‘Let Them Breathe’: Veto of Small Biz Eviction Stay will Hit Communities of Color Hardest

Shanique Speight

Before the civil unrest sparked by the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Gov. Murphy vetoed a bill that would have provided a 90-day pause on small business evictions driven by the state’s shutdown of commerce as part of its pandemic response.

Sadly, the veto will be most keenly felt in New Jersey’s neighborhoods of color where small businesses have always had the hardest time getting access to capital even in more robust economic crimes, never mind a time like the present of an unparalleled slowdown.

In Mr. Murphy’s veto message, the Governor expressed concern that in the process of throwing a lifeline to small businesses he would be penalizing commercial landlords “who may not be relieved of their own obligations to pay mortgage payments and property taxes.”

“While I share the sponsors’ concern for the viability of our state’s small businesses, I am concerned that the approach contemplated in this bill fails to fully consider the financial impact that an emergency rent suspension would have on our non-residential property owners who are, in many cases, themselves small businesses,” he added.

 

NOT A GIVE AWAY

The bill, sponsored by State Senator Linda R. Greenstein and in the Assembly by Daniel K. Benson, Vincent Mazeo, Shanique Speight, and Wayne Deangelo was not a ‘give-away’ and provided the 90-day arrearage in rent would be paid back over six to nine months.

Perhaps, the veto reflects the Governor’s Goldman Sachs understanding of our winner take all capitalism but not a grasp of its historic impact on communities of color.

We have never expiated America’s original sin of slavery.

The abandonment of Reconstruction after the Civil War permitted the codification of white supremacy into law in the 19th and early 20th century and in our lifetime a “war on drugs” that resulted in the mass incarceration of African Americans at five times the rate of whites.

The nation’s systemic racism just doesn’t manifest itself in racist policing but is deeply embedded in a rigged economy that’s led to unprecedented wealth concentration that has only accelerated under both Republicans and Democrats.

 

WHO GOT RESCUED?

Consider the arc of the Great Recession, set in motion by an unprosecuted white-collar crime wave on Wall Street. The bipartisan Congressional response was to insulate the very investor class that precipitated the crisis, while letting Main Street and MLK Boulevard twist in the wind.

Years after the Great Recession, both political parties ignored the ongoing foreclosure crisis that was still burning through ZIP codes in many of the cities like Newark, Paterson and Elizabeth that were already abandoned by American industry encouraged to go offshore by America’s pro-corporatist tax policy.

In neighborhoods in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, where police killings sparked protests, close to half of the mortgages were underwater, meaning that the homeowners owed significantly more on the homes than they are actually worth.

According to a report titled “Underwater America,” from the Haas Institute at the University of California, of the 100  cities with the highest rate of underwater mortgages, 71 had a population that was more than 40 percent African-American and Latino. More than 10 million Americans lived in the 395 hot-spot ZIP codes where between 43 percent and 76 percent of homeowners were trapped in underwater mortgages and headed for foreclosure.

 

AN UNRAVELING IGNORED

It was in these places that you found the highest concentration of so-called zombie homes. People either walked away from them or the banks forced the people who lived in them out. Over time the property deteriorated to the point that addicts and the homeless moved in and, on occasion, set the places on fire, killing those living in adjacent homes who were trying to hold on to the integrity of their neighborhood

“The Black-White racial wealth divide is a primary obstacle to racial reconciliation in the United States,” wrote Dedrick Asante-Muhammad and Chuck Collins in Poverty & Race Journal. “The celebrated but brief heyday of the Civil Rights Movement ended legal sanction of white supremacy, yet vast inequalities of wealth persist.”

The authors noted, that while there had been some advances in reducing the Black-White income gap “if Black incomes rose at the same rate as they did between 1968 and 2001, it would take 581 years for Blacks to reach per-capita income parity with white America.”

Before the body blow of the Great Recession in 2004, “the median family net worth of Blacks was $20,400, only 14.5% of the median white net worth of $140,700. The median net worth for Latino families was $27,100.”

 

FALLING FURTHER BEHIND

And these trends have only gotten more pronounced during the Trump era, as documented by the Institute for Policy StudiesThe Racial Wealth Divide in Trump’s America.”

“The median Black family today has just $1,700 in wealth, with Latino families not far ahead at just $2,000,” the Institute for Policy Studies reported.  “White families, meanwhile, own more than $100,000. That gap is staggering.”

The analysis continued. “The report looks at racial wealth data over the past 30 years to project what we can expect in the future if current trends continue. By 2020, the end of Trump’s first term, median Black and Latino households stand to lose nearly 18 percent and 12 percent of the wealth they held in 2013, respectively.”

 

ADD A PANDEMIC AND STIR

And all of this predates the COVID19 pandemic that, as Gov.  Murphy has acknowledged, has been most deadly for communities of color where vast structural wealth and income inequality have manifested into race-based health disparities making them more vulnerable to the virus.

According to an economic survey by the Pew Research Institute, “nearly three-quarters of black (73%) and Hispanic adults (70%) said they did not have emergency funds to cover three months of expenses; around half of white adults (47%) said the same. The vast majority of black and Hispanic adults without financial reserves also said they would not be able to cover their expenses for three months by borrowing money, using savings or selling assets.”

Yet, even as COVID19 exacted the highest death toll from these very same neighborhoods of color, the small businesses in these same places were shut out of the billions of dollars doled out by President Trump’s Treasury Department.

James Parrot, an economist with the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, supported the New Jersey legislature effort to buy small businesses breathing room the Feds have failed to deliver.

“We all need small businesses to recover,” Parrott said. “They not only need an eviction moratorium but rent relief. Since the pandemic-induced business restrictions were mandated for public health reasons, a sensible and economically constructive approach would be to require lenders and landlords to share in the economic costs of forcing businesses to close. Otherwise, the pace of the economic recovery will be that of a dead snail.”

 

FLIP OUR USUAL SCRIPT

Richard Wolff, a visiting professor of economics in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, sees the need for a “trickle up” approach to small business preservation that works on multiple levels simultaneously.

“This would mean a program that (a) stayed evictions, (b) helped small businesses specifically with rent payments, and (c) helped small landlords by covering the rents small businesses did not pay or by guaranteeing late payments by small business renters for at least 90 days,” Wolff said. “There is no end to such possibilities that should include tilting away from big, towards small business in ‘depressed areas’ more than elsewhere, towards localities hard hit by Corona more than those less impacted and so on.”

These small businesses can’t afford to do as the Governor suggested and cue up for yet another oversubscribed government program that’s long on forms and short on real relief.

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