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America’s looming housing catastrophe, explained

“The United States is facing an eviction crisis of biblical proportions.”

A protester in front of the Los Angeles City Hall building holds up a sign that reads in English and in Spanish, “No wages, no rent.”
Tenants and their supporters from across Los Angeles gather at city hall on April 30 to call on Mayor Eric Garcetti, the LA City Council, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom to cancel rent and mortgage payments during the Covid-19 crisis.
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

America’s health crisis began just as Joaquín H. was recovering from his own.

He got sick, suddenly, at the end of January. He spent most of February in and out of the hospital, major surgery along the way. As he recuperated in bed, scrolling the internet, he watched the coronavirus emergency grow larger, and closer to his home in Eugene, Oregon.

“As Covid hit,” the 51-year-old, who asked to be identified only by his first name and last initial for privacy reasons, told me, “I’m just trying to get back on my feet. And that just wasn’t happening.”

A self-employed video editor and producer, Joaquín saw his business ground to a halt as he recovered, and it remained that way as the country teetered on the brink of both a public health and economic crisis. He got a job delivering groceries with Instacart, but the spots got scooped up quickly.

Then the seriousness of Covid-19 seeped in, and the Instacart gigs finally materialized — everyone wanted their food delivered now. But by then Joaquín wasn’t sure about going to the supermarket, touching everyone’s groceries, and risking infection every trip to the store. His is a household of seven, including him, his partner, and five dependents, the youngest of whom are toddlers.

“If I get sick,” he said, “the house is doomed.”

Like many others, he tried to contact the local pandemic unemployment office, but he couldn’t get through. He got work as a census taker. He said he was approved, passed the background check, got fingerprinted. But the training and the actual census work remain on hold for now, he said.

Joaquín has managed to pay his rent, in full, every month. His mother helped out, but she can’t do that much longer as she has her own expenses to consider. He is clawing together money where he can, borrowing $100 here or selling stuff on eBay. Others are being flexible about bills, so there’s still electricity and car insurance. But each delay means a little more debt.

He doesn’t really know what’s going to happen next or how he’ll keep paying rent. He’s protected from eviction until at least September, after Oregon’s governor signed legislation last Tuesday that extended the state’s moratorium and gives tenants until March 31, 2021, to pay back rent. But none of it solves the underlying problem, which is that the pandemic and the economic crisis are making it impossible to catch up. On rent, on utilities, on all of it.

Protesters call for rent cancellation at a protest in Brooklyn, New York, on July 5.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

“What does a person do if they have to feed their family, and they can’t? Say they’re willing to work, but they can’t even find it,” Joaquín said. “What do they do?”

It’s a question many Americans are struggling with right now. More than four months into the coronavirus pandemic, the United States is in a sustained crisis: old coronavirus hot spots replaced by new ones, more than 130,000 people dead, the country’s case count rising to record levels and then breaking those records almost daily.

The public health catastrophe is paired with an economic one. The United States has an unemployment rate of over 11 percent, with more than 19 million people still receiving jobless benefits as of July 2. The persistence of the pandemic has forced some states and localities to scale back their reopening — bars closed, again, and no indoor dining. Such a recovery, happening in fits and starts, means job security could remain fragile for millions in the months and weeks ahead.

This has left many, like Joaquín, unsure how they’ll meet expenses, including one of the biggest: rent.

A crisis always loomed. A patchwork of eviction moratoriums across the country and benefits from the CARES Act, including a one-time stimulus check and expanded unemployment benefits of $600 per week (which were also made available to self-employed and gig workers), helped forestall the catastrophe. Those policies helped keep people in their homes during the unprecedented health crisis and supplemented income so they could still pay their bills.

But housing courts are reopening, and eviction moratoriums are expiring in the coming weeks, if they haven’t already. CARES Act benefits that expanded unemployment are running out. Unless lawmakers intervene, the $600-per-week supplement will expire at the end of July.

“The United States is facing an eviction crisis of biblical proportions,” Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, a nonprofit housing watchdog group, told me. “Allowing eviction moratoriums and expanded unemployment benefits to expire will undoubtedly lead to a perfect storm of instability, homelessness, and human suffering.”

Experts, housing activists, and renters themselves fear what could happen if there is no relief, and soon. Even before the pandemic, renters tended to be lower-income and spent a greater share of their income on housing costs compared to homeowners. A June 15 report from the Urban Institute estimates that 8.9 million households — about 20 percent of all renter households — have at least one member who’s lost a job between February and April.

