In our law school clinic at Indiana University, my students and I represent tenants facing eviction. A few weeks ago, we saw two clients in court that I’ll call Mary and Sheryl.
Mary has five young children. Her husband is in prison. Mary has a full-time day job, but her hours are unpredictable. After falling behind on rent, Mary took on a second job, a third-shift stint as a nurse’s assistant at a nursing home. The overnight childcare arrangements are sketchy — she would rather not talk about it.
When asked about when she found time to sleep while working both night and day, Mary sighed and shrugged. “I’ll sleep when I catch up on rent,” she says. We hope the judge gives her time to do so before the family ends up like past clients who are sleeping in their cars.
Sheryl has multiple physical and mental disabilities. Her mom who cared for her died unexpectedly, leaving Sheryl in an apartment she can’t afford. In fact, there is no apartment Sheryl can afford. She is appealing the denial of her application for disability benefits, but even if she wins, the monthly check will be less than $850.
Sheryl could devote every penny of her income just to rent and still not be able to afford an average apartment. We are fighting to delay the inevitable eviction order, but Sheryl has resigned herself to homelessness.
Mary and Sheryl are just two of millions. The poorest families in our country are paying on average 75 percent of their income for housing. Ten million Americans report being behind on their rent and thus in imminent risk of eviction.
This is unacceptable. Polls show a strong majority of Americans believe that housing is a human right, reflecting in part the clear mandate of every religious and moral tradition holding that ensuring a safe, secure place to live is a sacred duty.
We can fix this. And we can fix it in four straightforward steps.
It may seem naïve to claim we can end our housing crisis so easily. Experts will tell you that housing in the United States is complex, expensive, multilayered. All true. There are byzantine financing arrangements for developing and buying housing, a labyrinth of tax rules and government incentives, and stacks of zoning restrictions that can vary block by block, much less city by city.
But this is also true: almost all of this complexity is rooted in two core realities about housing in this country.
One, the tangled web of rules and regulations primarily exist to enable corporations and wealthy individuals to use housing to exploit the less wealthy. And two, many of the barriers between the millions like Mary and Sheryl and the affordable housing they need can be traced back to generations of racial discrimination in housing.
Neither can be justified as excuses to prevent us from fixing this mess. So here are the four steps:
1. Call an immediate, nationwide eviction moratorium.
A year and a half ago, Mary, Sheryl, and virtually everyone else we see in eviction court were safely housed. Pandemic-inspired eviction moratoria enacted by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local governments were remarkably successful, together preventing nearly 2.5 million evictions. Not only did the country and the economy survive the moratoria, but landlords actually emerged with higher cash balances.
Last August, the Supreme Court struck down the CDC moratorium. But the court’s ruling was not that a moratorium was illegal, just that the CDC had exceeded its authority: “If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue,” the justices wrote, “Congress must specifically authorize it.”
Some in Congress tried to do just that. They need to try again.
The original moratoriums were created because the nation was in a state of emergency. We still are. If you don’t believe me, come to eviction court and watch the long line of families with children losing their homes, talk to the parents who turn the car heat on for short periods at night so their infant daughter can settle down to sleep, or to the people sleeping on relatives’ floors or on the street. Talk to shelter workers who are forced to put desperate callers on growing waiting lists. And take a look at the horrifying data showing what common sense already tells us: evictions and housing insecurity can destroy physical and mental health, especially in children.
I am all for reforming the process of evictions, including a requirement for just cause for evictions and a right to counsel for tenants facing the loss of their home. And as long we live in a for-profit housing system, a new moratorium will have an end date. But take it from a lawyer who stands alongside tenants in court every week: no legal hurdle or clever attorney can provide the silver bullet for Mary and Sheryl and the ten million other US renters who are behind on their rent because they simply cannot afford it. They need our eviction machine to be shut down. Immediately.
2. Distribute housing vouchers to all who qualify.
Unlike public assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP), federal housing subsidies are not an entitlement. The housing help is only available if there is money to provide it, and it rarely is. Underfunding of affordable housing programs means three of every four persons in the United States who are eligible for housing assistance don’t get it, including Mary and Sheryl. In some cities, waiting lists for housing assistance are so long they have been closed for more than a decade. When the lists do open, people have literally been trampled while scrambling for a chance for help.
This shameful situation contains the low-hanging fruit of a fast, effective response to the immediate crisis: guarantee that all who are eligible can get a housing subsidy.
Federal housing subsidies cap a tenant’s rent at 30 percent of their income, with the government paying the difference up to a market rate. The multi-decade abandonment of public housing means that there are not enough suitable public housing homes for all who qualify. So, our short-term plan has to be the greatly expanded distribution of Section 8, or “Housing Choice,” vouchers that can be used to rent from private landlords.
This is only a stopgap fix. It leaves in place the dysfunctional US model of the government’s affordable housing dollars enriching for-profit landlords, usually corporate landlords. But desperate times call for desperate measures, at least in the short term.
A universal housing voucher plan is not only able to be ramped up quickly — it is eminently affordable. The dirty truth about US housing policy is that we already invest a huge amount of government resources in housing: we just direct those resources to the benefit of those who need it the least.
