Oct 07, 2021
Shelter is a basic survival need, along with food, clothing and health care. But it's even more than that. It's also a psychic and spiritual need. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote: "A home shelters daydreaming, a home protects the dreamer, a home allows us to dream in peace."
We cannot experience our full humanity without a home, which is one of many reasons why housing is both a basic human need and a basic human right. That's why the US housing crisis is unforgivable.
According to the federal government's latest figures, more than half a million (580,000) men, women, and children were without shelter on any given night in 2020. That figure is unconscionable, and it's been getting worse. The number of chronically unhoused people rose by 21 percent between 2019 and 2020. Now, it's about to go through the roof.
In a decent society, nobody would have to spend a single night without a home. And people don't 'become' homeless. We make them homeless, through the deliberate choices we make as a society.
We don't know the exact scope of the problem because we don't have an accurate database of evictions. But we know it's bad. As the Washington Postreports, the Urban Institute estimates that 10 million people are currently in danger of being evicted. The Aspen Institute says that figure is 15 million. And Moody's reports that six million people were behind on their rent.
The Supreme Court only threw out the federal government's eviction moratorium last month. California's moratorium ended last month, and New York's ends on December 31. Other states, including Texas, Washington, and New Hampshire, have some form of eviction deferral or moratorium in place.
Rep. Cori Bush's sit-in on the Capitol steps stirred the country and forced the Biden Administration to attempt extending the federal eviction moratorium through the CDC. It was rightly described as a 'triumph' for progressives. But where has Congress been since then? It was widely understood that the CDC's ban would be tossed out by the Supreme Court and that Congress would have to act to prevent a mass wave of evictions. It's been more than two months since then, Congress has failed to act.
Congress has yet to take up three critical bills: the Keeping Renters Safe Act introduced by Rep. Bush and Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Rep. Ilhan Omar's Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act; and the Housing is a Human Right Act from Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Grace Meng, which would fund more affordable housing and support services.
It's critical that we renew the eviction moratorium, as the first bill would do. But evictions only delay the inevitable. People who couldn't make one month's rent will someday be expected to come up with an entire year's back rent. Many, if not most, will be unable to do that. That's where the second bill comes in. It would provide concrete assistance for people who can't pay their back rent or mortgage payments.
Tragically, the aid that Congress already allocated has failed to reach the people who need it. Most of the $46.1 billion already allocated to help renters and landlords remains unspent, thanks to poor program design that forced the aid to be distributed by state and local governments. Struggling renters also face heavy bureaucratic burdens if they want help. As Rep. Jayapal told the American Prospect, "What we're learning is that the more barriers you put up to access aid, guess what? It's harder to access the aid!"
A cynic might say this was by design. In any case, as of August 25 only 11 percent of those funds had been distributed.
The third bill directly addresses our long-term housing crisis for lower-income Americans. The approach to this crisis that has had the most publicity might be called 'the neoliberal option': lift all zoning laws and let the 'free market' provide affordable housing. But we've learned that free-market solutions don't work to meet social needs. The Kerner Commission called for millions of units of government-built affordable housing more than 50 years ago. It's time to answer that call, as the bill from Reps. Jayapal and Meng begins to do.
Home ownership is also a vanishing dream for lower-income people in the United States. An estimated 2.1 million people were behind on their mortgage payments as of March 2021. For people who haven't bought a home yet, the Wall Street Journal reports that mortgage payments are climbing much faster than incomes. As of July, median home prices were up 23 percent from last year while incomes were only up 3 percent. Low interest rates are benefiting institutional investors, among others, while leaving many working families--especially younger ones--in the lurch.
Generations of people were sold on the idea that owning a home was "the American dream." This generation is learning that just having a home may soon be out of the reach of millions.
The Journal notes that mortgages haven't been this unaffordable since 2008. Did anything else happen that year? In the wake of the Wall Street financial crisis, the Obama Administration also dragged its feet on aid to struggling homeowners. (Democrats lost Congress in 2010, perhaps not coincidentally.)
Some articles, like the Washington Post's, note that the expected 'tsunami' of evictions hasn't arrived yet. That's no cause for comfort. As the Post and others have reported, some eviction bans are still in place and it takes a while for evictions to work through the courts.
Generations of people were sold on the idea that owning a home was "the American dream." This generation is learning that just having a home may soon be out of the reach of millions. The "best case" scenario, one that verges on magical thinking, leaves us with half a million families unhoused. The worst case would involve millions.
In a decent society, nobody would have to spend a single night without a home. And people don't 'become' homeless. We make them homeless, through the deliberate choices we make as a society. With half a million people already unhoused and millions more at risk, it's time to ask: What kind of people are we? Who are we, that we allow this to happen?
There is a good way to prove we're better than that. Call your senator and representative and tell them to cosponsor and support these bills.
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