Suspend rent signs on Capitol Hill

Edi­tor’s note: Wel­come to The Pan­dem­ic is Per­son­al, a new week­ly series that will focus on how the nov­el coro­n­avirus (SARS-CoV­‑2) is affect­ing the every­day lives of cit­i­zens through­out the Pacif­ic North­west. We hope to enlight­en you and reflect on what you and oth­ers are address­ing as this pan­dem­ic runs its course. If you have a sto­ry to tell, please feel free to con­tact us.

Kick­ing off this new series is our own David A. John­son, a for­mer jour­nal­ist from West Texas. David is cur­rent­ly a union research assis­tant for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton. He’s lived in the Pacif­ic North­west since 2012 and joined the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute in July 2017 as NPI’s Lit­er­ary Advocate. 

“A lot of folks have it worse.”

This is not the most effec­tive mantra for cheer­ing some­one up, whether they’re hear­ing it from out­side their head or within.

When I had rota­tor cuff surgery last year, remem­ber­ing how for­tu­nate I was to have health insur­ance and a 401(k) to emp­ty out did­n’t pro­vide any­where near the relief that hydrocodone every eight hours did. My state of mind was more depen­dent on chang­ing my mate­r­i­al con­di­tions than my per­spec­tive on anything.

Now — near­ly by def­i­n­i­tion of the word — we’re all liv­ing in a pandemic.

But it’s not the same pan­dem­ic for all of us, because a lot of folks have it worse.

None of my friends or fam­i­ly have yet been sick­ened or died from COVID-19. Just recent­ly, though, I found out a close friend’s father-in-law final­ly suc­cumbed to the dis­ease. The ven­ti­la­tor did­n’t save him, and he got his good-byes from those clos­est to him via tele­con­fer­enc­ing while heav­i­ly sedated.

He was eighty-one, and pri­or to this, he’d been healthy.

I’m still employed, work­ing a job that allows me to do it from home so I can earn my same liv­ing with­out hav­ing to put my own health direct­ly at risk.

One of my house­mates isn’t so for­tu­nate; they work in health­care, inter­act­ing with co-work­ers who inter­act with patients. My house­mate’s job involves test­ing COVID-19 sam­ples. They were get­ting fifty-eight to six­ty hours per week, but twice in the past month and a half, they’ve been laid low by some oth­er sick­ness and had to wait to test neg­a­tive to go back to work. Get­ting over­time is over now, though. Their clin­ic is out of mon­ey for it. A lot of folks have it worse.

My three oth­er house­mates are all unemployed.

Two work in food ser­vice, so they basi­cal­ly can’t work right now.

The third per­son was employed as a copy edi­tor on a con­tract that came up for renew­al in mid-April. What­ev­er the plans had been, it was­n’t a sur­prise when she did­n’t get the exten­sion. Her employ­er shut down the rest of the team, and her direct super­vi­sor said they’re try­ing to out­source the work to an Eng­lish speak­ing coun­try with low­er wages and labor standards.

A lot of folks have it worse.

She gets unem­ploy­ment, but one of my two house­mates in food ser­vice isn’t eli­gi­ble to receive it. He quit his last job to get away from the work­ing con­di­tions there, and he was look­ing for a new one when the gov­er­nor start­ed shut­ting every­thing down. His part­ner, the oth­er food ser­vice work­er, had his own hours cut lead­ing up to being laid off entire­ly, but that meant he was eli­gi­ble for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. When he tried to file, the Employ­ment Secu­ri­ty Depart­ment web­site was still reject­ing peo­ple and told him he’d have to come to an in-per­son hear­ing to have it sort­ed out.

Obvi­ous­ly, that’s not the case, but it meant he did­n’t have enough for April rent as we’d planned. His dad still had a job at Microsoft and he was able to get help with rent and gro­ceries. A lot of peo­ple have it worse.

We’re not pay­ing rent this month.

Suspend rent signs on Capitol Hill
Sus­pend Rent signs in Seat­tle (Pho­to cour­tesy of Capi­tol Hill Seat­tle Blog)

There is a more orga­nized rent strike going on, but our par­tic­i­pa­tion is less an act of class sol­i­dar­i­ty than mate­r­i­al need.

