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A System That Makes Housing a Commodity Can’t Serve Human Needs

Dianne Enriquez

Even before the pandemic, America was in the midst of a massive housing crisis. Now, it’s far worse. Our housing agenda has to include investing in public housing, universal rent control, just-cause eviction, and a broad push to decommodify housing.

Tenants protest eviction notices in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Interview by
Fran Quigley

The devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is now threatening to take away the very roofs over the heads of millions of Americans. More than half of US renter households lost employment income between March 2020 and March of this year, and one in five of those households is behind on their rent, according to the Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ recent State of the Nation’s Housing report. Over four million Americans are telling the US Census Bureau they expect to be evicted or foreclosed upon in the coming months.

This crisis is shining a spotlight on a housing problem that existed long before the pandemic, says Dianne Enriquez of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD). Even back in 2019, over ten million renters were paying more than half of their income for their housing. That equation put them at imminent risk for eviction or foreclosure, all while the United States gives hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to corporate landlords.

CPD is a network of over fifty community organizations working in low-income communities across the United States. Almost half of those organizations advocate for improved housing policies, and organize tenants and low-income homeowners. Dianne Enriquez, a longtime organizer of workers in the restaurant and health care industries, oversees CPD’s housing campaigns.

Fran Quigley interviewed Enriquez for Jacobin.


FQ

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moratorium on evictions is set to expire on July 31, with no extensions expected. What is likely to happen after that?

DE

The best estimates are that there are around seven million families in the US who are currently at risk of eviction. That risk is very real: even with the moratorium in place, there are a lot of corporate landlords in particular that are filing eviction paperwork already, getting things in motion so when the moratorium is lifted, they can be in line to make evictions happen as quickly as possible. In many places across the country, that federal moratorium is the only protection between renters and corporate landlords. So we are anticipating that millions of families are going to suffer.

FQ

How should governments at the federal, state, and local levels be responding to this?

DE

The federal government has dedicated a lot of money for rental assistance (a total of $46 billion to date), which should be able to mitigate some of the crisis. A lot of this federal response, and some local- and state-level renter protections, has been a direct result of the activism on the ground, including by our affiliates.

But what we have been seeing now is that people face a real challenge getting access to that assistance. The big technological divide means a lot of seniors and other folks find the application process difficult, and undocumented families are concerned about all the questions asked in the application process — even though they are eligible — and may struggle with a language barrier. (The US Treasury Department reported last week that less than 10 percent of the $25 billion appropriated in December had been distributed by the end of May.)

In Pennsylvania, for example, the state government failed to distribute over $100 million in CARES Act rental assistance funds designated for housing help, even though tens of thousands of tenants and homeowners needed that money. The unspent money was actually reallocated from these resources and programs to the prison system. Think about that in the context of homelessness being criminalized.

FQ

What needs to be done to make sure the funds still available get to renters across the country?

DE

A lot of our affiliates have acted as “navigators,” helping people go through the application process, coaching and training them about what is possible through this rental assistance. The government funds include money for overhead and infrastructure, so we are pushing for states to set up navigator programs to help renters get the assistance they qualify for.

FQ

What else should state and local governments be doing?

DE

They should be putting in their own universal eviction moratoriums and mechanisms to forgive rent fully, as California and New York are doing. States need also to deal with landlords that are refusing assistance funds from their tenants because they just want to evict. These landlords know that there’s a massive affordable housing crisis right now and they want to maximize rents, so it’s more profitable to put tenants on the streets. States should not allow landlords to file for evictions if they have refused rental assistance funds from their tenants.

We are on a precipice right now, hanging off the cliff, and part of the reason for that is because there are so few tenant protections. States and local governments should create eviction diversion programs, a right to counsel in eviction proceedings, rent control, and a requirement of good cause for evictions. Those could make a huge impact.

FQ

Since CPD is a network of state and local affiliates, can you share what some of those affiliates are doing in their communities to push policy reforms there?

DE

We already had a housing crisis before the pandemic; the pandemic has just exacerbated it. So a lot of our affiliates are pushing for long-term solutions, so that everybody has access to a home where they can thrive in a community that they choose.

For example, our affiliate Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment has won some significant victories in California on rent forgiveness and they are leading a campaign for social housing. Our affiliate One PA in Philadelphia has a Freedom to Stay campaign for rent control and requiring good cause for eviction. In Las Vegas, our affiliate Make the Road Nevada is organizing to end summary evictions and expand eviction protections.

