The United States is on the precipice of a post-pandemic eviction crisis. More than half of all renter households lost employment income between March 2020 and March of this year, causing one in five of those households to fall behind on rent. For black renter households, fully 29 percent owe past-due rent.
Much of the fallout has been delayed by the eviction moratorium issued by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But that moratorium is set to expire on July 31, and Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads know what lurks around the corner. The US Census Bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse Survey issued on June 15 revealed that nearly 4.2 million people nationwide report that it is likely or somewhat likely that they will be evicted or foreclosed upon in the next two months.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are multiple steps the federal government can and should take to stave off this crisis, and to fix the underlying injustices that are causing it.
In the short term, the Biden administration should extend the CDC moratorium to reflect the lingering economic struggles caused by the pandemic. If the CDC does not reconsider its indication that it would not extend the deadline past the end of July, states and local governments should extend their existing moratoriums or enact new ones. California lawmakers, for example, are not only considering an extended moratorium, they are making plans to use federal stimulus money to pay all of low-income renters’ back rent accumulated during the pandemic. Renters in the United States are still digging themselves out from COVID’s devastation, and our lawmakers need to act like it.
Lawmakers and courts should also require landlords to offer mediation to their tenants or take other informal steps before filing for a court order of eviction. A landlord should not be able to spend a few minutes completing a check-the-box form, plunk down as little as $87, and thereby inscribe a “Scarlet E” that will haunt a tenant for decades. Even when an eviction case is resolved with a settlement or in the tenants’ favor, future potential landlords often check court records, find a past eviction record, and then reject the applicants outright. Many Americans with eviction records thus become homeless or are forced to rely on expensive extended-stay motels.
For this same reason, lawmakers and judges should also restrict public access to eviction records, as has been done to varying degrees in Nevada, Oregon, California, and Washington, DC. Restricted access is already the rule for many other civil legal cases. Not allowing a past eviction to haunt a renter for decades on end is in keeping with the national trend toward expunging criminal records of past defendants, and a strong majority of voters support these policies.
“People with evictions on their records still need a place to live, but they are forced to pay the same amount of money for lesser-quality housing,” says judge Garland Graves, whose court handles eviction cases in Warren Township, Indiana. “It is a mark on their record that causes them real harm.”
Given the high stakes involved, tenants facing eviction should have a right to an attorney in eviction proceedings, where most landlords have counsel and very few tenants ever do. Nine cities have already enacted programs to provide counsel in eviction proceedings.
“There is a real imbalance of power between landlords and tenants in our current system,” says Alieza Durana of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. “We need a tenants’ bill of rights that rectifies that imbalance, and that includes a right to counsel.”
The federal government should exercise its power to ban exclusionary zoning laws, especially those that prohibit multifamily housing and establish minimum lot sizes. Those zoning restrictions have a blatantly racist legacy. And we must rehabilitate the often substandard public housing in the United States, as called for in Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal for Public Housing Act.
Housing as a Human Right
These short-term fixes are urgently needed, but they should be just the first step in a full reorientation of our approach to housing. The current crisis provides an opportunity for a long-overdue national commitment to housing as a human right and a public good, rather than a commodity that is withheld from millions in order to guarantee unearned profits for a few.
The simple inability to pay monthly rent is far and away the top cause of Americans being forced from their homes. “In our court we constantly see a single mom with kids, trying to pay the rent on $10 per hour,” says Judge Graves. “All it takes is one hiccup like a car breakdown or a health issue, and the problems snowball from there.”
The first step in elevating people over property interests is to immediately remedy the shameful fact that only one in four eligible families receive federal rental assistance. As the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and other advocates have demanded, we must guarantee rental assistance to every eligible household. Given the very limited public-housing supply in the United States, the fastest way to achieve this is by making the housing choice voucher program universal. The government would provide a subsidy in the amount needed for low-income renters to afford market-rate housing without the undue hardship of paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
But a voucher expansion cannot be the long-term solution, since it perpetuates a core problem in the US approach to housing: we already make an enormous public investment in housing, but those dollars often end up in the pockets of wealthy individuals and for-profit developers and landlords.
Consider the mortgage interest deduction, which costs the federal government as much as $70 billion per year. That total is far higher than the entire budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and exceeds the Urban Institute’s estimated cost of providing a housing voucher to every eligible renter ($62 billion per year.) Most Americans get zero benefit from the mortgage interest deduction, but the wealthy do: 80 percent of its benefits are raked in by households in the richest 20 percent.
We generously subsidize corporate landlords, too. The Center for Popular Democracy has tallied $470 billion in government-provided benefits handed to those companies in the form of loopholes to avoid capital gains taxes and preferential tax treatment for limited liability corporations, real estate investment trusts, and corporations that invest in “opportunity zones,” which is often a vehicle for gentrification.
Even when the government programs are targeted at providing help for the poor, the wealthy win out. The housing choice voucher program is the largest low-income housing program in the country, with $19 billion per year spent providing rent support for tenants to pay private landlords. Data on who those landlords are is lacking, but it seems clear most are likely large for-profit companies. The other largest low-income housing programs, the low-income housing tax credit and project-based rental assistance programs, similarly direct government dollars into private, for-profit hands, with only some of the benefits accruing to people in need of housing.
The Poverty and Race Research Action Council, among other advocates, has outlined how the federal government could change those programs to invest instead in government and nonprofit housing. We should move our housing billions out of the private market and into social housing, built on a foundation of full public-sector ownership and management. In so doing, we will commit to democratic control of housing, which will minimize costs and include mechanisms to remedy race and income segregation.
Social housing is not a pipe dream concocted by a random think tank or tenant advocacy group: it is an approach with a proven track record in multiple European communities. For example, as Ryan Cooper and Saoirse Gowan have reported in Jacobin, the majority of Viennese live in municipal and cooperative housing, and three of every four Finns are eligible for publicly financed housing.
Like judges, advocates, and tenants across the country, Judge Graves in Indiana is bracing himself for a flood of evictions after the CDC moratorium expires. As worried as he is about protecting the rights of tenants in his court in the coming months, he is even more disturbed by what he sees on the more distant horizon: “If we don’t take some major action, I’m concerned we are just not going to have enough places for all of the people who need a place to live.”
The time for that major action is now.