“We don’t want what was originally a health crisis turned into a job crisis then now to become a housing crisis and a crisis of housing instability as people are evicted from their homes,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor and faculty director at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

Some renters and tenant organizers are engaged in rent strikes — sometimes because they don’t have any other options — to win concessions from landlords. Mutual aid coalitions, collectives of community members helping each other, are filling cracks where they can, though it isn’t enough to fully plug the gaps.

Advocates are calling on lawmakers to cancel rent for the duration of the crisis, and to cancel or pause mortgages so that landlords can also survive. Some have suggested a nationwide eviction moratorium to unify the patchwork of confusing state and local policies. And many are calling for more money: more stimulus, renewed unemployment benefits, and, most critically, robust housing assistance to keep people in their homes and landlords afloat.

But experts and advocates say the pandemic didn’t create the housing crisis; it merely exposed what already existed. “You’re always one financial shock, one financial emergency from not being able to pay the rent, and potentially being evicted, and, in the worst cases, facing homelessness,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. “And for many of these same renters, the coronavirus is that financial emergency.”

America had an affordable housing crisis. Then came the pandemic.

America’s renters were already vulnerable before the coronavirus arrived.

“It’s important to remember that even before this pandemic, we were facing a rental affordability crisis that’s been building over the last few decades,” Ellen, of the Furman Center, said. She called it a “backdrop of need.”

Before the pandemic, of America’s nearly 43 million renters, about 20.8 million — almost half — were “cost-burdened,” meaning more than 30 percent of their income went to housing costs, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Of those, about 10.9 million renter households were “severely burdened,” spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

America lacks an adequate supply of affordable housing. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition found a shortage of about 7 million affordable homes for the lowest-income renters. Of those Americans who are eligible for some sort of federal rental assistance, just one in five actually receive it. (Other estimates put it at one in four.)

This gaping need means that an economic shock far shallower than the coronavirus-caused one can upend renters’ already fragile security. But while “the economic impacts of Covid are unprecedented and they’re widespread,” Ellen noted, “the effects on renters have been particularly devastating, and will continue to be.”

For instance, renters are more likely to work in sectors like the service industry that were hit hardest by the pandemic. An analysis by the Furman Center found that in New York City, the renters most likely to face economic disruption because of the pandemic may pay lower rent but generally face higher rent burdens, which will exacerbate any sudden loss of income. “They’re more likely to suffer Covid-related job loss than homeowners, and then, meanwhile, they don’t have any savings to speak of, to cover those income shortfalls,” Ellen said.

That same study also found that those New York renters vulnerable to pandemic disruptions also tend to live in smaller buildings where the landlords don’t have a cushion if tenants fall behind on rent. That means owners may struggle to maintain their buildings and pay their mortgages and property taxes. That could affect city and state budgets, just as the need for services increases.

This will be duplicated elsewhere. All of it is a recipe for a housing crisis.

Eviction moratoriums postponed a massive housing catastrophe. They’re starting to end.

As states and cities locked down in March and April to slow the spread of the coronavirus, at least 42 states and the District of Columbia put some sort of eviction moratorium in place to stop people from losing their homes if they can’t pay rent.

That number has dwindled to about two dozen as of late June, and many states are allowing landlords to file cases in court, even if tenants can’t immediately be evicted. Still, some moratoriums have ended completely and evictions are beginning to happen, including in some coronavirus hot spots, like Texas.

The CARES Act-mandated 120-day moratorium on evictions in houses with federal backing sunsets after July 24, though it requires a 30-day notice period, so landlords can’t force someone out of their home until August 25. But this doesn’t cover all renters.

The Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, a Colorado-based legal project, estimates that between 19 million and 23 million renters are at risk of eviction by the end of September. “The ‘cliff’s edge,’ as it were, it’s real,” Samantha Batko, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, told me. “Eviction moratoriums are ending. People are being evicted.”

“I think that we definitely have not seen the worst of it,” Linda Morris, Skadden fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, told me. “I think we’re just seeing the very beginning of it. Especially as some states are beginning to lift their moratorium, we’re beginning to see higher numbers of evictions going forward.”

The end of moratoriums, she said, “is going to open up the floodgates.”

Landlords in New York City were able to start filing evictions, by mail, on June 22, though few were filed and an order from the courts stayed proceedings until at least July 7. An eviction moratorium is in place in New York state for those experiencing a “financial hardship” or unemployment linked to Covid-19.

