It is now clear that the twin prescriptions of social isolation and shuttering large parts of the national economy have lowered the death toll of the novel coronavirus in the United States from the direst predictions. But in a country where the “social safety net” is more a distant memory than a source of actual provision or support, large swaths of the public now face the threat of hunger and homelessness. Each passing week brings more questions about what our cities and states will look like when the shelter-in-place orders are lifted; they also bring us one week closer to the rent coming due.
By May 6th, twenty per cent of tenants had not paid this month’s rent, a slight improvement over the twenty-two per cent who did not pay last month’s rent in the first week. This is probably the result of renters receiving increased unemployment and stimulus checks, but it is also unsustainable. Republicans have vowed not to renew the extra unemployment money when it comes up for a vote again in July, and most states are running out of funding to make their shares of the payments. Meanwhile, in a matter of weeks, a staggering thirty-three million people have filed for unemployment, and the future of millions more hangs in the balance. April’s unemployment rate was nearly fifteen per cent, a height of joblessness not reached since the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that by the fall, the official unemployment rate could rise even higher, to sixteen per cent.
Threadbare protections against many forms of destitution exist, whether it be unemployment assistance, Medicaid, or food stamps, but there are virtually no programs people can turn to in a housing emergency. There are charities here, or an emergency grant from a public agency there, but millions of ordinary people staring down the first of the month are on their own. Last month, Chicago’s Department of Housing offered one-time-only thousand-dollar grants to two thousand residents who need help with the rent; a staggering eighty-three thousand people applied for them within five days.
The crisis of stagnant wages and rising rents certainly predates COVID-19. Forty-seven per cent of renter households in the U.S. were already “cost-burdened,” meaning that they pay at least thirty per cent of their income in rent. More than half of African-American and Latino renters are cost-burdened. Twenty-five per cent of renters are “severely” cost-burdened, meaning that they pay at least half of their income in housing. From June of 2018 to July of 2019, Harvard researchers found that the median rent for an unfurnished apartment in a new building was sixteen hundred and twenty dollars, a thirty-seven-per-cent increase from the median rent in 2000. To state the obvious, that’s more than Trump’s one-off stimulus check. For almost everyone, housing is their greatest monthly expense.
The mismatch between housing need and costs has been a constant feature of the U.S. economy, with shortages driven by the basic reality that there is little to no money to be made in housing for working-class or poor people. The dynamic is especially acute for African-Americans. The real-estate market has been lauded as a race-neutral space, guided only by supply and demand, but more than a century of racial discrimination and residential segregation, rooted in the government-inspired perceptions that African-Americans pose an existential threat to property values, belies that myth. The roots of the current crisis, however, can be found in the Great Recession and the avalanche of foreclosures in its wake. As millions of struggling homeowners, particularly African-Americans, lost their homes, private-equity firms, like the Blackstone Group, swooped in to buy hundreds of thousands of the properties. Those homes whose mortgages had been backed by the federal government were especially attractive, because the feds, eager to dump these properties, would sell them at a thirty- to fifty-per-cent discount.
These were cheap houses to begin with—they were an entry point for working-class families who wanted to buy a house. Many of the properties have been turned into rentals, meaning that there are significantly fewer entry points into the ownership market. This has meant that black and brown families have become especially vulnerable to the changing rental market. It is a hallmark of private-equity landlords, with their huge haul of properties, to be primarily focussed on maximizing the return on their investment. The result is persistent rises in rent, cutting back on repairs and other maintenance, ramping up fees, and casually evicting tenants who cannot keep up. It is housing reduced to its most base exchange value. Many of the key players in developing this new market of single-family rentals have played large roles in and around the Trump Administration—including the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, who was known as the “foreclosure king” of Southern California. Is it any wonder why no real housing relief has come from this White House?
Between 2011 and 2017, four million units of “low-cost rentals” were lost and not replaced. More than forty per cent of the remaining low-cost units are fifty years old or older. In Philadelphia, hundreds of apartments and houses have been legally designated as “unfit for human habitation”—but hundreds of families do live in these properties, as a last resort against homelessness. These are the market forces behind the rising rates of homelessness across the country and the dramatic reverse migration of African-Americans, who are returning to the South in search of cheaper housing. But there is no refuge in this economy: the high cost of renting combined with the lack of tenant protections has resulted in a surge of evictions across the South. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, nine of the ten highest-evicting large cities are in the South and are at least thirty per cent African-American.
