In a rare moment of discipline, Donald Trump did not present his usual 2020 election fraud conspiracy to his Mar-a-Lago audience while announcing his presidential candidacy on November 16. He did, however, call for tighter voting restrictions. “To eliminate cheating I will immediately demand voter ID,” Trump told his cheering hand-picked crowd. “Same day voting, and only paper ballots.”
The GOP’s “red trickle” suggests the American people are tired of Trump’s obsession with electoral conspiracies from two years ago, but the Republican fixation on limiting the franchise is likely to continue. That policy push goes beyond Trump. In February 2021, the Heritage Foundation, the United States’ most influential conservative think tank published an enormous report on election integrity along with 12 detailed policy recommendations. Attendees at Conservative Political Action Coalition, one of the largest conservative conferences in the world, have ranked “election integrity” as their number one issue at every gathering since Trump lost in 2020. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 21 states passed regulations that restricted the voting franchise over the past two years. For 20 of those states, the restrictions took effect in time for the recent midterm elections.
These restrictions hit some groups harder than others, and one such group is expanding rapidly: people experiencing eviction. Things that under ideal circumstances seem trivial — like registering ahead of time and showing up-to-date identification — become nearly impossible when one’s living situation becomes unstable.
“[Housing instability] just puts so many little administrative barriers in people’s way,” said Cecilia Aguilera, legal counsel with the nonpartisan voting rights organization Fair Elections Center. “It’s like an obstacle course.”
The Eviction Crisis Resumes
U.S. evictions are getting back to “normal,” but that’s not a good thing.
When COVID hit, the United States was in the midst of a full-blown eviction crisis. Rent rose four times faster than income between 1985 and 2020, which meant increasingly larger portions of tenants’ paychecks went toward keeping a roof over their heads. Tenants who pay over 30 percent of their income towards rent are considered “rent burdened.” In 2001, 41 percent of tenants were rent burdened. By 2011, the number increased to over 53 percent. Nor could these tenants downsize — according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), every state in the U.S. has a severe shortfall of affordable housing; for every 100 low-income families, only 36 affordable housing units exist. Scraping together an emergency fund becomes difficult when so much of one’s paycheck goes towards rent: In 2016, nearly half of all renters had less than $1,000 in savings.
When COVID hit, conditions grew worse, and yet evictions plummeted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium had a lot to do with this, but the health emergency also gave birth to something that years of legislative effort had failed to accomplish: well-funded programs to help people catch up on their rent and avoid eviction.
“There was a historic investment of $46.5 billion in rental assistance across the country,” says Adam Chapnik, a political scientist and research specialist at Eviction Lab. The programs did not stop all evictions, but they made a big difference. “Our estimate is that in 2021, about 1.36 million evictions were halted.”
The CDC and most states lifted eviction moratoria in mid- to late 2021, but the assistance programs continued and helped many tenants keep their housing. One by one, however, these programs ran out of money. As this improvised safety net failed, tenants began to once again fall into housing insecurity.
Eviction Lab, a Princeton-affiliated organization that tracks eviction rates in 31 cities and six states, is watching the last strands of that net disintegrate. “If you look to just the past month … there has been pretty big increases in eviction filings in almost all of the places that we track,” Chapnik said. “In about a third of them, we’re seeing more eviction filings than before the pandemic, when the housing affordability situation was already pretty critical.”
The situation is unlikely to get any better. The last decade saw a dramatic decrease in housing construction, and rising construction costs are forcing active developers to either build fewer units or charge higher prices. Many of these units will be snatched up by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) that treat housing as an investment vehicle rather than a place where people live. From the market’s perspective, skyrocketing rents are fantastic — a nice return on investment for their wealthy shareholders.
Rising rents work out for politicians on both sides of the aisle as well. The real estate industry pumped over $227 million into the 2022 campaign cycle, and while 55 percent of that money went to Republican candidates, the top two recipients of real estate lucre were Democrats: Chuck Schumer of New York with over $2.1 million received and Raphael Warnock of Georgia with $1.2 million. Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Herschel Walker (Warnock’s opponent in Georgia) both received over $1 million from real estate interests. At its core, the real estate industry is neither red nor blue. The only color that matters to it is green.
The investments are paying off. In May 2022, the median asking rent in the U.S. topped $2,000 for the first time in history.
With rent skyrocketing and wages stagnating, evictions will likely continue to rise, which means that more and more Americans will suffer the devastating and long-term consequences of housing insecurity.
Eviction can also mean disenfranchisement at the ballot box.
“The forced displacement of people makes it harder for them to vote,” Chapnik said. “If you are evicted, you can lose documents that are basically necessary to register to vote in a new place.”
Aguilera agrees. “Not all states that have voter ID rules require … their driver’s license to be up to date,” she said. “But you still have to be able to show something that indicates your current address.” For people with secure housing, utility bills and bank statements with the correct address are easy to come by. For someone with housing insecurity — couch surfing, living with a friend or family member, or out on the streets — this documentation may not exist.
The chaos of eviction makes it difficult to hang onto anything, including identification documents. “Sometimes [evicted tenants] have their stuff thrown out on the street,” Aguilera pointed out. “If your stuff is thrown out or misplaced in the shuffle, you have to pay to get your birth certificate and other proof of identity.”