At the end of June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which codified the moratorium and would prevent evictions for nonpayment between March 7 and a future date, when all Covid-19 restrictions lift. But it does not stop courts from handing down money judgments for unpaid rent during that period, and the definition of financial hardship is flexible.

The opaque and shifting rules add to the stress for tenants, and they are worried about how, and when, they might end up on the housing court docket.

Allilsa Fernandez is among them. The 36-year-old New Yorker lives in the Briarwood neighborhood of Queens, in the same apartment she’s been in for three years. She says she’s always paid her rent on time, but in the middle of the crisis, her landlord told her he was raising the rent $100 in April. But $100 was a lot.

Fernandez, a disability rights and mental health advocate, is working part-time from home. She has asthma and is worried about her coronavirus risk. Her partner, who normally goes 50/50 on the rent, babysits, and she lost most of her income when the pandemic started. One family still pays her, but it comes in spurts.

Fernandez paid her rent in April, though not the extra $100 her landlord demanded. In May, she asked the landlord to use her security deposit to cover the monthly rent, something Cuomo had sanctioned. She said he didn’t do that, and she’s stopped paying rent since, expecting to hash it out in housing court. She hopes it will go in her favor, but she says you never know — and even if it does, she might still have to leave.

“I’m really, really, really afraid of being homeless. I’ve been afraid of being homeless. I don’t know what this means for me,” Fernandez said. “Finding an apartment right now, in the middle of the pandemic, is tough. And I’m at high risk; it’s not like I’m healthy and I can say, ‘Oh, I’ll take that risk.’”

Fernandez has put her energy into organizing. She’s finding housing resources for herself and others, and she’s protesting. She wants to see a full cancellation of rent and a rent freeze (meaning landlords can’t increase rent) for a year, at least until people can get back on their feet. But those lifelines may not arrive.

“During normal times, evictions are bad. During pandemic times, they are catastrophic,” Carr, of Housing Rights Initiative, said. “Because in this case, you have a combination of a housing crisis, a homelessness crisis, a health crisis, an economic crisis, and unemployment crisis that, left unchecked, will be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.”

Advocates also point out that many housing courts, even if they’re reopening, haven’t gotten back to business as usual. Social distancing measures mean localities are still trying to figure out how to adjudicate cases while adhering to social distancing rules and safety requirements. Some jurisdictions are trying remote hearings, which advocates say disadvantages renters, especially low-income ones, who may not have internet access. Language and interpretation access is also a concern.

“What if that low-income renter doesn’t have a computer available to them? Doesn’t have access to internet? Are they then seen as having not shown up for their eviction case?” Yentel, of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said. “And is that a strike against them from the start? Which is just extraordinarily unfair, clearly, and unjust.”

Reports have also documented landlords executing illegal evictions, either pressuring tenants to leave or taking more forceful measures like changing locks and throwing people’s belongings out onto the street.

Julian Smith-Newman, a member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, a member-funded housing advocacy group, said members of his organization have taken on “eviction blockades,” a kind of rapid response to illegal evictions in which members try to help people get back into their homes, sometimes even confronting law enforcement who are unaware the evictions are illegal.

But landlords are also under pressure from these moratoriums. Smaller or mom-and-pop landlords can’t go months without the rent, either. Some landlords have said the moratoriums threaten their livelihoods, and some have sued to end the protections.

This is why these moratoriums were always short-term solutions that merely “kicked the can down the road,” experts told me. They were necessary, but vastly insufficient, measures.

In pre-pandemic times, evictions exacerbated inequalities in housing. According to the ACLU, on average, Black renters had evictions filed against them at nearly twice the rate of white renters. “And those disparities are often worse for Black women tenants in particular, who have the greatest risk of having an eviction filed against them,” Morris, of the ACLU, said. “And so what we are certain about is that the pandemic is only going to worsen those existing disparities.”

A rash of evictions could also lead to increased homelessness, one that will strain state and local budgets that are already slashing services. An analysis by a professor at Columbia University estimated that homelessness could increase by 40 to 45 percent this year — adding an additional 250,000 people, leaving approximately 800,000 people houseless nationwide.

This, in turn, will exacerbate all the other crises, experts told me. “It’s a public health risk, obviously, in terms of being able to maintain social distancing,” Alex Schwartz, an urban policy professor at the New School, said. But it becomes even more expensive to help unhoused people — and, again, city and local budgets are already strained and cutting back on social services.

