As members of Congress set off on their August vacations, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) rolled out her orange sleeping bag on the Capitol steps and settled in for three full nights. She was protesting the impending expiration of the eviction moratorium — a policy that would put 3.6 million Americans at risk of being forced from their homes over the next two months. Bush could not abide the suffering this would cause because, unlike most of her congressional colleagues, she experienced it firsthand: “I know what it’s like,” she said, “to sleep outside. I know what it’s like to not have a home. I know what it’s like to get too cold, and there’s nothing you can do.… I know what it’s like to be unhoused.”
By the fourth day of her protest, the Biden administration announced a new moratorium in counties with a high spread of covid-19 — the vast majority of U.S. counties. The announcement was an important win for progressives — and one that underscores the importance of electing representatives whose lived experience aligns with that of people they’re representing.
But it was also a fragile victory. The moratorium only lasts until Oct. 3. And it could be struck down before then: Because it comes from the administration instead of Congress, it may be vulnerable to challenges in court, and right-wing funders such as the Koch group are already planning to fight it. Ultimately, the move simply delays a return to “normal” — and returning to normal when it comes to this country’s broken housing system should not be considered acceptable.
Today, knowing the imminent dangers of being unhoused during a pandemic, we recognize that the prospect of 3.6 million Americans being forced from their homes is a national scandal. But it is not a new one. Even before the pandemic, almost 4 million people faced eviction each year. That’s the equivalent of displacing the entire city of Los Angeles.
The fallout of forcing a family from their homes is enormous. In Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary book “Evicted,” he paints a harrowing picture of what eviction means for families: “Losing a home,” he writes, “sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children.” After an eviction, people are four times more likely than the average person to die by suicide. And some are more exposed to all of this potential trauma and loss: Black and Latino communities are disproportionately at risk of eviction.
Eviction is just the beginning of the harms caused by our broken housing system. A Harvard study found last year that 1 in 7 households in this country — a total of 17.6 million — spends at least half its annual income on housing. These enormous costs keep people from investing in their futures — and in some cases, even investing in basic needs. As Desmond put it last year, “The rent eats first.”
How can we begin to fix this?
Congress should further increase protections against evictions with a nationwide, multiyear eviction moratorium. States should make rent relief programs more accessible, with community-oriented outreach programs to streamline the application process and appeal to landlords and tenants. They should also follow Maryland’s lead by providing lawyers for tenants facing eviction. And state and local governments should move more quickly to disburse the $47 billion in rental relief that has faced shameful distribution delays — even though it was passed by Congress months ago.
But we should also move beyond protection for evictions and invest in affordable housing. And not a little more — a lot more. In former British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s galvanizing new book, “Go Big,” he shares the story of Vienna, a city voted 10 years in a row the best place to live on the planet. In Vienna, renters spend an average of 25 percent of their income on rent, and even low-paid workers can afford to live in the city center. How has the city accomplished this? Two-thirds of people live in social housing — housing built by the government where renters are charged “cost-rent,” or the cost of building and maintaining their units. Even those who prefer to rent privately benefit from this system, as private builders have to compete with the excellent deal social housing offers citizens.
We need some of that bold ambition in our own country’s housing policy — and at long last, we may be starting to glimpse it. It’s difficult to imagine that, before the pandemic, a Biden administration would have proposed $318 billion for affordable housing. And in communities across the country, a housing movement is building. Tenants are organizing protests and rent strikes. In Kansas City, Mo., organizers are campaigning for a “People’s Housing Trust Fund” to build municipal social housing throughout the city.
Yet, despite this momentum, Republicans negotiated funding for housing in the bipartisan infrastructure deal down to exactly zero.
Our representatives should move quickly to put Biden’s proposed housing funding in a reconciliation bill and begin investing in urgent structural fixes to our housing system. As Desmond wrote, “Any comprehensive plan to promote social mobility, address racial disparities and stabilize communities must be grounded in our fundamental need for safe and affordable housing. ‘Building back better’ begins at home.”