Now thousands more will join the ranks of the rent-burdened and the financially distressed. Some landlords, recognizing the enormity of the crisis, have tried to work with their tenants, but others have used the vulnerability of sudden unemployment and housing insecurity to manipulate them. There have been stories of violence, intimidation, and illegal evictions, where landlords change locks or remove the belongings of a resident. And then there are the landlords who have tried to coerce women into exchanging sex for rent. The directives to stay at home while courts are closed and advocates are stretched to their capacity amplifies the urgency of providing robust financial resources for struggling tenants, so that they can either pay their bills or be freed from their debt and the threat of dispossession.
There has been a little more progress for homeowners, because of the federal government’s quick intervention requiring that federally backed mortgages not be foreclosed on in the event of missed payments. There was also a moratorium on evictions for tenants in federally subsidized rentals, but this provision affects only about twenty-five per cent of rental units. And most renters are unlikely to be aware of the status of their landlord’s mortgage.
The incomplete actions of local and federal officials could result, by late summer, in hundreds of thousands of evictions and foreclosures, which would trigger a new wave of infection and illness. If anyone thinks this is hyperbole, they are not paying attention. We already know that poverty is an accelerant for the virus, and eviction is a plunge into American poverty. Already, nine per cent of people who think they might have COVID-19 won’t seek medical attention because of concerns about costs. Those numbers will grow as people cascade into the financial oblivion that is foreclosure and eviction. Homeless shelters are already major sites of COVID-19 outbreaks; forcing hundreds of thousands of families into the streets would be throwing gasoline on still-smoldering embers.
Of course, none of this has to happen. The muted action of the federal government should not be confused with the inability to act. Clearly, federal officials know the meaning of “bailout.” For weeks, Congress has been passing trillion-dollar rescue bills, but most of the dollars are directed at businesses. The premise of the corporate bailouts is always that the money will be redistributed to the public by keeping people employed, but, without a true guarantee, there is simply no reason to believe that it will happen. In late March, hours after Congress passed a bailout bill that would send United Airlines more than five billion dollars, the company announced that it would likely initiate layoffs in the fall, when its government money runs out. There may be bigger issues to come, as the stimulus packages have had very weak oversight provisions.
If the hundreds of billions of dollars slated for business were redirected to needy tenants and homeowners, it would go a long way toward stabilizing the housing crisis, while also functioning as a genuine stimulus. Instead, the multi-trillion-dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (cares) Act earmarks twelve billion dollars for housing assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including four billion in emergency funds to provide shelter to homeless populations. This is certainly welcome, but a comparison of the sums involved with the historic need shows that Congress remains painfully out of touch with the financial realities confronting millions of ordinary people. The remaining eight billion dollars is intended for existing subsidized-housing programs, which is a beginning but wholly insufficient. The vast majority of renters live in private housing, without the assistance of our warped public-aid system.
A crisis of this proportion presents two options: continue along the same path that has produced a chronic housing shortage, racism and redlining, and the enrichment of a few, or leverage the crisis to keep people in their homes and to invest in new housing for poor and working-class families. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a Second Bill of Rights, which would guarantee to all Americans, as rights, “a useful and remunerative job, “adequate medical care,” “a good education,” and “a decent home.” According to Roosevelt, these rights were based on a “clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” The following year, President Harry S. Truman downgraded these “rights” to a “goal,” though he also concluded, “A decent standard of housing for all is one of the irreducible obligations of modern civilization.” The Housing Act of 1949 proposed “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”
The United States is the richest country in the world, and it has never been more urgent to provide decent and comfortable housing for all. Today, this means using the country’s awesome resources to cancel rent and mortgage debt so that families may remain in their homes. Some elected officials have responded with the appropriate degree of urgency. Senator Bernie Sanders has called for the cancellation of rent and mortgage payments. In March, even the moderate former Vice-President Joe Biden called for rent payments to be cancelled. Representative Ilhan Omar has introduced federal legislation that would cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic crisis and includes the creation of a fund for repaying landlords and lenders.
Yet the leading liberal lights of some of the worst-hit states have offered only limited and piecemeal solutions. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom, who is often applauded for exhibiting competence in his handling of the coronavirus, did not impose a moratorium on evictions, opting to leave this up to each locality. (He later signed an executive order that gives tenants statewide more time to respond to eviction proceedings, a move that critics have panned as “entirely useless.”) Some municipalities have allowed for a pause in rental payments, but only if tenants can prove that their hardship is specifically tied to COVID-19. This is plainly a ridiculous requirement in the midst of a pandemic, especially since it is quite possible to become ill but not secure the still-elusive COVID-19 test.
