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America's Renters vs. Sam Zell

On April 1st, nearly a third of U.S. apartment renters could not pay their rent. On May 1st, even more people were unable to pay rent. The landscape of landlords is incredibly varied from individuals with a two-flat to multibillion-dollar corporations and everything in between.

Meet our local billionaire Sam Zell, the head of companies that own over 150,000 rental properties - including apartments, manufactured homes and RV parks. Last year, Zell was ranked number 119 on the Forbes 400 list with an estimated $5.5 billion in personal wealth. While one of his companies, Equity Residential, announced freezes on evictions for April, May and June in response to the coronavirus crisis, they simultaneously increased rents.

So, while people navigate whether to spend their meager stimulus check on food or prescription drugs, Zell aims to increase the already bulging wealth of himself and his partners. While the rest of us ration cleaning supplies, minimize grocery trips, teach our children while wondering if we'll be able to feed them that night, Zell sees an opportunity to make a huge profit.

One of the top desires of many laid-off workers is rent forgiveness, a break to allow them to stretch the little they have a bit further without endangering their families in search of work when they should be social distancing. And despite most not having a history of tenants organizing, they're willing to take drastic action to win that relief.

That is why on May 1, Jobs with Justice and many others supported workers who actively refused to pay their rent to Wall Street and corporate landlords like Sam Zell who seek to profit from our collective pain. But there are real risks for tenants that cannot pay and will not pay rent.

While there is an eviction moratorium in Illinois, landlords are still filing the paperwork, waiting for the moratorium to be lifted. An eviction will follow a tenant for years, making it difficult to secure housing for a very long time, even though the fact that people are not working is not their fault but rather due to a global pandemic.

Zell and others have the power to freeze and forgive rent payments for the duration of this crisis. In addition to not evicting anyone who cannot pay, he could forgive all rents for April, May and June. And unlike many smaller landlords who are doing this out of compassion for their tenant neighbors - people like Mario Salerno who canceled rent for tenants in all 18 of his apartment buildings in New York during the coronavirus at great expense - Zell can more than afford it. It wouldn't really cost him anything at all.

The reality is that we need Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to take action immediately. We cannot wait for people like Sam Zell to do the right thing - we will likely be waiting a very long time. Pritzker can and should cancel rent and mortgage payments in Illinois. The Chicago Latino Caucus and many, many others have asked him to take this action. He has the legal ability to do it. He must do it now. If Pritzker can mount a legal challenge to defend his right to extend the stay-at-home order, he can mount a legal challenge to protect Illinoisans who can't pay rent because they, and their employers, are following that order.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on May 5, 2020


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