Evictions come with their own longer-term health crises. It is harder to find stable housing in the future, which disrupts everything from job stability to health to kids’ academic progress.

“I think that this is a life-or-death situation for people,” Brennan Stultz, a 33-year-old Williamsburg resident who helped found the Action: New York City Rent Strike on Facebook, told me.

“We could see mass homelessness if they start doing virtual hearings, if they find ways to expedite eviction orders, and things of this nature,” he said. “You could see hundreds of thousands of people lose their home, while we’re still fighting a pandemic across the world.”

How tenants are trying to navigate this crisis

About 30 apartments are on rent strike at 345 Eldert Street, in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.

They’ve lost about half a dozen apartments along the way — out of fear, or because some struck their own deals with the management company. It undermines the strike and the attempt to bargain collectively. But Cian O’Day, a spokesperson for the 345 Eldert Tenants’ Association, told me everyone understood. It wasn’t like anyone had been in this situation before.

On June 1, the tenants’ association hung a #CancelRent banner from the building. The management company rented a cherry picker to take it down. Word around the building was that the management company rented the machine for $1,000 a week. The management company did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

The exact cost was less important than what the story symbolized: that the landlord wouldn’t give an out-of-work tenant a break on the rent but would spend money to take down a sign. The cherry picker sat there for two weeks.

Rent strikes, like the one in O’Day’s building, have popped up around the country as renters try to pressure both landlords and local governments to do something, anything, about the rent. Solidarity and necessity are driving the movement.

“It’s weird,” O’Day said. “It’s like the scariest time and still, some of the most beautiful shit is happening because people are looking out for each other.”

Stultz, who helped start the Action: New York City Rent Strike group, said they host Zoom meetings, share resources, and connect renters across the city with legal aid. They are building a community, even if they all live in different parts of the city. “[We’re] providing a forum for people to discuss these issues between each other, and maybe take comfort from the fact that they’re not alone in this fight to pay rent,” he said.

Cea Weaver, a campaign coordinator with Housing Justice for All, a coalition of New York state advocacy groups pushing to cancel rent and immediately rehouse homeless people in vacant housing, said that tenant organizing has increased during the pandemic, but it’s also hitting a crossroads right now. The question is whether landlords will still consider bargaining, or if they’ll just take tenants to court for nonpayment. “Right now, it’s just not clear,” she said.

Because in New York City, and in many other places across the country, people are running out of options. Nothing has really changed; the pandemic continues. Only now, in lots of places, housing courts are reopening.

“There’s ultimately nothing really keeping people in their homes. We keep pushing this cliff further and further down the road, but officially, we’re still going to hit this point where the courts are going to be open,” Jesse Connor, an organizer for Autonomous Tenants Union in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, told me. “Where evictions are going to be filed and where people ... are not going to be able to pay what they owe and they will be at risk of being put out on the street.”

Desiree Kane, a neighbor organizing with Colorado Rent Strike and Eviction Defense, a Facebook group of more than 4,200 members, said the group has been looking toward this moment for months. “It’s going to start getting extremely serious for a lot of people,” she said.

Kane said that, statewide, they’ve heard reports of people leaving their homes, maybe moving to their vehicle, or taking an RV to temporary campgrounds. Last week, Denver’s mayor announced the city would set aside “managed campgrounds” for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

Eilise Gancarz-Davies, a member of the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly, told me her organization is worried about a double-whammy of evictions. The first are those people who had cases filed before the pandemic, who are now first in line for housing court. “That’s the wave that’s coming already,” she said. “And then on top of that, there’s this whole other wave of pandemic evictions.”

Gancarz-Davies said this will push more and more families together into shared housing, which still poses a health risk. “The options are getting slimmer and slimmer and scarier and scarier,” she said.

Mutual aid coalitions are trying to fill some of the gaps, especially among vulnerable folks who don’t qualify for benefits. The coalitions are also aiding people who’ve never really needed help before and are intimidated or embarrassed to seek government help — or have been deterred from doing so because the system itself failed.

Al Rios fields requests for the North Texas Mutual Aid Coalition, which broadly covers the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When he first started managing requests for the coalition in April, the asks were small: some extra cash for groceries, a hundred bucks to cover the cellphone bill.

“The latest thing, probably since May, the biggest thing is people need money for rent and so that’s what they’re asking for,” he said. The number of people who need help has also gone up.

