Port: Should the coronavirus pandemic mean people get to stop paying their rent?

Losing your job because of the COVID-19 outbreak is unfair. Expecting businesses to continue operating, even as many of their customers stop paying, is also unfair.

High Plains Fair Housing
The High Plains Fair Housing Center based in Grand Forks is pictured in this file photo. Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — There's been a lot of Sturm und Drang in the headlines , of late, about the plight of tenants facing eviction, or even just a continued expectation that they pay their rent, as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on our regional and national economies.

I am sympathetic.

It's not fair that people are losing their jobs and are impacted in other ways, both social and economic, because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But then, the virus isn't fair to anyone.

I'm worried that ideologues are exploiting this situation in what is a political crusade against landlords predating the current emergency .


Consider what you're facing today if you're in the business of rentals.

A significant number of your customers are facing financial hardships and may be late paying their rent if they pay at all.

The courts have, for the moment, denied access to the process through which you can get relief from people who aren't paying. They aren't letting eviction cases proceed, which is a scary thing. Do the courts have the authority, as the judicial branch of government, to make a unilateral policy decision to stop evictions?

They sure seem to think they do, because they did it, even though courts are supposed to adjudicate policy, not make it. If you disagree with the courts, I guess you could file a lawsuit, but who would hear the suit?

The same courts you're accusing of misappropriating authority?

Good luck winning that case.

Meanwhile, your expectation that people continue to pay for the use of your property is under attack on social media and in what are often relentlessly one-sided news stories.

How do you make a case for your interests when all the journalists and the social media hive mind want to focus on are tragic anecdotes?


Aligned against you now are grandstanding politicians and influential political groups like the ACLU, all of whom are carrying forward an expectation that you continue to serve your customers even as many of them stop paying you.

Losing your job because of the COVID-19 outbreak is unfair.

Expecting businesses to continue operating, even as many of their customers stop paying, is also unfair.

It's an intractable situation, I'll grant, yet in other areas of our economy, we are still expecting people to pay.

Grocery stores and restaurants provide a service -- access to food -- which is no less critical to humanity than the shelter housing companies offer.

Is anyone expecting them hand over product to people who can't or won't pay?

Keep in mind that rental companies have their own responsibilities.

They have employees I'm sure they'd like to keep on the payroll.


They have bills they must pay, both to vendors and the government.

How can they keep up with those expenses if more and more of their revenue-generating units are tied up with customers who aren't paying?

Giving people a break on their rent as we all struggle with through the pandemic is a nice thought, but as a practical matter, where do the breaks end?

If renters get a break, what about the landlords?

If the landlords get a break, what about their vendors and employees?

How much of that sort of thing can we just absorb?

Where do these dominoes stop falling?

There is a social contract around goods and services. We must pay for what we use.

Instead of undermining that imperative, we should focus on empowering those impacted by coronavirus to continue paying their bills.

It gives me much heartburn, as a conservative, to say this, but I'd rather the government give people money, or at least pay their bills for them in this extreme moment than to suggest that in any way that people have a right to use goods or services without paying.

By the way, this situation with renters is just one example of many illustrating why North Dakota's Legislature must be called back into session. I've made that argument before , but legislative leaders poo-pooed the idea , and at this point, lawmakers aren't even meeting in their interim committees .

This is leaving us with a leadership vacuum.

That's no slight to Gov. Doug Burgum, who has done a great job leading us through this crisis so far, but his executive power only goes so far.

There are going to be a lot of sticky issues related to the coronavirus outbreak going forward, and it's high time our lawmakers started doing their jobs addressing those issues.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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