Tenants Just Won a Nationwide Eviction Ban. They're Still Fighting to Cancel Rent.

President Trump’s surprise eviction moratorium is an election hail-mary. But to stave off a disastrous housing crisis, organizers say Democrats—including Joe Biden—must embrace bolder measures.

Rebecca Burns September 2, 2020

Members of KC Tenants rally for a tenants’ bill of rights, including a new Office of the Tenant Advocate, outside City Hall in Kansas City, Mo., in October 2019. (Photo by Chase Castor)

As anoth­er month of rent came due Sep­tem­ber 1, ten­ant orga­niz­ers were greet­ed with a rare bit of good news. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion announced a sweep­ing mora­to­ri­um on res­i­den­tial evic­tions through the end of the year, pro­vid­ing an unex­pect­ed 11th-hour reprieve to mil­lions of renters who had run out of options.

It is a stun­ning move from a pres­i­dent who began his career in a fam­i­ly busi­ness syn­ony­mous with hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion — and an unmis­tak­able piv­ot meant to draw vot­ers’ atten­tion away from the Trump administration’s dis­as­trous mis­han­dling of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic in advance of the Novem­ber elec­tion.

The order, which was issued by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC), rep­re­sents the far­thest-reach­ing evic­tion pro­tec­tion to date. The agency jus­ti­fied the move as an emer­gency mea­sure to stop the spread of Covid-19. The CDC’s author­i­ty to take this kind of action will like­ly be chal­lenged in court, but for now, all ten­ants who make less than $99,000 per year appear to be cov­ered, as long as they attest they’ve made their best effort to pay rent.

Hous­ing orga­niz­ers have been fight­ing for pro­tec­tions like this for months,” says Jake Mar­shall, an orga­niz­er with the Chica­go-based Autonomous Ten­ants Union, which has been urg­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Illi­nois Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er to extend the state’s evic­tion mora­to­ri­um and use his emer­gency pow­ers to offer broad­er relief to ten­ants. While the CDC’s order is just kick­ing the can down the road, it’s fright­en­ing that Trump seems to be kick­ing it more effec­tive­ly than most Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials.”

Since the start of the pan­dem­ic, a nation­al ten­ants’ move­ment has been gath­er­ing strength and clam­or­ing for action. In gen­tri­fy­ing cities like Oak­land, Calif., New York and Chica­go — his­toric hotbeds of hous­ing activism — ten­ant unions, rent strikes and takeovers of vacant build­ings are on the rise. And places like Kansas City, Mo., upstate New York and cen­tral Flori­da — places not known for this kind of activism — have seen the growth of their own hous­ing orga­niz­ing cam­paigns, some­times draw­ing strength from Black Lives Mat­ter protests.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been quick to cel­e­brate the nation­al evic­tion mora­to­ri­um as his offer­ing to work­ing fam­i­lies,” says Tara Raghu­veer, hous­ing cam­paign direc­tor for the nation­al grass­roots group People’s Action. But it must not be attrib­uted to Trump. This is a vic­to­ry for ten­ants.”

Raghu­veer and oth­er advo­cates stress, how­ev­er, that it’s a tem­po­rary vic­to­ry. With­out fur­ther fed­er­al action, which Trump and oth­er Repub­li­cans have fought tooth and nail, mil­lions of renters still face an evic­tion cliff” at the end of Decem­ber.

In August, as $600 week­ly fed­er­al unem­ploy­ment pay­ments expired and evic­tions pro­ceed­ings restart­ed in more than 30 states, a report by the Aspen Insti­tute Finan­cial Secu­ri­ty Pro­gram and the Covid-19 Evic­tion Defense Project warned than that 29 mil­lion peo­ple could be at risk of evic­tion by the end of 2020. That out­come would be unprece­dent­ed in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry. Esti­mates put the num­ber of unhoused peo­ple in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash at up to 2 mil­lion. Around 10 mil­lion peo­ple were forced out of their homes after the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis.