In response to increased pandemic-induced landlord harassment, Richmond and Los Angeles passed strong tenant anti-harassment ordinances. (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment website)

In New York, Communities for Change, Make the Road New York and Churches United for Fair Housing are organizing to pass universal good cause protections for all tenants. So a number of our affiliates are pushing for permanent tools and protections that have been needed well before the pandemic, because now we are in a moment where people are waking up to a crisis that we’ve been facing for a long time.

FQ

Center for Popular Democracy and many of your affiliates have called for flat-out forgiveness of rent and mortgage debt. How do you respond to the argument that this demand is not feasible?

DE

In practice, it is already being done with state-level programs, like in California and New York, and they are using the rental assistance money to do it. The report from our partners at Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) that outlines how we are spending $470 billion to bail out and give tax refunds and credits to corporate landlords shows it is clearly possible to forgive rent. We just need to start prioritizing renters the way we have been doing for landlords. If there is a will, there definitely is a way.

FQ

You mention the hundreds of billions of government dollars directed toward landlords. It is also well-documented that the largest federal investment in housing is the mortgage interest deduction and capital gains exemptions that go mostly to the wealthiest. Even federal money designated for low-income housing ends up benefiting corporations via low-income housing tax credits and rent vouchers. What does all that tell you about housing policy in the United States?

DE

The concept of housing as a mechanism for wealth-building and as a commodity it is fundamentally flawed. When we acknowledge and recognize that housing is as essential as oxygen and water for human beings to thrive, we see how terrifying it is that corporate landlords have been able to use housing to extract so much wealth from poor and middle-class communities.

The simple fact that we don’t have any tenant protections in many states is a reflection of just how much unmitigated control the real estate industry and corporate landlords have. The government has tilted the playing field to allow a very few people to use a human necessity, housing, to extract as much wealth as possible from the majority of the people in this country.

FQ

Is that why CPD and many of your affiliates support social housing, which would ensure that government housing investments do not end up in the hands of for-profit corporations?

DE

Yes. We have seen clearly in housing programs over the years that we cannot trust in the benevolence of the wealthy to care about anybody else’s interests besides their own. So, when we think about how we de-commodify housing and make it accessible, not a wealth-building mechanism for a very few elite, social housing seems to be the best long-term solution.  Social housing is something that we’ve seen work in other countries, and the wealth gap narrows as a result.

Along with social housing, we want to create strong, universal tenant protections, including the ability for tenants to organize and unionize to build power. We want to put vouchers directly in the hands of tenants and their families, so they can manage their own finances. We want to make deep investments in building housing that is accessible to many and can be owned by nonprofit entities or community land trusts or cooperatives. That would prevent Wall Street landlords from gobbling up distressed or vacant properties, which is what we saw happen in the 2008 foreclosure crisis.

FQ

Are there federal-level proposals that would move us along this path?

DE

Yes, we worked closely with Rep. [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez as she wrote the “A Place to Prosper” Act as a part of her “A Just Society” bill package, and also we helped with crafting the Green New Deal for Public Housing. We also worked with several other members of the House, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal on several progressive housing bills collectively called the People’s Housing Platform.

FQ

What impact would these kinds of housing policy changes have on racial equality?

DE

Housing justice is racial justice. It’s not possible to separate the two from each other. When you think about who has been red-lined, when you think about who’s been excluded from certain communities, when you think about who’s been under-resourced, it is communities of color.

It’s the same when you think about who lost the most wealth during the foreclosure crisis, the generational wealth that a home can provide. Who ended up owning those homes? It was a handful of very wealthy corporations that ended up owning homes that used to belong to black families. Now these corporations are turning back around and renting those same homes to black families at astronomical prices.

All that said, though, I don’t know a single person in this country, whether they are white or a person of color, that doesn’t know someone who’s paying too much in rent, who doesn’t know someone who is struggling to keep their home or stay in their home. This is a universal issue that we’re all dealing with.

FQ

This paints a bleak picture. As we confront these long-standing issues and the post-moratorium crisis that will make them even more pronounced, do you see any room for optimism?

DE

Yes, we have a huge opportunity to do some significant and substantial course correction in housing, an opportunity that we haven’t had since the 1930s. Not just CPD but a number of our national partners and our affiliates are trying hard to push this opportunity as far as we can.

Now that the country is talking about infrastructure and deep investments in long-term solutions, it’s definitely a moment to talk about investing in public housing for retrofits. It is definitely a moment to talk about the job creation that comes with investing in housing and to repeal the Faircloth Amendment that blocks any increase in public housing. And it is definitely the time to institute universal rent control and just cause eviction.