President Joe Biden moved quickly this week to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic with a series of executive orders and pledged to advance “racial equity” and “support for underserved communities” with the government’s response. However, the Biden administration’s first steps have already disappointed housing and racial justice activists who say bold action is urgently needed to keep people in their homes amid a deepening housing crisis.
Under Biden’s direction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday extended a moratorium on evictions through March 31. The moratorium may prevent a mass eviction crisis in the infancy of Biden’s presidency as Congress debates further action, but the existing moratorium, put in place by the Trump administration, has failed to uniformly prevent landlords from pushing low-income families out of their homes during a deadly pandemic.
In statements and interviews, tenant organizers and advocates for low-income renters said they are still fighting eviction proceedings in a number of states despite the CDC moratorium. Families are still being pushed into crowded shelters and onto the streets. Landlords in just five states filed for 4,901 evictions last week, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which has counted more than 220,000 evictions since the pandemic began — despite moratoriums enacted by cities and states.
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“Extending the current CDC policy does not actually end evictions, particularly in states with weaker protections like Missouri and Kentucky,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of the Housing Guarantee Campaign at People’s Action, in an email. “Biden’s decision means that courts around the country will continue to hear evictions and force tenants to the streets while the pandemic rages on.”
Many Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities faced a housing crisis long before the pandemic began. Structural racism has generated stark racial inequalities in the housing system for centuries, and people of color are overrepresented among the estimated 14 million people who are currently behind on rent as unemployment remains rampant. Evictions and housing inequality are linked to increased spread of COVID-19 and higher rates of infection and death among Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, according to a study published in November.
“I’m a two-time cancer survivor who got evicted while in treatment last year. I’ve experienced homelessness several times over,” said Tiana Caldwell, a Black mother who leads a Kansas City tenants union and the Homes Guarantee Campaign, during a press call. “I shouldn’t have to go through this.”
For weeks, housing and racial justice activists warned the incoming Biden administration that the CDC moratorium is “broken,” in part because it does not prevent landlords from filing for evictions in local courts. The Trump administration left the moratorium “intentionally weak” with no real mechanisms for enforcement, allowing landlords to exploit “loopholes” and leaving millions of renters unprotected, according to the Right to the City Alliance.
As Biden’s transition team prepared for Inauguration Day, a coalition of groups released a letter with a list of specific fixes that would strengthen the moratorium, which currently places the burden on tenants to apply for protection under the moratorium in court. In many cases, families staring down a crisis do not know the moratorium exists. The coalition called on Biden to strengthen the moratorium by executive order. Yet the flurry of orders released by the White House since Biden took office does not include anything specific on housing and evictions.
“It would have been easy to improve the failed Trump moratorium, and Biden should have done so,” Raghuveer said. “Choosing not to will come at the cost of human life.”
Biden does have some proposals for addressing racial housing disparities over the longer term, and his administration quickly extended a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures of rural homes enrolled in certain federal mortgage programs. The administration will also continue a pause on federal student loan collections, but many activists note the administration could have taken much stronger action toward actually canceling debt. Another executive order asks federal agencies to remove barriers to benefits such as unemployment payments and nutrition assistance — a policy no-brainer for Democrats replacing a Republican administration.
Biden’s first moves are all administrative actions the White House was able to take quickly. By extending the CDC eviction moratorium for only two months and without stronger provisions, Biden signaled that he is leaving the job of protecting renters for the remainder of the pandemic up to Congress.
Biden is asking Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion “rescue” stimulus package that would extend the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums through September. Along with new unemployment benefits, the package would provide $25 billion in emergency assistance for struggling renters on top of the $25 billion Congress approved last month. With millions of people owing an estimated $70 billion in back-rent as of last month, advocates for low-income renters say up to $100 billion is needed.
While the proposal would funnel another $5 billion through assistance programs that help low-income households pay energy and water bills, it does not include a national moratorium on utility shut-offs as some had hoped. Utilities make homes livable, but only 17 states currently require utility companies to continue providing service during the pandemic regardless of a customer’s ability to pay.
Biden is also asking Congress to fund his administration’s sweeping plans for speeding up the delivery of COVID vaccines and streamlining the government’s pandemic response. The “rescue” package includes some longtime progressive priorities, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. However, raising the minimum wage will likely be opposed by conservative lawmakers, and millions of people struggling to pay for basics such as food and rent will not magically see their debt to landlords and bill collectors disappear when the pandemic subsides.
Housing justice activists have bigger ideas for addressing the housing crisis, which they see as crucial for protecting people from COVID and addressing rampant racial inequality — two of the Biden administration’s stated goals.
Backed by activists, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) has pushed the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which would cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic and allow landlords to recoup their losses by applying with a federal relief fund. Some activists prefer rent cancellation to direct rent relief payments, because undocumented renters and others may be unable to apply for relief from the government.
Housing justice activists are also demanding “non-congregate” housing for everyone currently living in shelters, jails, prisons, group homes and nursing homes where social distancing is difficult or impossible. They see emergency pandemic housing as a step towards a “homes guarantee” that would finally eradicate homelessness by providing public, eco-friendly housing.
Caldwell and others who have faced eviction have embraced proposals to reinvest in existing public housing and build 12 million new homes to provide a “social housing” option below market rental rates. Public housing is not new, but activists say the existing system is plagued by austerity and the same systemic racism that causes widespread housing inequality to begin with. Meaningful federal investment in a homes guarantee would spur construction of energy-efficient homes across the country, creating badly needed jobs in green construction, according to The Justice Collaborative.
“We need to transform housing from commodity to public good,” Caldwell said. “This is not a time for incrementalism, this is a time for systemic overhaul.”