It is impos­si­ble to pre­dict how this cur­rent cri­sis will play out, says Zach Neu­mann, a Col­orado attor­ney who found­ed the Covid-19 Evic­tion Defense Project to con­nect ten­ants with vol­un­teer legal coun­sel. But if even a third of the peo­ple at risk of evic­tion become home­less, I think we’re going to be liv­ing through some­thing mag­ni­tudes larg­er than the Great Depres­sion, in terms of the tran­sience, the fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion, the dev­as­tat­ing and last­ing impact on every aspect of our com­mu­ni­ties.”

A patch­work of pro­tec­tions


Before the pan­dem­ic, near­ly half of U.S. rent­ing house­holds spent more than a third of their income on rent, and 40% of U.S. adults report­ed they couldn’t cov­er a $400 emer­gency. When the U.S. unem­ploy­ment rate hit 15% in April, it was obvi­ous that rent pay­ments were going to be a prob­lem.

More than 40 states and ter­ri­to­ries did act to lim­it or stop evic­tions, accord­ing to Emi­ly Ben­fer, a vis­it­ing law pro­fes­sor at Wake For­est Uni­ver­si­ty who has been track­ing the orders in a pub­licly avail­able spread­sheet.

But to date, almost none of these mora­to­ri­ums had halt­ed all stages of the evic­tion process, leav­ing many land­lords free to file new court cas­es against ten­ants, pro­ceed with hear­ings or seek enforce­ment of past evic­tion orders. Sim­ply edu­cat­ing ten­ants about how to nav­i­gate the maze of par­tial pro­tec­tions has required a her­culean effort from legal aid orga­ni­za­tions.

Accord­ing to Ben­fer, the CDC’s Sep­tem­ber 1 order pre­vents land­lords from pur­su­ing evic­tion cas­es for non-pay­ment of rent until Jan­u­ary 2021.

This a key pub­lic health inter­ven­tion, Ben­fer says. The CDC’s emer­gency action is crit­i­cal to pro­tect­ing pub­lic health and pre­vent­ing the spread of the virus both in and across states,” she adds. Evic­tion increas­es the risk of Covid-19 and results in long-term poor health out­comes.”

How­ev­er, the mora­to­ri­um does noth­ing to pre­vent ten­ants from rack­ing up thou­sands of dol­lars in back rent and fees owed, nor does it help home­own­ers and small land­lords who depend on rental income to pay their mort­gages.

While this is an extreme­ly impor­tant mea­sure, with­out rental assis­tance to cov­er the mount­ing debt, it will only delay evic­tion, shift the harm to small prop­er­ty own­ers, and result in dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences,” Ben­fer says. Con­gress must quick­ly bol­ster this nec­es­sary pub­lic health inter­ven­tion with rent relief to sus­tain the hous­ing mar­ket and final­ly end the evic­tion cri­sis.”

The CDC order also con­tin­ues to allow evic­tions for rea­sons oth­er than non-pay­ment of rent, such as lease vio­la­tions, lead­ing to fears that land­lords will find ways to skirt the mora­to­ri­um.

We know that land­lords will find ways to evict and retal­i­ate against their ten­ants because it’s already hap­pen­ing,” Tara Raghu­veer says.

While the fed­er­al mora­to­ri­um opens the door to crim­i­nal penal­ties of land­lords who vio­late it, it also remains to be seen how rig­or­ous­ly the order will be enforced. Exist­ing pro­tec­tions didn’t save Sara Cruz, 27, from los­ing her home in August. Cruz says she was already liv­ing pay­check to pay­check before the pan­dem­ic, work­ing as a serv­er in Vero Beach, Fla. She lost her job in March. Despite qual­i­fy­ing, she has yet to receive assis­tance from Florida’s unem­ploy­ment sys­tem, one of the slow­est in the nation. Cruz found a local agency will­ing to cov­er her rent but says her land­lord refused it.