Studies suggest that evictions have a major negative impact on voting rates. A recent study by sociologists Gillian Slee and Matthew Desmond cross-referenced records of 82 million evictions between 2000 and 2016 with votes cast in the 2016 election to find out whether a history of eviction mattered. They found that evicted tenants voted at significantly lower rates than those who had never experienced an eviction, even when controlling for other variables like poverty and current living situation.
As with so many consequences of eviction, the vote suppression effect lingers. While people evicted closer to the 2016 election predictably voted less than people evicted years before, those who experienced an eviction in the previous 16 years were also less likely to vote in the 2016 election than those who had never faced eviction within that span.
In states that allow for same-day voting registration, however, the effect of evictions on voting rates became statistically insignificant.
“Same-day registration is an important policy that has ensured that people who move are not disenfranchised,” Aguilera says. “We would love to see same day registration enacted in every jurisdiction.” Multiple methods of voting, like allowing for no-excuse mail voting and early voting, are also important.
“It’s laughable when I hear their lawmakers say things like, well, we can’t have election security and voting systems that match modern American lifestyles and needs,” Aguilera says. “Same-day registration has been used by several states for more than 30 years. There is no excuse at this point.”
An Everyone Problem
Lawmakers do not push for restrictive voting policies in a vacuum.
“I do think that these lawmakers are considering these restrictions precisely because they would make it harder for these populations to vote,” Aguilera said. “They believe these populations do not share their point of view.”
Use of state power to limit access to voting is wrong no matter who it impacts. But measures that make it harder to vote affect both Democrats and Republicans. A recent study by Secure Democracy found that over half of rural voters — who tend to lean Republican — took advantage of early voting in the 2020 election, and 22 percent of them voted by mail. Voters from rural counties comprised 9 percent of same-day registrations despite making up just 6 percent of registered voters.
Voter ID laws impact rural voters as well. For many such voters, obtaining an ID can take hours of time and a significant amount of gas money. “There are places where the ID-issuing office is only open for a few hours per month,” Aguilera tells Truthout. “One office could serve a hundred miles around it.”
Chapnik agrees that restrictive voting laws hurt people across the political spectrum, since issues like poverty and eviction affect registered Democrats and Republicans alike. “At the base of it, landlords care about getting paid,” Chapnik said. “You might see cases where you have political discrimination against tenants, but it’s going to be super rare.”
Broadly speaking, however, some groups find themselves on the receiving end of eviction notices more often than others. “Our estimates are that Black renters account for about 20 percent of the nation’s renters, but they receive about 30 percent of all eviction judgments,” Chapnik pointed out. As of August 2022, polls indicate that 70 percent of Black voters lean Democrat, while just 6 percent lean Republican.
Aguilera agrees. She points to a recent study by Dēmos, a progressive organization dedicated to racial equality, that found Black people show up to the polls up to 17 percent more often in states with same-day voting registration than those without it. “Unfortunately, in a country like ours where wealth has been allocated by race, it means a lot of the same voters who are lower income are also going to be voters of color,” she said.
Another way to mitigate the effects of eviction on electoral participation (and other areas of life) would be to help tenants avoid eviction.
Two cities currently stand out in their efforts to keep evictions down, according to Chapnik: New York City and Boston. New York City’s success likely stems from its Right to Counsel program. The initiative, which passed in 2017, guarantees state-sponsored legal representation for low-income tenants who face eviction. The system is far from perfect — local newspaper The City estimates that while 82 percent of tenants qualify for legal representation based on income, only 36 percent receive it. Still, this is an enormous increase from before the law: Just 1 percent of tenants had legal representation before the program took effect. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that the program has lowered eviction rates by between 44.8 and 77.8 percent.
Boston’s success in keeping eviction rates low stems from programs that give emergency relief money to low-income tenants facing eviction. The oldest of these programs is the Residential Access for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, which started in 2005. RAFT is not a housing subsidy but a program to help people in crisis, and it works; as of 2016, 95 percent of RAFT recipients did not require further aid the next year. Because shelters are so much more expensive than eviction aid, Metro Housing Boston estimates that the program saved the city over $14 million in 2020. The program, however, is small-scale: That same year it helped just 1,805 households.
Like most cities, Boston received emergency federal funding to prevent evictions during COVID. The city used the RAFT model to set up the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and Subsidized Housing Emergency Rental Assistance (SHERA). RAFT, ERAP and SHERA collectively helped over 100,000 households avoid eviction from July 2021 to the present day. Federal funding for the program has run out, however, and the specter of “normal” has already begun to haunt the city. Evictions have already begun to increase, according to Chapnik, and the trend will likely grow worse as federal aid trickles down to zero.
Many activists would like to see a federal solution for this national eviction crisis, either through continued funding for state programs or an overarching federal policy to end housing instability. Earlier this month, approximately 250 tenant-led organizations sent a draft executive order to the Biden administration that would do more than slap a band-aid over a serious and chronic injury. The order would establish a council on tenants’ rights to prevent predatory rent hikes and underhanded eviction tactics. It would also, at long last, establish a national database to track eviction rates so that politicians and activists alike can see the extent of the problem.
With the stroke of a pen, the Biden administration could both help people stay in their homes and deliver on campaign promises to make life better for average people.
Still, the problem goes beyond eviction, which Chapnik describes as just one symptom of an endemic problem in the United States. “Poverty itself is a limitation to voting,” he said. “Eviction is just one of many things that it’s adding to poverty rates. When you have laws that make it easier for people with money to have political power, yeah. You’re going to see just a continuation of that system.”