Some are short a few hundred on rent this month, but they don’t know what the next month will bring. Rios will give those folks an even $1,000. Some requests are much more desperate: unemployed people, needing months of back rent, reaching into the thousands of dollars. Rios gives what he cans, then bumps them to the bottom of the list.

And the group is still weeks behind in fielding requests. They are dependent on donations, and the need far exceeds what they’re receiving. In one case, Rios recalls, someone with Covid-19 needed aid. He had died by the time they got to his name.

What experts and activists say the governments should be doing

Tenant organizations and activists want state and local governments to cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic and pause mortgages for the length of the emergency — which remains acute in the United States.

Canceling rent would be radical, though tenants groups and activists say that kind of bold action is necessary. Erasing rent would also require some sort of assistance for people with mortgages — and for utility companies and local governments that rely on property taxes for funding.

Then there are the mortgage lenders who would need to get on board. Many mortgages are bundled and sold as investments to things like pension funds, which could take a hit if lenders can’t pay out investors. America’s for-profit housing system is so interconnected it may make a clean slate harder than it sounds.

But the status quo is also untenable. All experts and activists I spoke to agree: If nothing is done, it will be disastrous. The urgency can’t be overstated. “We need this emergency rental assistance now, and that emergency rental assistance will stem the tide [of evictions] and keep people on the brink from losing their homes,” Yentel said.

People I spoke to said more money from the federal government would be a good place to start. Renewing expanded unemployment benefits for additional weeks or sending additional stimulus checks would give renters a boost. So would laying aside billions in rental assistance, money to cover rent and back rent and keep people safely housed during the pandemic.

“No Wage No Rent” graffiti on a wall on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles on May 1. Canceling rent would also mean providing assistance for mortgages, utilities, and property taxes.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

The June 15 Urban Institute report estimated that the federal government would need to spend $5.5 billion each month to bring all renter households back up to the pre-pandemic rent burden — which would still mean some households remain severely burdened, paying more than 30 percent in rent. (To get everyone to that 30 percent figure, it would cost $15.5 billion per month.)

That $5.5 billion figure goes down, however, to $1.8 billion if it is paired with continuing supplements like state and expanded unemployment benefits.

Any program should consider not just future rent but also covering arrears, experts tell me. Rental assistance would also help guarantee the viability of the country’s housing stock, allowing small landlords to operate and maintain their buildings — something they can’t do if rent isn’t coming in.

“There is real concern that landlords may not be able to weather this as well,” Batko, of Urban Institute, said.

Democrats in the House passed a $3 trillion stimulus package in May. The HEROES Act, as it’s called, also comes with additional cash stimulus, expanded unemployment insurance, and almost $200 billion in financial support for housing and homelessness programs, including $100 billion for emergency rental assistance. That money would keep payment flowing to landlords, especially smaller ones who may rely on rental income to pay for building maintenance, utilities, mortgages, taxes, and other expenses.

It would also expand a nationwide eviction moratorium for nonpayment to include most renters, erasing the confusing patchwork of state and local policies, and dole out more money to help cash-strapped states and cities.

But the HEROES Act has languished in the Republican-led Senate, and Congress is now on a two-week July Fourth holiday. Even if the Senate acts quickly and passes the stimulus package upon their return, the delay could be costly.

As with any large-scale aid program, it takes time to set up and distribute money. That could create a gap between when people desperately need funds and when they’re available. That doesn’t give struggling renters much leeway.

Plus, July 1 marked the start of the fiscal year for many cities and states, meaning they’ve already agreed on pared-back budgets, which in some cases could mean cuts to social services and other safety net programs.

The House also passed a standalone rental bill last week — the Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act of 2020, which sets aside $100 billion for emergency rental assistance programs and a $75 billion relief fund for homeowners. It also extends the eviction and foreclosure moratorium in the CARES Act through March 2021. It probably won’t make it through the Senate.

Even if eviction moratoriums are imperfect, they are still an important stopgap to keep people in their homes during a health emergency — especially for people who can’t qualify for assistance or who work in the informal economy, such as unauthorized immigrants.

Advocates say a national moratorium on evictions for nonpayment could provide this lifeline. “I do think a national rule would be the most effective, because I think what you’re seeing now in this patchwork is really confusing to people,” Navneet Grewal, litigation counsel for Disability Rights California, told me.

The House and Senate have introduced a bill to extend a nationwide eviction moratorium through March 2021 and expand it to include almost all renters. The odds of this standalone bill also becoming law are slim.

