Without Immediate Action, Millions Of People Will Be Evicted In The Coming Months

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CounterSpin interview with Diane Yentel on the eviction crisis.

Janine Jackson interviewed the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Diane Yentel about the eviction crisis for the July 17, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Imagine losing your job in a pandemic, and then losing your home because you can’t pay the rent. That’s the situation facing millions of Americans right now. As many as 28 million people, say some analysts, may be evicted from their homes in coming months, as what eviction moratoriums some places had enacted are slated to expire, even though there’s no reason to believe people will suddenly be able to pay then.

So is the plan to just allow millions of people to be made homeless during a public health crisis? Avoiding that specter involves taking up the underlying crisis: this country’s lack of affordable housing.

Diane Yentel is president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. She joins us now by phone from Virginia. Welcome to CounterSpin, Diane Yentel.

Diane Yentel: Hi, thanks for having me.

JJ: Inasmuch as there’s been acknowledgement of what one would think is an obvious reality—that most people who’ve lost jobs at a certain point will no longer be able to make the rent—it’s been these here-and-there moratoriums on eviction. And then we see some emergency rental assistance programs, like New York Governor Cuomo just announced.

Not to say that that’s nothing. And I imagine there are better and worse programs. But was that ever going to be enough to turn back this crisis?

DY: No, it was never enough. And we’ve known that from the beginning. It has been a helpful start. So from the beginning, we have seen that if the federal government didn’t intervene in a really significant and sustained way, that we would see a wave of evictions and a spike in homelessness. And so these limited federal eviction moratoriums, and these state and local moratoriums that have been put in place, have provided some protections for low-income renters, and have helped prevent that wave from happening.

But those moratoriums are rapidly expiring. As of today, there are 29 governors that have allowed their state eviction moratoriums to expire, and the limited federal eviction moratoriums expire next week.

We have been tracking emergency rental assistance programs that have been created in response to Covid-19. As of now, there are about 151 emergency rental assistance programs around the country. Their main challenge is lack of resources: The demand for those emergency rental assistance programs far outstripped the resources that are available.

JJ: It seems to me that a moratorium without cash—I’m not sure I understand the thinking behind that. People aren’t going to suddenly have four months of back rent ready when the moratorium ends. But also, cash assistance keeps the landlord paid. So giving people money just seems like the most direct and straightforward way to do this.

DY: Right. Well, we need both: The eviction moratoriums assure people that they’re not going to lose their home in the middle of a pandemic, and that’s the very least the federal government ought to do. So there shouldn’t be a patchwork of state, local and federal eviction moratoriums that protect only some renters. We need a uniform national eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent for the duration of the pandemic.

But, exactly: Eviction moratoriums on their own aren’t enough, because they create a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratoriums eventually are lifted and back rent is owed, and the renters are no more able to pay the rent then than they were at the beginning of the pandemic.

And that’s why emergency rental assistance is so essential. It’s essential to keeping low-income earners stably housed, during and after the pandemic. And, as you say, small landlords can’t continue to maintain and operate their properties without rental income coming in.

And so the last thing we want to do is end this crisis having saddled low-income people with more debt that they can’t dig out from, or having lost some of our country’s essential housing stock. And providing emergency rental assistance helps us avoid both of those harmful outcomes.

JJ: People about to be put out on the street—and I understand the moratoria are sometimes just on the execution of the order; landlords were allowed to do all the paperwork, so the minute the moratorium ends, those people can be put out.

But that’s just the sharpest edge, maybe you could say, of what is really a huge problem in the United States. So let’s talk about the Coalition’s annual Out of Reach report. What does that report diagnose? And what are the major findings from this latest one?

DY: The findings from this report, and from many reports that we put out that quantify the shortage of homes affordable for the lowest-income people, are that rents are far out of reach for low-income people. They are tremendously out of reach for minimum wage workers, but also for the average renter, who earns much less than what the average rent costs. And we also know that we have a severe shortage of homes, affordable and available to the lowest-income people in our country. So for every 10 of the lowest-income renters, there are fewer than four apartments that are affordable and available to them.

So because rents are so far out of reach for low-income people, and because we have such a shortage of homes affordable to them, we have nearly 8 million of the lowest-income renter households, so about 25 million people in these households, who are paying at least half of their income towards their rent every month, and many are paying much more. They’re paying 60, 70, 80% of their income, just to keep a roof over their heads. And so, when you have such limited income to begin with, and you’re paying so much of it for your home, you’re always one financial emergency away from missing rent and facing, potentially, eviction, and, in worst cases, homelessness.

