The federal eviction moratorium and many state and local moratoriums end this month, but the usual causes of homelessness are as far beyond individual control as COVID-19 was. Ava DeSantis makes a case for a guaranteed housing program, on the ethical terms of our current politicians.
The CARES Act provided a temporary moratorium on eviction for nonpayment of rent, for most residents of federally subsidized apartments and renters in homes covered by federally-backed mortgages. The authors of the bill justified the moratorium because “the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted business operations nationwide, leading to dramatic job losses that threaten the ability of many to meet their financial obligations, including housing rental payments.”
The federal moratorium expired on Thursday, and New York’s ends on August 20th.
State and local level officials gave similar explanations for their respective actions on housing. Governor Cuomo of New York said, “I don’t want to see people and their children being evicted at this time through no fault of their own.”
The federal moratorium expires on Thursday, and New York’s ends on August 20th. The financial pressures induced by COVID-19, of course, will not. Financial pressures outside individual control are not unique to this pandemic, however. If families should not be evicted for pressures outside their control, no one should be homeless.
Poverty and job loss
Large-scale changes in the US economy resulted in losses of middle-income jobs, largely replaced by low-wage service sector jobs which alone cannot support more than an insecure, low standard of living. About 7% of US manufacturing jobs disappeared in the 15-year period between 1979 and 1994. 88% of domestic job creation in the same period occurred in the service sector. These new jobs pay about half what manufacturing jobs did.
60% of American jobs now do not allow for a middle-class lifestyle, a lifestyle that allows families to save for retirement. Half of these jobs do not allow a single-adult to pay for basic needs: food, housing, healthcare, or transportation. The National Low Income Housing Coalition concluded in 2019, “in no state can a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent.”
The replacement of manufacturing jobs with this low-wage work contributes to homelessness but is as far beyond individual control as a pandemic.
The shortage of affordable housing also contributed to the U.S. housing crisis. Middle-income jobs increasingly become rare and there is not enough housing available for low-wage earners. An average of 36 affordable housing units exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. This is due largely to the failure of policymakers to invest in low-income housing.
A Home Base Report on homelessness in San Francisco, explains investment in “subsidized housing fell from $32.2 billion in 1978 to $9.2 billion in 1988.” President Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development had a budget less than half of the Department under President Jimmy Carter, in 1994 dollars.
Senator Tim Kaine summarized how refusing to take vouchers is often a “mask for racial discrimination.”
Programs exist to make privately-owned housing more affordable but are often so overburdened and underfunded that, for applicants, they are unreliable at best. The Housing Choice Voucher given to low-income families applies to rent costs, each voucher covering the difference between 30% of the applicants’ income and the unit’s market rate. There are 25.7 million households currently eligible for the program, but the average family sits on the waitlist for a year and a half. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has reported families waiting up to 7 years.
Landlords are aware that solely poor Americans use these programs, and those poor Americans are disproportionately people of color. This knowledge results in the rejection of renters when they attempt to use the voucher. Senator Tim Kaine summarized how refusing to take vouchers is often a “mask for racial discrimination.” Imitating a landlord, Kaine said, “‘Oh, no, we’re not discriminating based on race. We just don’t take vouchers that are disproportionately used by minority families.’”
Shanna Lee, a low-income Black mother in Charlotte, N.C., spent over $500 in application fees for apartments and received 10 rejections in a row. “I feel like I’m wasting my time calling because as soon as you say ‘Section 8,’: Click. You get a dial tone, or you get an attitude,” she described. She is a service worker, consistently working double-shifts at Waffle House, and making $2.13 per hour, plus tips.
The inaccessibility of affordable housing can cause low-wage earners to forgo other basic needs like healthcare or heat, to pay for overpriced housing. In more extreme cases, that toxic environment leads to homelessness.
A ‘Homes Guarantee’
The common-sense ethical standard leaders implicitly adopted during the COVID-19 crisis — if it is not your fault, you should not suffer for it — can only come true with a guaranteed housing program. The economic causes of decreasing income and lack of available low-income housing cannot be attributed to the actions of every single low-income individual, so individuals should not suffer for them.
People’s Action, a grassroots activist group, created a policy demand called the ‘Homes Guarantee.’ The Homes Guarantee demands the construction of 12 million social housing units, reinvestment in existing public housing, protection for renters and bank tenants, reparations for centuries of racist housing policies, and an end to real estate speculation and the commodification of housing. This demand, wrote People’s Action, is “radical,” but “achievable.”
It is time for policymakers to follow their eviction moratorium thinking to its logical conclusion, and achieve a guaranteed housing program.