In July, Cruz was served an evic­tion notice. Under Flori­da law, one of the harsh­est in the nation for renters, ten­ants must respond in writ­ing with­in five days or face a default judg­ment. Cruz says she did, but a police offi­cer came to her door with an evic­tion order the next day. While even fil­ing evic­tions poten­tial­ly vio­lates Florida’s statewide order, com­pli­ance varies wide­ly depend­ing on juris­dic­tion.

Cruz used the rental assis­tance her land­lord reject­ed to secure the first avail­able apart­ment she could find, leav­ing behind many of her belong­ings. She says she has no idea how she’ll pay for Sep­tem­ber.

Accord­ing to Cruz, in cen­tral Flori­da, you have the rich, and then you have the peo­ple who serve the rich.” She adds, until the econ­o­my is back on track, they should not be allowed to be kick­ing peo­ple out.”

Fol­low­ing her evic­tion, Cruz con­nect­ed with Orga­nize Flori­da, which runs one of the largest grass­roots vot­er reg­is­tra­tion oper­a­tions in the state. The group has been flex­ing its mus­cle to stop evic­tions.

In addi­tion to join­ing a statewide push to can­cel rent and mort­gage pay­ments, Orlan­do-area hous­ing orga­niz­ers are join­ing the call from Black Lives Mat­ter to defund police depart­ments, says Vanes­sa Kev­erenge, an orga­niz­er with the group. Activists are tar­get­ing the Orange Coun­ty Sheriff’s Office, which has request­ed a $15 mil­lion bud­get increase for 2021.

That mon­ey could be going to help peo­ple at immi­nent risk of evic­tion,” Kev­erenge says. We’re being told there’s no mon­ey, when the money’s right there.”

Build­ing ten­ant pow­er


The loom­ing wave of evic­tions is expect­ed to hit com­mu­ni­ties of col­or espe­cial­ly hard. Data from the Cen­sus Bureau’s House­hold Pulse Sur­vey sug­gests near­ly half of Black and His­pan­ic renters were unsure they would be able to pay August rent on time, a fig­ure twice as high as that of white renters. The risk is espe­cial­ly acute for Black women, who in 17 states already faced evic­tion at dou­ble the rate of white renters, accord­ing to an analy­sis from the ACLU.

I don’t think we can talk about Black lives mat­ter­ing with­out talk­ing about evic­tion,” says Jenay Man­ley, a mem­ber of the hous­ing rights group KC Ten­ants in Kansas City, Mo. Man­ley, who is Black, says she and her two chil­dren have strug­gled finan­cial­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic after she left an abu­sive rela­tion­ship. We need to talk about Black lives mat­ter­ing before the point where we are bru­tal­ized or killed by police,” she says.

Man­ley was one of two KC Ten­ants mem­bers arrest­ed and charged with tres­pass­ing dur­ing a July 30 action. The group suc­cess­ful­ly shut down evic­tion hear­ings, which had resumed in Jack­son Coun­ty after a two-month pan­dem­ic pause.

Since launch­ing in Feb­ru­ary 2019, KC Ten­ants has grown into a for­mi­da­ble force in local pol­i­tics. After help­ing make hous­ing a cen­tral issue in local elec­tions in the spring, the group capped off its first year with the pas­sage of a ground­break­ing ten­ants’ bill of rights in the Kansas City Coun­cil. It estab­lish­es a new Office of the Ten­ant Advo­cate and expands pro­tec­tions against dis­crim­i­na­tion and retal­i­a­tion by land­lords.

As the Covid-19 cri­sis began in March, the group helped form the Coali­tion to Pro­tect Mis­souri Ten­ants, com­prised of about 50 com­mu­ni­ty, labor and faith orga­ni­za­tions from across the state. Demand­ing a ban on evic­tions, fore­clo­sures and util­i­ty shut-offs, as well as sus­pen­sion of rent and mort­gage pay­ments for the dura­tion of the cri­sis, the coali­tion staged a series of actions tar­get­ing Repub­li­can Gov. Mike Par­sons. In April, pro­test­ers lined up along the shoul­der of Inter­state 70, stretch­ing from Kansas City to St. Louis, and post­ed signs every five miles read­ing, Gov­er­nor Par­sons is killing the poor.”

