BY SIGURD A. and ERWIN FREED
As many are likely aware, the United States has been facing a looming eviction crisis across the country amplified by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic for the working class.
In response to mounting pressures from grassroots tenant organizations and recent advice from high-ranking public health officials about the risk homelessness poses for COVID-19 transmission, the CDC announced on Aug. 3 a half-measure. Instead of guaranteed housing for all as a basic human right, the government will maintain a targeted eviction moratorium until Oct. 3 for those living in areas of “substantial and high levels of community [COVID-19] transmission.” This followed the Biden administration’s insistence during the past month or so, citing an opinion piece by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, that the executive branch did not have the legal authority to extend the moratorium. The eviction crisis is especially dire for predominantly Black and Latinx communities, who are already the most devastated by the pandemic and slated to be most impacted by the impending eviction wave.
Currently, while the new targeted moratorium accounts for roughly 80% of U.S counties and 90% of the population, it falls short in a number of ways. First, the decision fails those who received eviction orders during the several-day gap between moratoriums. Holes in the extension leave a significant amount of people at risk—considering the tens of millions of Americans now behind on rent. Ultimately, the move merely postpones the inevitable for everyone else.
The new moratorium is narrower in scope than the previous one. Now, only individuals who earn less than $99,000 per year—$198,000 per year for couples—are protected. There is room for landlords to pursue evictions and argue that tenants’ hardships aren’t related to the pandemic and therefore not covered under the moratorium. Like other moratoriums, it requires renters to prove they have exercised their “best efforts” to receive rental aid from the government, creating more roadblocks and hoops for at-risk renters.
Tenant protection organizations, like Rent Zero Kansas, argue that these restrictions continue to allow room for plenty of evictions to take place and that this new 60-day moratorium doesn’t mean as much for renters as many believe. A December 2020 report from CNBC noted that “the Eviction Lab at Princeton University has identified around 80,000 evictions in just the 27 cities that it tracks, including Cleveland, Houston, Tampa and New York, during September, October and November.”
It must be emphasized that while databases like Princeton’s Eviction Lab track this growing eviction crisis as it hits Black communities the hardest and leaves its mark across broad sections of the populace, nobody is actually aware of the full scope of the crisis due to inaccuracies in record keeping. Tracked formal evictions are only a small percentage of the ways landlords force tenants out of housing, which also include tenant buy-outs, failing to fix maintenance requests, and illegal lockouts. Because of this, preventative action to eradicate this crisis is a must.
The assistance of the moratorium in helping people in at-risk communities maintain their ability to socially distance, quarantine, and isolate is welcome, particularly for those whose job flexibility allows them those luxuries, but this crisis goes far beyond the reprieve of the CDC and will have far-reaching consequences if drastic action isn’t taken.
In recent days the corporate media has framed the fight for housing justice as being totally between wings of the Democratic Party. Legislatures and other government-aligned activists led by Cori Bush protested Biden on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building in the days leading up to the moratorium extension. While they got a lot of press, these demonstrations in themselves were obviously too little too late. In reality, the totally performative activity of legislatures is the far-right wing of a historic movement to transform a housing system long skewed heavily in favor of the property-owning landlord class.
Since the early months of COVID-19 in 2020 and before, when many working people started to fall behind on rental payments due to financial insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic, tenant protection groups have organized rent strikes and direct action protests. Groups that have emerged recently include the Autonomous Tenants Union, Omaha Tenants United, and Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community. Particularly bold tactics have included blockading courthouses to prevent eviction proceedings, occupying vacant buildings, and building statewide campaigns for expanding tenants rights. These actions are also indebted to the previous work of Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, a group of houseless mothers who occupied a vacant house owned by Wedgewood Properties between 2019 and 2020.
Capitalism causes homelessness
Estimates for the cost to guarantee housing for unhoused people in the United States range around $41 billion annually. That is significantly less than just the increase in wealth of the worlds’ richest since the beginning of the pandemic. The combined net worths of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk alone increased over $200 billion during that period. The whole cost could be paid for—with money left over—by the amount of tax breaks given to wealthy landowners every year.
Housing insecurity plays a double role under capitalism. On the one hand, gentrification and competition between renters for a place to live lines the pockets of landlords and speculators. On the other hand, the threat of homelessness pushes working people to take jobs making less money than they deserve. The fact of working people constantly being at risk of losing housing for themselves and their families gives the bosses a huge upper hand in any labor dispute. This is especially true for undocumented people, queer folks, and others who are systemically pushed into illegal and under the table housing arrangements, living at the whims of their landlord.
Working-class power means homes for all
The living movement for housing justice has much to inspire confidence in the ability of working people to fight for the massive changes that are necessary to guarantee quality housing for everybody. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party continues to draw momentum away from the streets and independent organizing and towards politicians and legislations. One of the programmatic developments of this betrayal is the lack of demands for nationalizing all housing and land under workers’ control. Part of this also means returning significant amounts of land stolen from Indigenous nations and paying reparations to the various victims of U.S. imperialism inside and outside of the country.
Bold and immediate action to right historical wrongs while building a livable future will only be possible when the productive forces of society are directed by working people. The possibilities once that happens are endless; the whole rhythm of daily life will have to change in order to meet the realities of the climate crisis. In order to achieve workers’ power, militants need to be organizing here and now to build national and international coalitions of actions with strong roots in the trade unions and oppressed communities.
The fights for expanding housing rights, reconfiguring the economy to stop the worst parts of the environmental crisis, demanding self-determination and resources for BIPOC people, and basic struggles for bread and butter demands in the shop are all part of the process within which an objective vanguard of the class is developing. The fundamental question for our time is building a leadership in the form of an independent, fighting party with a revolutionary program that can connect all of the struggles against capitalist destruction using the methods of our class—strikes, street demonstrations, and mass defense mobilizations.
Photo: Protest against evictions, organized by Kansas City Tenants, takes place outside the Jackson County, Mo., courthouse on July 30, 2020. (Zach Bauman / The Beacon)