So for many of these same renters, the coronavirus is that financial emergency. They’re losing jobs, they’re losing hours at work, they’re losing wages, and it’s harder than ever for them to cobble together what’s needed to pay rent.

JJ: It’s almost, “Oh yeah, of course, Black and Latinx people are the most affected.” But that shouldn’t mean that we don’t think about the particular reasons why that is.

DY: No, that’s exactly right. People of color are most at risk. And to be clear, without immediate federal action, those millions of people who will be evicted from their homes in the coming months will be predominantly Black and Latino people.

And the current crises have heightened the threat of eviction for Black and brown renters, but the threat is not new. Decades of racist housing policies, from redlining and blockbusting, restrictive covenants, restrictive zoning, put homeownership out of reach, purposefully out of reach, for people of color, and created this yawning wealth gap where today, the average white household has 12 times the wealth of the average Black household.

And so this structural racism leaves people of color disproportionately low-income, disproportionately rent-burdened, and disproportionately likely to be homeless. So these inequities now compound the harm done by Covid-19; Black and Native American people bear the brunt of infections and fatalities. Latino and Black people bear the brunt of historic job losses. And now their homes, and with it, their families’ ability to stay safe and healthy, are at risk.

JJ: The Out of Reach report has a section on the systemic shortage of affordable housing, and I’m struck by the word systemic there. What does that mean, in this context? It’s really a market failure.

DY: It is a market failure. That’s exactly right. There’s no way to build and maintain apartments that are affordable to extremely low-income people without government intervention. And that’s because the rent that extremely low-income people can pay doesn’t cover the costs of maintaining and operating apartments. So that’s a market failure. And that is where there is an essential federal government role to step in and correct that failure, and ensure that homes are affordable to the lowest-income people.

But, unfortunately, for decades the federal government has continuously underfunded solutions to keep the lowest-income people affordably housed. And so we have a system in our country today where only one in every four households who needs housing assistance, and is eligible for it, receives any. So 75% of low-income families who are eligible for and need housing assistance don’t get any. They are, instead, having to wait in long lines, adding their names to long waiting lists, hoping to win what’s essentially a housing lottery in our system, where only the lucky 25% get the help that they need to be affordably housed.

JJ: It’s immoral to allow millions to lose their homes because they’ve lost their job, maybe all the more so in a pandemic, but as with many things, if it’s wrong now, isn’t it always wrong? It also seems societally stupid, you know, it just doesn’t make sense. And there are other visions, and this is a time for big ideas. So let me just ask you, what can we do? What can we be doing to make the changes we want to see?

DY: You know, the solutions to the crisis are pretty simple, even if they’re not easy. Like, during a pandemic, let’s make sure that we keep people who are experiencing homelessness safe and alive, and we get them as quickly as possible into housing. And we ensure that nobody else becomes homeless during a pandemic.

And to do that, we need a national, uniform moratorium on evictions for the duration of a pandemic; we need at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance, and we need additional funds for homeless shelter and service providers, to keep people experiencing homelessness safe and to get them quickly housed. And I should mention that each of those three solutions have been passed by the US House of Representatives, not once but twice. And there are multiple bills in the Senate to do the same. Now we need the Senate Republican majority to act on those solutions.

But we can’t stop there. This immediate housing crisis sits on top of a long-term systemic housing shortage, and those solutions, too, are pretty simple, if not easy. We need to build more apartments that are affordable to the lowest-income people, through programs like the National Housing Trust Fund. We need to bridge the gap between what people earn and what rent costs through rental assistance. We need to provide emergency cash assistance to stabilize families through a financial emergency. And, of course, we have to preserve the affordable housing that exists in our country today.

And allowing homelessness and housing poverty to exist in our country has always been a public policy choice, and we can instead choose to end it. The only thing that we lack, and that we’ve always lacked, is the political will to actually fund the solutions at the scale necessary, and maybe, maybe, a moment like this helps us build that political will to actually make change.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition; you can find their work, including the new report, Out of Reach 2020: The High Cost of Housing, on the site NLIHC.org. Diane Yentel, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DY: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and producer/host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC‘s Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.