I’m still employed, but I’m a mil­len­ni­al in my mid-thir­ties who grad­u­at­ed from col­lege straight into the Great Reces­sion and have bounced from job to job as they went bank­rupt, laid off staff for inter­na­tion­al con­sol­i­da­tion, or were union-bust­ed.  But I have been employed and have my first union job now. I grad­u­at­ed with­out debt, and the car I’ve had for fif­teen years still runs. Once it ful­ly breaks down, I won’t have the mon­ey to get a replace­ment, so it’ll be my last car, too.

We’re not pay­ing rent this month, as men­tioned, and in a lot of ways that’s a shame because up till now we’ve had a great rela­tion­ship with our landlord.

He and his sis­ter live down­stairs. We’ve brought each oth­er mail and home-baked cook­ies. I dug the fire pit in the back­yard and bought the new pic­nic table.

In Octo­ber, it’ll be five years I’ve been here. We told him we can’t afford to keep pay­ing for shel­ter dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. He can’t evict us, but our lease is up in the sum­mer, and who knows how renew­ing it will go?

Maybe they’ll come after all of us with debt col­lec­tors when the pan­dem­ic ends. Maybe the hit to our rental his­to­ry will make it hard to find any new place.

Then I remem­ber that a lot of folks have it worse. Like my friend who’s been work­ing from home for more than two months and stuck in their apart­ment because they’re the sort of per­son with a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem and enough dis­abil­i­ties that should they get sick and need the hos­pi­tal, doc­tors might make the “tough deci­sion” to write them off as hav­ing too many comor­bidi­ties to devote scarce med­ical resources that might be used to save an abled person.

Of course, their fiance still goes in and out of the house because they work at a piz­za place on Capi­tol Hill, and peo­ple still want piz­za deliv­ered. With luck, the fiance won’t bring home a sick­ness. They need both incomes to keep that apart­ment because they’re still pay­ing off stu­dent loans at twen­ty-sev­en. But worst come to worst, their par­ents might be able to help them out.

A lot of folks have it worse.

An acquain­tance of mine found out she and her hus­band would­n’t be eli­gi­ble for the stim­u­lus. Ren­t’s com­ing and they have no income, but they do have an infant that needs gro­ceries and dia­pers. I sent her a hun­dred bucks we called a loan because I’m still employed, and a lot of folks have it worse.

Thou­sands of peo­ple in our area still live with­out per­ma­nent shelter.

Some can stay in their vehi­cles but oth­ers are com­plete­ly unshel­tered except for their tent or what’s makeshift. Between March 1st and March 17th, the city of Seat­tle did fif­teeen sweeps of home­less encamp­ments even with shel­ters already over­pop­u­lat­ed and unsafe. In the name of pub­lic safe­ty, peo­ple with­out homes are pushed even fur­ther to the mar­gins and the pan­dem­ic is worsened.

Hotel rooms sit emp­ty because no one wants to trav­el. Peo­ple too poor to afford per­ma­nent lodg­ing can’t afford hotel rooms. The prob­lem seems intractable under the com­bi­na­tion of cap­i­tal­ism and neolib­er­al­ism because they have no mon­ey and that’s how we val­ue their lives. But, again, a lot of peo­ple have it worse.

In jails and pris­ons, we have still have chil­dren, we have peo­ple arrest­ed but con­vict­ed of no crimes, and peo­ple duly con­vict­ed of heinous as well as arbi­trary crimes, all held hostage in places that put their lives at risk.

We could point out that jailed peo­ple bond out and jail­ers reg­u­lar­ly go back to their homes, there­fore this is a dan­ger to the community.

But like with the unshel­tered, this is a log­ic that holds the incar­cer­at­ed out­side of our def­i­n­i­tion of com­mu­ni­ty. Pub­lic safe­ty should be mak­ing sure that a drug charge or rob­bery con­vic­tion aren’t death sen­tences. But we want the bad peo­ple to be pun­ished, and they’re all incar­cer­at­ed so very far out of sight.

So in many ways, I’m quite for­tu­nate. Com­pared to many of my peers, I’m real­ly quite well off. But I’d trade all of that aware­ness for a rent and mort­gage mora­to­ri­um; for the secu­ri­ty that if I am kicked out of my house or it burns in a grease fire, I won’t face bru­tal­i­ty if I have lie down out­side to rest; that I won’t have to fear death should police choose to send me to jail and cram me in a hold­ing cell with fel­lows of my sta­tion who are ill.

I keep remind­ing myself: A lot of peo­ple have it worse.

The frus­trat­ing thing is, there’s no rea­son any of us should have to.

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