Housing Is a National Crisis. Democrats Should Treat It That Way.

With the eviction moratorium set to expire, the housing emergency can’t get left behind while legislators work on roads and bridges.

The federal eviction moratorium in place since last year expired yesterday. The results could be catastrophic for millions of at-risk Americans—most of whom have yet to receive the promised housing aid—even as the country braces for a yet another pandemic surge due to the Delta variant:

According to a study by the Aspen Institute and the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project published in August of last year, nearly 40 million Americans were then at risk of eviction. People of color were, and still remain, disproportionately at risk as they are twice as likely to be renters. And the pressures that Covid-19 added just worsened the statistics.

Congress allocated relief money to sustain both renters and landlords during the crisis, but most of it has not gotten into the hands of those in need:

While more than $1.5 billion was delivered to eligible applicants in the month of June, which exceeded the amount provided in all three previous reporting periods combined, only $3 billion of the total $45 billion allocated has been distributed, according to the US Treasury. Now that the federal moratorium has expired, at least four states — Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, and Oregon — have temporarily continued the ban on evictions against those with a pending rental assistance application. These state decisions will give renters time to receive their rent relief money when they might otherwise face eviction immediately. But renters in states that are following the expired federal moratorium face large sums of back rent and if they are unable to pay, possible eviction.

“There’s a lot of cases where tenants are getting evicted that have already been approved for rental assistance,” K’Lisha Rutledge, an attorney with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, told the Texas Tribune. “And their landlord knows that they’ve been approved, and they’re just waiting on the check.”

Democrats are now scrambling to try to extend the moratorium through at least October. This should have been a no-brainer, but it seems that the failure was part of a miscommunication oversight between the White House and the House of Representatives as all of Washington worked on the infrastructure bill. Republicans are not blameless here, of course: Democrats tried to pass the extension by unanimous consent of the House, but they were blocked by an anonymous Republican. Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is hoping that President Biden can do it unilaterally, but it is not entirely clear that this is the case:

“House leadership is calling on the administration to immediately extend the moratorium,” the Democratic leaders said.

President Joe Biden on Thursday asked Congress to extend the deadline, citing the COVID-19 Delta variant that is taking hold in the United States.

But Congress, possibly lacking the votes to approve such an extension, failed to act after a Republican lawmaker blocked a move in the House to immediately bring up a bill under the unanimous consent of the chamber.

It was unclear whether the administration has the authority to extend the moratorium using its executive powers and without Congress acting.

It’s hard to overstate the crisis-level social and economic impact of 40 million Americans being potentially kicked out of their homes during an epidemic. The devastation to those individuals would be matched by knock-on effects in the surrounding communities. Civil unrest and an economic downturn would almost certainly follow. Democratic legislators like Cori Bush are taking direct protest action to ensure that Congress doesn’t take August recess without doing the right and necessary thing.

While it’s likely that Democratic leaders will take appropriate action here, the fact that this oversight occurred in the first place is symptomatic of a broader failure to take housing issues as seriously as they deserve.

It’s a longstanding problem in American politics, exacerbated by the structural racism and gerontocracy that built American housing policy in the first place: homeowners are much likelier to vote than renters. Homeowners benefit from housing scarcity and increasing home values. Even the slant of mainstream press stories betrays enormous bias on behalf of existing homeowners at the expense of renters and those who cannot currently afford to buy. When home prices drop it is treated as a negative news story, whereas when wages increase and inflation in real goods increases, that is also treated as a negative news story. Assets, it seems, must always rise and wages must never rise enough to meet them.

Combined with zoning laws that reinforce generations of racist land use and discriminate against the young, there is now a national housing crisis affecting nearly every socio-economic class below the top 1% of incomes.

The most obvious and most dire is among those experiencing homelessness. Homelessness in a country as rich as the United States is a national shame. It should not exist. Yet the ranks of those experiencing it are swelling—as anyone who has made a passing visit to almost any American city can attest.

The reason for this is, simply put, a lack of housing—in particular a lack of affordable housing for low-income communities. America has 7 million too few homes for its population. This in turn is creating overcrowded conditions, abusively long commutes to jobs in metro areas, and an abysmally large number of Americans who cannot keep a roof over their heads even while holding a job and/or receiving welfare benefits.

The lack of both affordable and market-rate housing means that landlords can command increasingly mind-numbing rent prices, often well beyond what a reasonable person on a median salary in a major market can afford. Many renters “solved” this problem by moving farther away and accepting longer commutes. But now the secondary market explosion due to the pandemic is pushing desperate renters even out of those redoubts. The pittance increase in wages seen in the last year barely makes a dent in the much larger increase in rents.

And while no one is crying much for the relatively privileged compared to those struggling to maintain basic dignities, the problem is also affecting the middle classes—especially those in growing families. The pandemic has ironically ignited a residential real estate boom as people and capital seek out secondary markets and investments. But housing supply in desirable areas with jobs is so low that these moves are spiking prices in secondary markets while doing little to curb prices in urban areas. Houses in major metro areas with strong job markets are routinely selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking price. Millennial and young Gen-X families who were already struggling to try to afford absurdly high downpayments at last year’s prices now find themselves locked out entirely of a delirious market with nowhere to go. After all, it’s not as if wages doubled during the same period home prices did. More market-rate housing would help in addition to specifically affordable housing—all supply from all directions will have an impact on prices—but mostly older NIMBY homeowners have disproportionate control over city councils, who in turn largely refuse to build more housing lest it decrease home prices.

This is a national crisis, and Democrats need to treat it like one. Housing shouldn’t be an oversight that gets left behind while legislators work on roads and bridges. It’s one of the biggest and most pressing crises in the entire country and it demands an urgent solution—even if older homeowners who were lucky enough to have bought in when housing was much cheaper and who vote most frequently don’t currently experience it as such.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.