In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed a dramatic executive order that called attention to the unprecedented nature of the crisis, including its economic impact. The mayor’s order recognized “that many persons so affected do not have access to paid time off,” that “even a few lost days of wages due to the effects of COVID-19 could mean not being able to buy food, pay rent,” and that “government entities around the world are implementing eviction prevention measures to increase housing stability for residents.” Given all this insight, however, her moratorium on evictions applied only to tenants in public and subsidized housing.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot trumpeted her “Housing Solidarity Pledge,” which calls on landlords and lenders to voluntarily enter into repayment plans with tenants, without late fees. Seventeen organizations, representing banks, landlords and real-estate interests, have signed the pledge, but several tenant organizations have called it “wholly insufficient,” since the mayor also stated that tenants must “meet their obligations” to repay rental debt. As if to make the point of tenants’-rights activists, one of the signatories to Lightfoot’s pledge, TLC Property Management, has filed dozens of eviction cases in Chicago and its suburbs since March 20th, when Illinois’s governor, J. B. Pritzker, declared a statewide moratorium on evictions. Activists are calling on the governor to lift a state law banning rent control, a necessary precondition to cancelling the rent and mortgage payments.
Historically, the tension between the housing that is available and the housing that is needed has inspired the formation of tenant unions, rent strikes, and other initiatives aimed at securing housing justice. The last great wave of tenant activism came in the nineteen-sixties, when Harlem residents organized rent strikes against rat infestations, and the Chicago Freedom Movement, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., helped to organize tenant “unions against slums” in Chicago. These efforts were just small parts of a broader mobilizationfor better and just housing for African-Americans, including the battle to end housing discrimination, which culminated with the passage of the Fair Housing Act, in 1968, and the supposed opening of the entire housing market to all citizens. Ultimately, the act failed to do so because landlords and the real-estate industry were deeply invested in perpetuating residential segregation. The separation of rental and buyers’ markets continued to add financial value to the idea of the exclusive white neighborhood, while black neighborhoods, with older housing in disrepair, still netted more expensive rents because African-Americans were a captured market.
Tenant activism has persisted since then, but it is, almost necessarily, locally oriented and, thus, fragmented. Typically, rent strikes and tenant organizing have been focussed on a single building or directed at a particular landlord. With major landlords, these actions can at times cut across neighborhoods, involving multiple buildings, but they are narrow almost by definition. The returns on this activism have been mixed, with a local ordinance here calling for one kind of remedy, and a local rule elsewhere calling for another fix. More generally, housing policy has been stuck in narrow discussions about affordability, based on small-scale projects that barely make a dent in the overwhelming need for housing. The choke chain of pragmatism cuts off the air when we desperately need to breathe new ideas and energy into housing and development in the United States.
The organizing happening today is different. It is being guided by more general demands that rents be cancelled and accruing debts wiped off the books—and that the federal government use its enormous resources to rescue tenants. The physical assembly of renters and struggling homeowners is not possible because of social distancing, but that has not stopped efforts to coördinate rent strikes across the country, starting first in April and continuing in May. From Kansas City, Missouri, to Richmond, Virginia, and beyond, local organizers are attempting the unprecedented: mobilizing millions to withhold their rents, in an effort to force the federal government to include tens of millions of renters in its relief efforts.
Two of the largest strikes are in New York City and Philadelphia, led by organizations including Housing Justice for All and the Philadelphia Tenants Union. In New York, the goal of organizers is to enlist a million city residents in withholding their rent under the banner of the strike. Cea Weaver, an organizer with Housing Justice for All, described the peril and promise of the crisis, to Curbed, as “really terrifying, but it’s also quite inspiring.” She added, “It’s in moments of crisis that we’re able to win big things, from the first rent-control laws in New York State’s history about a hundred years ago to public housing and more. It’s in moments like these when we can really push the envelope to envision a totally different world.”
The maturity of these demands did not emerge from a void. The torrent of home foreclosures during the Great Recession inspired a wave of housing activism, as local organizations engaged in eviction defense to help families remain in their homes. Organizations like the Miami-based Take Back the Land and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign became known for engaging in eviction resistance and occupying empty houses as a tactic to create housing for those experiencing homelessness or as a defense against dispossession. These and other local initiatives represent grassroots efforts to slow the for-profit model of housing development that has marginalized poor and working-class families and their struggles for housing security.
