefit from that windfall and who are literally at risk of being out on the streets," Morales said. "We know that the reality is that rent is for some people 50 percent of their monthly expenditure. They need relief. We’re asking our state and federal leaders to help provide it."
The resolution alone can't do much. Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda have both sent multiple letters themselves asking for relief strategies like rent hike freezes and foreclosure moratoriums. But, Morales said that this resolution was drafted along with others in other states; San Francisco's city council is working on their own proposal, as is Los Angeles's and Boston's, while a group of state senators in New York is trying to cancel rent.
The hope is that mounting pressure will "push federal administrators to make this happen for constituents," Morales said, "to keep people in their homes where they are safest during this crisis."
In the meantime, Seattleites like Karaberis are stuck at the mercy of their landlords. Karaberis and her roommates asked their landlord for compassion since more than half the household was laid off and couldn't file for unemployment. He responded that their rent is "his sole source of income" and that if they don't pay "he will go hungry."
Blake Bumpus, 27, is a cook and artist who was laid off from his job at the Tin Table in Capitol Hill. He's subsisting off of unemployment currently, a fraction of what he used to make, and he's worried about his ability, and his friends' and coworkers' ability, to make rent. Luckily, he has a good relationship with his landlord.
"Instead of flat out saying, 'I’m not going to pay,' I said, 'I'll be late, I’m waiting on unemployment,'" Bumpus said. "My landlord was fine with it. He’s like, 'Pay whenever.'"
His landlord, Bumpus said, is still holding out hope that legislation like a rent and mortgage suspension passes.
Noah H. is in his 30s. He works for a university lab as a researcher in a "position that very much requires me to work with my hands," Noah told me. "While I'm temporarily 'working from home,' it's unsustainable and the longer this goes on the greater I fear I'm at risk of being considered expendable. This pandemic and the response to it potentially will change my whole career and life path for the worse."
Tenants in his apartment complex are contemplating a rent strike. Since a rent freeze isn't anywhere close to being enacted, Noah believes a rent strike "would be the right thing to do under these circumstances." But, organizing is key to a successful strike.
His landlord will not be in support of this, Noah said. In response to tenants' concerns about making rent, Noah said his landlord posted a list of rental assistance organizations from the Rental Housing Association of Washington.
"It essentially is a list that places the burden on tenants to go ask for handouts from different Seattle charities," Noah said, "so that they, the landlords, can still get paid. Several of the resources are religious charities meant to help the already-at-risk-population, not to help funnel resources through the general population and into the landlord's pocket."
Devin Silvernail, the district director for Councilmember Tammy Morales, explained that a rent and mortgage freeze is something all Morales' constituents—renters, homeowners, residential and commercial landlords—are asking for.
"The importance of this resolution," Silvernail told me, "is it’s basically a formal notice from the City of Seattle that this is what our city and residents want and need."
For now, everyone will have to wait.
"I think with everything in this crisis it would have been better a month ago or at least weeks ago," Silvernail lamented, "We're hoping this, and other leaders coming out in favor of this, will push the people who can actually make an impact legislatively to do this now."
That's how Karaberis sees the resolution as well.
"If the governor is getting pressure from politicians and not just activists," she said, "it’s harder for him to ignore us."