With federal action stalled, states and localities — even with strained budgets — might have to fill the gaps, though the need far outstrips available funds. Los Angeles has approved a $100 million rental assistance program, but it will cap payments at $2,000 per household, in one of America’s priciest rental markets. New York state also approved a $100 million rental assistance program, though applicants have to meet certain income requirements. In Houston, Texas, a $15 million rental assistance program filled up in 90 minutes.

Experts and advocates say local governments also need to think beyond rental assistance and figure out ways to stop housing courts from being overwhelmed with a wave of new evictions — not to mention the pre-pandemic backlog.

Expanding tenants’ rights to counsel and legal aid would guarantee renters have representation when they go to housing court. “Evictions are a really fast process; they’re much faster than most civil cases,” Grewal said. There aren’t enough lawyers for people who are being evicted, she said, “and having a lawyer actually makes an enormous difference.”

Local governments could also seek to boost programs that help mediate between landlords and tenants, keeping everyone out of housing court. Tenants may still have to pay back rent and may still have to leave, but they can avoid having an eviction on their record. And, of course, local eviction moratoriums continue to help.

“We need to buy ourselves some time here,” Carr said, “while we push the federal government to get their shit together.”

The pandemic, and protests, is an opportunity to rethink housing

On June 1, protests against police brutality and racism engulfed the country. Also, the rent was due.

The protests connected to the Black Live Matter movement helped highlight inequities in housing — and law enforcement’s role in it. When evictions start happening, Weaver pointed out, “It’s going to be law enforcement that’s going to be taking people out of their homes.”

Tenant organizers and activists say their work always connected to larger anti-racism and social justice efforts, but others are waking up now, too. “Anything that we do that upholds systemic inequity is up for revision right now in this moment,” Kane, with the Colorado Rent Strike and Eviction Defense, told me. “There’s an awakening happening.”

And the pandemic, with housing courts closed and millions in extreme, acute economic distress, has presented a unique opportunity for tenants to organize and take action. Without assistance, tenants had no choice. “Necessity,” Jack Lester, a housing attorney in New York City who’s working with 345 Eldert Street rent strikers, told me, “always creates historical movements.”

This also means reexamining the problems that existed before the pandemic and figuring out how policies and public action can remedy those, too.

Emily Mock, Chinatown Tenants Union Membership Organizer, works with mainly immigrant communities in New York City’s shrinking Chinatown. Mock said those she works with experience the threat of evictions constantly: landlords who purposely don’t cash rent checks to try to kick tenants out, housing court proceedings that stretch for years.

That didn’t go away when the pandemic struck, she said, and leaving it unaddressed will only widen inequities among renters. “One of the ways in which working-class people have been really deeply insulted by this is that I’ll need to prove that you’re impacted by the pandemic” to receive certain assistance. “When, of course, everybody is impacted.”

“Everything comes together,” she said.

Emmanuel Pardilla, a volunteer tenant organizer with the South Bronx Tenant Movement, said the same for tenants in the South Bronx. Many in his neighborhood work in the informal economy, like selling fruit or churros. It is harder for them to “prove” they’ve been hurt by the pandemic.

And many of the communities who are at the biggest risk of eviction and homelessness are also those hit hardest by the pandemic.

“So when we’re talking about people staying home, they’re staying home in buildings, in apartments where they have mold growing, where they have leaks, where they have vermin, which are all triggers of asthma, which is a respiratory issue just as Covid is a respiratory issue,” Pardilla said. “So people are still getting sick, whether they’re staying home or not.”

Even if the country and economy were to immediately snap back, “normalcy” is still tenuous for millions of renters. Emergency aid is necessary, but making these programs more permanent could also help prevent the next crisis from happening.

The government could invest more in programs that offer housing vouchers, such as Section 8 (where the government pays a portion of a tenant’s rent, based on income). Right now, the waitlists for programs like Section 8 are extraordinarily, almost absurdly long, despite limits on eligibility.

Strengthening protections and expanding access to these initiatives would help keep people in the houses or apartments they already have and prevent them from reaching the point of crisis, like eviction or homelessness.

“Until we solve for that underlying shortage of homes affordable and available to the lowest-income people, then we’re going to face the same crisis during the next pandemic or the next wave of this pandemic or the next natural disaster next year,” Yentel said. “Because this is a crisis on top of a multi-year, already existing affordable housing crisis.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the South Bronx Tenants Movement as the South Bronx Tenants Association. The post has been updated, and we regret the error.


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