Last December, in Oakland, where the tech boom threw gentrification into overdrive, four single African-American mothers took possession of an abandoned house owned by corporate real-estate entity called Wedgewood, Inc. Wedgewood intended to hold onto the property as its value increased, but the inhumanity of “buy now, sell later” is glaring in Oakland, where some estimates suggest that rents increased by fifty per cent between 2012 and 2017—and where black people make up seventy per cent of the rising homeless population. As the mother-activists have pointed out, there are more empty houses in Oakland than there are unhoused people. In early January, after a judge ruled that the women had no legal right to occupy the house, a paramilitary police force raided the building, evicting the women and arresting two of them. But, in response to the activism and international publicity, Wedgewood agreed to negotiate a sale of the house to a community land trust, insuring that the women and their families would be able to live there.
In L.A., as in Oakland, thousands of units of housing sit empty as owners wait for property values to rise before cashing out. Meanwhile, upward of thirty-five thousand people are homeless. A group of Latino families who call themselves the Reclaimers have called upon “the city and state to immediately use all vacant properties to house people.” These families already faced eviction; some were living in cars because of the unchecked rise in rents. With the immediate threat of COVID-19 and state orders to shelter in place, they decided to occupy eleven vacant houses that had been purchased by a state agency in anticipation of expanding the freeway system. As Ruby Gordillo, a mother of three who is occupying one such house, contends, “This is public land. This is a taxpayer house. You paid for it. I paid for it. We all paid for it. All of these vacant houses on public land should be used for public good, to create real affordable housing.”
These creative examples of housing activism will be necessary when the eviction engine begins to churn in the coming weeks and months. It seems patently absurd to turn people onto the street when a financial depression had been brought on through no fault of their own.
The demands for rent relief and equitable rescue legislation have to be built on an equally imaginative and broad scale. Last November, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a Green New Deal for Public Housing Act in Congress. Where such proposals might once have seemed utterly utopian, they now feel long overdue. The plan calls for spending up to a hundred and seventy-two billion dollars to retrofit and decarbonize more than a million units of public housing. Across the country, thousands of public-housing units have been allowed to deteriorate, as local officials prepare to sell the land to developers. Investing in this housing and keeping it in the public domain would not only generate thousands of jobs but also create good, sustainable housing for thousands of working-class families.
There’s also the Homes Guarantee, introduced by the People’s Action, a national coalition that has called for a multi-trillion-dollar investment in the creation of affordable housing. In addition to support for the Green New Deal, the Homes Guarantee calls for building twelve million units of social housing, creating a tenants’ bill of rights, and imposing taxes that discourage real-estate speculation and the continued commodification of housing. It also calls for reparations for Native Americans and African-Americans, to compensate for the financial damage of displacement, redlining, and housing discrimination. Together, these proposals offer a complete reimagining of what housing policy can and should look like. For those who think such ideas are unrealistic, one must ask if they are any more improbable than expecting the market to suddenly produce the needed housing. As the Homes Guarantee organizer Tara Raghuveer has argued, “The theory of the Homes Guarantee is that the market failure has been so profound, we can’t wait around for the market to work.”
At the heart of the demands of organizers across the country is cancellation of rent owed and rent coming due. The insistence on payments from millions of renters makes no sense, given that the shortfalls they are experiencing have been created by the orders to shelter in place and close businesses. If our government can spend trillions of dollars to bail corporations out of a worsening economic situation, then there is no reason why that same gesture cannot be extended to poor and working-class families. Millions of low-wage workers across the country have been designated as essential workers and heralded as heroic. But what is needed even more than flattery and compliments is relief from the housing insecurity that compels them to risk their lives for low wages.
There is an inherent conflict between the human right to housing and making housing available based on what the market will provide and at the highest price it can command. But there are real reforms to this arrangement that can be made today. If the Army Corps of Engineers can build field hospitals for COVID-19 patients overnight, why can’t they also build new housing for those in need of it? In Philadelphia and Baltimore and Chicago and Detroit, why can’t old and abandoned housing be rehabilitated and repurposed to stop the skyrocketing rise in rents and the displacement of black and brown working-class families? We have to reverse the strange alchemy where markets turn land, concrete, steel, and glass into money, while conversely turning people out into the streets.
Consider the grim alternative, if we remain stuck with the shamefully inadequate housing relief that has been offered: hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class renters and homeowners, particularly from black communities, dispossessed of their homes and pushed into the streets, doubled and tripled up in relatives’ and friends’ homes or warehoused in homeless shelters, hungry, exhausted, and increasing their exposure to this novel coronavirus. We know about the higher mortality rates for black and brown people who contract the disease. As a society, we must ask whether the failure to pay rent or a missed mortgage payment should be punished with a death sentence.
[Originally published on May 12, 2020 via The New Yorker]