JCA To Lead Teaching: Does Torah Call For Rent Holiday?

Housing justice has been part of the Jewish Community Action program for almost all of the organization’s 25 years. But in the COVID-19 crisis, with skyrocketing unemployment rates in the state and country, the importance of the housing work not only continues to grow, but has its roots deeply embedded in the Torah.

Aaron Berc, JCA’s lead housing organizer, is leading a digital learning session called “Chag Rent Sameach – calling for a shmita on rent” on April 27 on the concept of shmita, which is the Hebrew word for release. In this case, JCA – and many housing advocates – are calling on state leadership to cancel the rent on May 1. This month, more than 30 percent of renters were unable to pay their rent.

“There are all of these laws in Deuteronomy about the release of debt,” Berc said. “For a lot of people, $1,200 dollars will barely pay rent for one month. I’m looking at a headline right now and they’re talking about businesses being augmented or closed or having to change the business practices for upwards of 18 months. And so what are the ways in which we can help people who are hostesses and servers and all of these folks that are not going to maybe get their jobs back right away? It is something that would help folks who are directly impacted by the economic crisis that is this pandemic.”

The root word of shmita comes from sheva, the Hebrew word for seven. Shmita is the set of Jewish laws that give structure to relationships: with the land we’re on, between employees & employers, and in our relationship to lending & debt. Shmita teaches us that every seventh year, debt is to be forgiven.

“The way that the Torah calls us to, in a moment like this, I think is by at least wrestling with the idea of shmita,” Berc said.

Gov. Tim Walz, in executive order 20-14, called for a moratorium of evictions for the length of the peacetime emergency or until he rescinds the executive order. The order specifically says that nothing in this Executive Order relieves a tenant’s obligation to pay rent.

“Personally, and I think as JCA, we’re really supportive of, of what the governor has done to keep Minnesotans safe. But at the same time, we need to help Minnesotans be able to stay in their homes,” Berc said. “The eviction moratorium is a really great first step, but what if no one is able to pay their rent for four months, and then the eviction moratorium lifts, and now everyone owes four or five months of rent, everyone’s going to get evicted, and the courts going to be overwhelmed. It’s going to be a disaster. So what are the ways in which we can really not repeat some of the mistakes of 2008 where we saw millions of Americans’ homes get foreclosed on.”

Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar announced last week a bill that she was sponsoring that calls on canceling rent and mortgage payments during the coronavirus crisis. The bill would constitute full payment forgiveness, with no accumulation of debt for renters or homeowners and no negative impact on their credit rating or rental history. The Mortgage and Rent Cancellation Act will establish a relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders to cover losses from the canceled payments and create an optional fund to fully finance the purchase of private rental properties by non-profits, public housing authorities, cooperatives, community land trusts, and states or local governments—in order to increase the availability of affordable housing during this downturn.

Berc said while there have been these types of fights between people who work directly with tenants and people who represent landlords over what the response should be to a crisis, earlier this week in the State House advocates and landlords found themselves on the same side arguing for $100 in rental subsidies.

“We can keep spending money as a state or as a country to make sure that people are okay, or we could just make sure that no one has to pay on the things that they’re spending on. You know, it’s sort of two sides of the same coin,” Berc said. “And I think telling people that what is oftentimes their biggest expense in the month can be waived would just be an immense relief to a lot of people during this great change in our society. Things might not ever go picked up the way they used to be.”