Members Only | August 6, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
If millions can’t afford roofs over their heads, the floor will fall out from under the country’s feet
We cannot continue to choose this broken system.
A national eviction crisis was a near thing. After slow action from elected officials across the government, the Biden administration hastily forestalled a looming homelessness calamity with an extension of the CDC emergency ban on evictions. Millions of families could breathe a sigh of relief at avoiding the cataclysm, and yet it is merely temporary. A darker truth is that the extension simply delays the inevitable reckoning the country must have around housing, ownership and the economy. Because everything about our current chaos—from the weeks of disregard and inaction to the skimpy scope of the solution—is the product of choices.
The United States has never been fair to the landless. As a nation established by landowners and slaveholders, ownership of property has been paramount since before we were a country. This commitment to property—the rights of it and the definition of it—would prove so central to the identity of our young nation that not even a century would pass before the government split in two over the question of whether it was a constitutionally-protected right to profit from human trafficking and forced labor.
Even as we tore ourselves apart over this, the United States was happy to carve a crest of blood on the land pried from Indigenous hands and to distribute their acquisitions freely to white settlers with nary a question. Land has been the tool of American progress in every age: whether a family traces their stability to the Homestead Act, the earliest Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, or the GI Bill.
The same people subjected to the worst of the pandemic’s shocks are the “essential workers” without whom the well-heeled members of society could not have functioned.
So it is no surprise that we have come to enshrine ownership in policy and posture, and that the classes assisted and stabilized are disproportionately white. With more than 70 percent of white families owning property compared to less than half of Black families, this means renters are likely Black or brown. Combined with low wages, working “essential” jobs, and the extra vulnerability to covid mortality, marginalized communities are in dire straits with little chance to escape. And with all of that stacked against them, our government is naturally organized to assist … landlords.
More emphasis in our discourse has gone to the loss of income for landlords than the fact that before the pandemic, nearly half of renter households were rent-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. While there is undeniable pressure on smaller landlords, they are in little danger of homelessness while this is already the condition of one in 10 children in the largest city in the country.
Even as housing prices soar to dizzying new highs, we have collectively put more energy into preserving land value and ownership than ensuring every American is sheltered—a capacity we have had for years. As long as housing remains the bedrock of family wealth, there is a dedicated interest to having that asset increase in value.
Perhaps that is the reason we have encouraged the expansion of speculative finance into our housing markets with little to no oversight or regulation even after the Great Recession. In the wake of that crisis caused by the exploitative behavior of big banks, the government had a massive empty housing stock that it essentially handed over to private equity, shadow banking and institutional investors to prevent the bottom from falling out of the housing market. With slightly more than half of rental units owned by corporate landlords, there is a determined interest in seeking out high profit margins regardless of the cost or impact, leaving tenants facing decrepit living conditions or out on the streets. Meanwhile, this pandemic has increased wealth at the top of the income scale, as the real economy faced an unprecedented collapse.
The very same people subjected to the worst of those economic shocks are the “essential workers” without whom the well-heeled members of society could not have functioned. Low-income laborers who supported the country at the cost of their own health and safety have been put on the altar of housing prices to subsidize their own exploitation. Even as we have pushed back evictions with a band-aid of federal subsidies, we have no broader solution to the average $5,000 in rent that millions of renters owe in a country where nearly half of the population couldn’t afford a $500 emergency. And, based on the behavior of national elected officials—even Democratic ones—it doesn’t appear that any effort at a meaningful solution is forthcoming.
Yet the costs of housing instability and homelessness are high. Should millions of renters find themselves unsheltered going into the late autumn and winter, we could be looking at a humanitarian crisis with reverberating consequences. Besides the destabilizing effect of not having a place to sleep, keep and eat food, and maintain hygiene, homelessness can lead to severe cognitive decline, rapid aging, malnutrition and psychological issues like increased anxiety and depression. Multiplied across the country, mass evictions would not be a crisis; it would be a cataclysm.
For the sake of property, we have chosen to mitigate the fallout and minimize the consequences of eviction. Our lawmakers dallied on remedies, and shrugged at their efforts for solutions. But if we don’t find a better, more comprehensive answer to the reality that millions cannot afford the roofs over their heads, we will find the floor out from under all of our feet. We cannot continue to choose this broken system.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
Kaitlin Byrd contributes to the Editorial Board stories about white supremacy, Black politics and history. She has appeared in HuffPost, Dame, Bustle and The Boston Globe. Find her @GothamGirlBlue.