An important report published earlier this year by Amee Chew of the Center for Popular Democracy demonstrates that tax breaks for homeowners and investors, which in the 1970s were less than federal spending on affordable housing, now exceed US affordable housing expenditures by billions of dollars. By one measure, the United States provides thirteen times more in federal subsidies for wealthier homeowners than it does for low-income renters.
For example, the mortgage interest tax deduction costs government coffers more than $30 billion per year. Homeowners are also exempted from paying taxes on capital gains realized when they sell their home, a subsidy that costs the government more than $35 billion annually. Most of those benefits go to the wealthiest 20 percent of US households, are disproportionately provided to white households, and even subsidize the wealthy who purchase second homes.
The combination of revenue forfeited by the government to benefit richer homeowners is significantly higher than the Urban Institute’s estimated cost — $62 billion per year — of providing a subsidized housing voucher to every eligible US renter. And we have not even mentioned the hundreds of billions of tax breaks and subsidies our government provides corporate landlords.
That makes universal vouchers, and an accompanying requirement blocking private landlords from discriminating against voucher-holding applicants, a very mainstream idea. Universal vouchers were even a campaign promise made in 2020 by President Joe Biden, and they are the centerpiece of legislation pending in Congress. We need that legislation to move forward. Maybe we could pay for it by cutting mortgage interest tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans.
3. Commit to Building and Strengthening Social Housing. Now.
As the overflowing cornucopia of housing tax incentives and subsidies for the wealthy shows, the fundamental flaw in our housing system is that we treat homes first and foremost as a commodity for building wealth, especially for corporations and wealthy individuals. There is a far better approach: social housing.
Social housing is owned by the government, cooperatives, or nonprofit organizations that respond to democratic control by residents. This is a step beyond rent control, proven to be effective at controlling costs but also vulnerable to for-profit landlords’ persistent efforts to reverse any legislation that caps their windfalls. By comparison, social housing is completely decommodified — protected from the profiteering of the private market. It is guaranteed to be affordable for the life of the building or unit — no expiration date.
Like public education; infrastructure like roads, sewers, and water; public safety; and our justice system, social housing recognizes that housing is too essential to depend on whether a family has enough money to ensure a profit to a private corporation or propertied individual.
Amee Chew and others, such as Gianpaolo Baiocchi and H. Jacob Carlson and Saoirse Gowan and Ryan Cooper, have outlined how social housing already has a foothold in the United States and can expand dramatically. Governments at all levels can ramp up their existing practices of using land banks and other mechanisms to acquire land from the for-profit market, sometimes by taking over distressed properties or seizing tax-delinquent ones. Tenant and Community Opportunity to Purchase Acts provide first rights of purchase — and sometimes government funding to support that purchase — to entities that will convert the property into permanently affordable social housing. Then public financing supports the construction or rehabilitation of the property, along with the necessary maintenance.
The United States has a housing shortage, but new construction in the for-profit industry is focused on creating more inefficient, high-cost homes. That is nowhere near enough for the millions who cannot afford rent. So social housing programs that do build affordable housing must be accompanied by inclusionary zoning legislation that prevents local regulations with racist origins from blocking multiunit housing.
While the United States is an international outlier in our reliance on for-profit landlords to provide affordable housing, social housing has an impressive track record across the globe. For example, most land in Helsinki, Finland is owned by the municipal government, which also operates its own public construction company with funding provided by a public bank and national housing agency. The result: one of every six housing units in Finland is public housing.
In Vienna, Austria — ranked the most livable city in the world for ten years running — nearly 60 percent of the residents live in social housing and pay rents less than half those of Londoners or Parisians. More than three in four residents of Singapore live in government-developed housing, much of it on land cleared via eminent domain in the 1960’s.
Other international examples abound. And even in the United States, despite decades of intentional underfunding, public housing has provided affordable homes for millions of families, and millions more are on waiting lists hoping to get in.
The US approach to social housing must account for generations of government-sanctioned racist housing practices, including but not limited to redlining, restrictive covenants, intentional neglect and segregation of public housing, bulldozing black and brown neighborhoods to make room for highways and developments that provide most of their benefit to whites, and support for corporate seizure of housing in those communities. Social housing investments must be targeted, especially initially, to benefit the communities whose resources have been extracted under the dominant US housing approach.
4. Enforce a Human Right to Housing.
When grassroots activists like People’s Action and their Homes Guarantee campaign talk about the housing crisis in terms of rights, they are far from alone. President Biden is on record saying housing is a right, not a privilege, as is Marcia Fudge, secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. To cement the gains made by universal vouchers and social housing, the United States needs to get beyond the platitudes and institute an explicit human right to housing.
This is no pie-in-the-sky talk. Other nations have committed in treaties like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — which the United States has signed but not ratified — and their constitutions to the human right to housing. Those commitments matter. As Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has written, Finland, Germany, South Africa, France, the Netherlands, and multiple other countries have created legal rights to housing and followed up the pronouncements with programs to ensure their enforcement.
There is no reason we can’t do the same. On behalf of Mary and Sheryl and millions of others facing the same struggle, let’s start now.
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