The Looming Eviction Crisis
by Dr. Khalil Shahyd
September 28, 2020
frank | The Natural Resources Defense Council, from my understanding, is traditionally focused on environmental advocacy? How is it that you moved into the affordable housing space?
Khalil | We have gone through a lot of internal learning as an environmental organization. We used to be singularly focused on things like reducing energy demand, improving energy efficiency programs, and curbing carbon emissions. We hadn't really considered that if we were successful in retrofitting every home and apartment, we could also be contributing to the drastically increasing cost of housing and contributing to the housing affordability crisis.
We quickly realized that we could not just be singularly focused, we had to also address the affordable housing crisis while helping people make their homes more energy-efficient, which lowers their bills and improves their health.
The issue of affordable housing is a necessary complement to reaching our climate goals.
How do we expect to mobilize millions of people across the country to support climate policy, and to participate in a green transition, if they don't have stable homes? The issue of affordable housing is very central to our environmental and climate mission.
Right. You had a recent piece about the massive amount of debt renters currently find themselves in.
I use the term “debt time bomb” to speak to the massive amount of debt that renters have continued to accrue during this pandemic.
The Urban Institute did a really good study on what it would cost to provide rental support to those who can't pay their rent; you can think about this number as the total amount of outstanding debt. The total was $5 billion, every month. And 50 percent of the renter population is already rent-burdened, meaning they put 30 percent or more of their income toward rent each month.
On top of that, there is $2.6 billion per month in electric bills and $1.9 billion per month in water bills that are outstanding. $1.3 billion per month in internet and cable bills is going unpaid. That is a total of about $6.5 billion in utility services debt per month added to the $5 billion in rental debt every month.
There's no plan in place to resolve it. This is a neglected threat that can have severe consequences that blow back rather quickly. People are going to be struggling, I think, for some time. Unfortunately, our nation’s policies have been biased against the needs of low-income families in general, and specifically against renters.
What policies do you see as examples of being negatively biased toward renters?
Well, the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) included emergency rental assistance, but the amount it included was very small and the money dried up very quickly.
There has not been any other rental assistance since the initial round in the CARES Act. The HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) passed by the U.S. House included $100 billion in additional rental assistance, but it is sitting in the Senate. Meanwhile, much of the relief has gone through the mortgage sector and the banking sector. Relief has been granted to the property owner.
Landlords are still filing notices in the court even though, according to CDC's guidelines, the court can't actually hear the cases yet. They use the filing as a threat. The landlord will make the filing, go back to the unit, and post a notice on the door that they have made the filing. Some renters are not fully aware of what that means or what their legal rights are, so in many cases folks are being illegally forced out.
In many local jurisdictions, the rule in landlord-tenant court often favors the landlord. In Florida, for example, the tenant has to pay back all their rent before they can even have their case heard. That speaks to something we need to have a larger conversation about: rights in this country are reserved for property owners.
Do you think there's a way to use this crisis to shift that power structure?
In the same way that we are having an ongoing and necessary conversation about the role of race in our political and legal institutions, we need to talk about how property owners are privileged in our political and legal institutions. We prioritized property owners over everyone else and disenfranchise people who did not own property. It's literally laid out in our Constitution and it still exists today.
In the past, landlords have benefited from the denigration of renters' rights. But now they're actually suffering from the long-standing neglect of renters: if renters don't get emergency rental assistance, then they can't pay their landlord, and the landlords aren't getting any real assistance besides some mortgage payment forgiveness. The acknowledgment that their fates are intertwined presents an opportunity to push forward the conversation about the neglect of renters, and the real threat that neglect poses for the rental market and for the overall housing economy.
Because Congress has continuously passed housing and land use issues down to local jurisdictions, Congress has been oblivious to what's really happening.
There is no national housing policy. There is no real housing strategy from the federal level.
Through this crisis and through these calls for substantive rental assistance from the federal government, Congress is now confronted with the fact that yes, the rent is too damn high. We've been so neglectful on these issues for so long. We've just allowed property values to soar unchecked. We have allowed rent to soar unchecked.
And that is often part of a city's economic development strategy; it is a strategy based on the idea of the continual growth of property value, which is counterintuitive to the need for affordable housing and counterintuitive to the right to housing.
What would you want to see at a national level?
Our organization drafted a series of transition memos that targeted every federal agency; I led the transition memo targeting HUD and affordable housing. One of our recommendations was to create an interagency office at the federal level for renter rights and protections. We believe it is critical that we begin to investigate and understand where we are as a nation, and where we need to be.
A lot of housing policy is deferred from the federal government to the local level. Cities and municipalities have a lot of discretion and control over local land use and local property laws. If you go into any city that has community input around land use and zoning, renters are hardly ever represented in those conversations. They are an afterthought. There's an assumption that they would not have any valuable input.
Representation is reserved for property owners, and that is an ongoing legacy of the establishment of the country as a bastion of property owners.
How does the fact that renters being in mountains of debt to their landlords fundamentally change their relationship?
In a way, you are tying that person to that building and that owner, until they are able to pay off that debt.
If they move, there is some sort of timed payment – likely they will have to pay all of the debt that they have accumulated upfront. It makes it impossible for them to move and traps them in that relationship, in that location. The landlord has leverage over the renter in terms of refusing to do any maintenance because the renter has no alternative. It creates the potential for a very exploitative relationship.
That is why we are advocating for the elimination of the debt.
Do you think it is possible that such a type of decision would come from the national level?
I am hoping there can be some national leadership on this, but that would require the federal government to rethink its standing approach and perspective on these issues. They have deferred a lot of these decisions to municipal and local authorities.
That is why the CARES Act did not include a uniform national eviction moratorium – they were so unsure of their authority to do so, they were afraid of pushback from local governments who felt like that was their area of authority. The initial moratorium only covered HUD housing since it was federal housing. Significant policy would require them to take a leap and push forward with a very different approach to housing, and I am not sure they will be willing to do that, no matter the administration.