It’s time for a rent strike and mortgage write downs
It’s time for a rent strike and mortgage write downs

How quickly the previously unthinkable has become the new reality.

After 26 years of being told again and again that the level of the dole could not possibly rise, it has been doubled overnight.

After decades of cuts to “unaffordable” public housing, the South Australian government is now paying for hotels for the homeless.

And Scott Morrison has at long last announced a ban on evictions.

These changes, which seem remarkable in terms of the recent past, are still very limited. All of them come with some caveat or other, generally a time limit of a miserable few months after which everything is supposed to return to how it was before. We need much more.

We need a ban on all evictions into the future.

Rent and mortgage payments need to be waived during the pandemic to prevent people being tipped on to the street, and to prevent a future working-class debt crisis caused by rental arrears.

Centrelink needs more staff so that people who have lost their jobs can be paid immediately, not in a month’s time.

And we need a massive expansion of public housing, not just by taking over vacant apartments, hotel rooms and so on in the short term, but a building program of hundreds of thousands of dwellings.

Demands such as these raise the question of who pays for this crisis. A series of government announcements proclaiming that “we are all in this together” belies the class-divided reality. Like every other crisis caused by capitalism, the bosses and their governments will place the burden on the working class and the poor as much as they can.

This is why housing stress and fear of eviction is even an issue. Every day brings news of bosses in airlines, casinos, retail and other businesses ridding themselves of workers who they can no longer afford to pay. Last Wednesday alone, 280,000 people joined the dole queues.

Amid real misery, newspapers like Sydney’s Daily Telegraph are already warning that “opportunists” who are well and in work will seek rent reductions. Well, let’s hope so. As Guy Rundle argued in Crikey, “If you have lost most or all of your income, or are about to, don’t pay your rent, don’t pay your mortgage ... Do it collectively if you can ... So the government must be forced to simply accept what is made a fait accompli by the action of thousands”.

And why not? After all, if you’re a massive international corporation, you can apparently just tell your landlord you’re not paying rent any more, no questions asked. Premier Investments, which owns hundreds of retail stores across the country like Just Jeans, Portmans and Smiggle, just stood down 9,000 workers and is refusing to pay rent during the shutdown.

It’s not as though the company doesn’t have the money to pay. In the six months to February, Premier Investments delivered record total sales of $732.1 million – a 7.6 percent increase on the corresponding period last year.

The picture is very different for the working class. More than one in three people in Australia are renters, leaving this group one of the most vulnerable to housing stress when they lose their jobs.

Similar stresses face those with mortgages – the big banks have made hundreds of billions out of mortgagees in the last 20 years. The least they could do is give people a write down.

Many working-class people were already stretched by rent or mortgage payments of between 30 and 50 percent of their income, and by household debt. Financial hardship was common well before the coronavirus came on the scene. Figures from 2018 showed 6 percent were unable to pay rent on time, and 11 percent couldn’t meet their utility bills. Those figures are now going to skyrocket.

But if big companies can just declare they won’t pay, we should be able to as well.

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