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Social activists, including a coalition of homeless-serving organizations, homeless residents and supporters rally at the start of a 24-hour vigil to block a planned shutdown of a homeless encampment at Echo Lake Park in Los Angeles, California, on March 24, 2021. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Rent Is Skyrocketing Everywhere and US Tenants Are Paying the Price

As the median rent spikes to $2,000 across the country, housing justice activists double down on efforts to counter price-gouging landlords.

Eleanor J. Bader

 by The Progressive

When real estate giant Redfin issued its monthly rental report in June, it noted that, for the first time in history, the median monthly rent in the U.S. had surpassed $2,000, a 15 percent bump from the previous year. 

Austin saw the largest increase of any metropolitan area, with rents over the past year surging by 48 percent to a median of $2,707 a month. But regardless of whether you're a tenant in Anaheim (median: $3,400); Boston (median: $3,970); Chicago (median: $2,454); Fort Lauderdale (median: $3,157); Los Angeles (median: $3,400); Miami (median: $3,157); Newark (median: $4,008) or Seattle (median: $3,097), rents are skyrocketing everywhere. 

While the affordable housing crisis is clearly worsening, tenant activists are quick to say that nothing about this crisis is new.

Reverend Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, calls it "a massive housing emergency." 

Coupled with the ongoing pandemic and ever-increasing food and fuel prices, low and moderate-income people in every corner of the country are suffering—and many are losing their homes.

According to the Eviction Lab, a Princeton University-based think tank that creates data and conducts research on the domestic rental housing crisis, in a typical year, property owners file 3.6 million eviction cases. In 2018, the last year for which statistics are available, 6 percent of all renters across the country were impacted; approximately one million lost their homes. 

"Evictions fell at the onset of the pandemic," the Eviction Lab reports, "but increased in the latter months of 2020." That trend has continued.

"The real estate industry is pushing back hard against eviction moratoriums and strengthened tenant protections won by the growing housing justice movement," Sumathy Kumar, campaign organizer at Housing Justice for All, a New York state coalition working to promote housing as a human right, told The Progressive. 

"The tenant movement has been trying to chip away at landlord control for decades and has had some victories," she says. "In response, the real estate industry is not only jacking up rents, it is spending millions on lobbying and electoral campaigns to secure its dominance. This is a national trend. Rents are going up, the cost of living is going up, and the federal government is not stepping in to do anything about it." 

The upshot, Kumar continues, is a predictable rise in homelessness, something that even the normally staid Government Accountability Office (GAO) has flagged. Indeed, a 2020 GAO report notes that whenever there's a $100 increase in the median rent, a whopping 9 percent increase in homelessness follows. 

But while the affordable housing crisis is clearly worsening, tenant activists are quick to say that nothing about this crisis is new.

"Well before the pandemic, there was not enough housing for people at the lowest incomes," Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy and field organizing at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told The Progressive. "Nationwide, we need at least seven million more units for people whose incomes are below $20,000 a year. We also need to expand the rental assistance program because only one in four people who are currently eligible for Section 8 rent vouchers actually get them."

Still, Saadian continues, even if millions of affordable apartments and rent vouchers magically became available, at the core of the crisis there's a "fundamental power imbalance between landlords and renters." This, she says, needs to be disrupted so that robust tenant protections can be enacted and enforced.

The Poor People's Campaign also sees solving the rent crisis as imperative, and its policy recommendations include expanding public housing and rental assistance programs; suspending foreclosures and evictions; and freezing rents.

"We have to win the resolve of those in power to be interested in ending poverty so that we can solve problems and not keep lining the pockets of Wall Street," Theoharis says. 

At the core of the crisis there's a fundamental power imbalance between landlords and renters.

To get that ball rolling, she and a wide array of housing and anti-poverty activists are supporting the Stable Families Act, which was introduced in the House by Representative Ritchie Torres, Democrat of New York, and Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California, in early July. A Senate version, called the Eviction Crisis Act, was introduced by Senators Michael Bennett, Democrat of Colorado, and Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio. The act, if passed, would establish an annual fund of $3 billion to help low-income households stay in their homes by paying their rent arrears when they are threatened with eviction. 

This is not the only legislative fix that advocates are pushing for. Other priorities include national anti-rent gouging laws to regulate the percentage that rents can be raised, and "good cause eviction" safeguards to protect tenants from arbitrary removal. 

In addition, Diane Nilan, founder of HEAR US: Voices and Visibility for Homeless Children, suggests several additional policy changes to benefit low-income renters. "There is often a $100 non-refundable fee to apply for subsidized apartments," she explains. "The families who need this housing—who are desperate for this housing—can barely afford anything and if they manage to scrape together the $100 deposit, it's unconscionable for them not to get it back if their application is denied." 

What's more, Nilan continues, families are typically not told the reasons they were rejected. Most commonly, it comes down to bad credit, an arrest history, or a prior eviction. "Unless these policies are stopped, and people stop being punished for being poor, greedy property owners will continue to rake in money unabated," she says. "It's obscene."    

Housing Justice for All's Kumar agrees. "We need to create publicly-owned social housing. We need to fix the public housing that still exists and we need to pass strong tenant protections. All of these things are possible. This crisis can be an opportunity, a chance to invest in real solutions."


© 2021 The Progressive

Eleanor J. Bader

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, freelance writer and activist from Brooklyn, NY. She is also the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, St. Martin's Press, 2001.

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