In May, they marched to the governor’s man­sion and post­ed their own evic­tion notice.

KC Ten­ants mem­ber Tiana Cald­well, 42, was among those ini­tial­ly sched­uled to appear in the Jack­son Coun­ty evic­tion court July 30. A two-time can­cer sur­vivor with con­ges­tive heart fail­ure, Cald­well pays about $300 in out-of-pock­et med­ical costs each month. Cald­well fell behind on rent after she and her hus­band were fur­loughed in March.

As soon as the evic­tion mora­to­ri­um expired in May, Caldwell’s land­lord filed to evict. Cald­well, her hus­band and their teenage son had already spent six months with­out a home fol­low­ing a 2018 evic­tion, when Cald­well was too sick to work. The prospect of repeat­ing the ordeal was gut­ting.

In June, Caldwell’s hus­band returned to his job as a main­te­nance work­er and their long-delayed fed­er­al stim­u­lus checks arrived. They were able to work out an arrange­ment with their land­lord to pay $4,000 in back rent and fees, in exchange for drop­ping the case. They scraped the mon­ey togeth­er by their June 30 dead­line.

But in July, Cald­well received a court sum­mons. She called the com­pa­ny that owns her home and was assured she had noth­ing to wor­ry about. Cald­well attend­ed the sched­uled video hear­ing any­way, only to dis­cov­er her land­lord was seek­ing the mon­ey she had already paid. The case was dis­missed after Cald­well pro­duced receipts — but had she tak­en the landlord’s advice, she might have lost a judg­ment by default.

Cald­well believes her expe­ri­ence belies guid­ance from state and local elect­ed offi­cials, who have called for land­lords and ten­ants to nego­ti­ate in good faith in lieu of for­mal evic­tion mora­to­ri­ums.

They’re telling us to make arrange­ments with our land­lords, but the land­lords aren’t being hon­est,” Cald­well says.

Cald­well says she’s heard scores of sim­i­lar sto­ries from renters who call the KC Ten­ants hot­line. A group of about 15 vol­un­teers fields as many as 200 calls a week, con­nect­ing des­per­ate renters with legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, mutu­al aid and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port. Cald­well talked to one ten­ant who had come up with back rent, only to be evict­ed for a minor lease vio­la­tion. In anoth­er call, a sin­gle moth­er described being sex­u­al­ly propo­si­tioned when she told her land­lord she had lost her job and was unable to pay.

We decid­ed as a group that we’re not going to throw any­one away,” Cald­well says.

Can­cel the rent


Tem­po­rary pro­tec­tions can­not sub­sti­tute for fur­ther fed­er­al action, des­per­ate­ly need­ed to pre­vent com­mu­ni­ties from hurtling over the evic­tion cliff. While the Demo­c­ra­t­ic-con­trolled House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed a $100 bil­lion rental assis­tance fund — as part of May’s HEROES Act and as a stand­alone bill — it’s dead on arrival in the GOP-con­trolled Sen­ate.

By halt­ing evic­tions, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump went a step fur­ther than his Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent Joe Biden, who in August released a state­ment urg­ing Con­gress to enact an emer­gency hous­ing pro­gram, but offered few specifics. Biden’s run­ning mate, Sen. Kamala Har­ris (D‑Calif.), had called more specif­i­cal­ly for a one-year evic­tion ban and has intro­duced a bill that would fund legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion for ten­ants fac­ing evic­tion.

Many ten­ant orga­niz­ers argue that, in the midst of the pan­dem­ic, even a mas­sive rental-assis­tance fund like the one sup­port­ed by Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship would be inad­e­quate — like­ly with long delays (sim­i­lar to unem­ploy­ment assis­tance) and leav­ing out undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants and vul­ner­a­ble groups.

The best solu­tion, they say, would be to just can­cel rent.

In April, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.) intro­duced a bill endorsed by KC Ten­ants, Orga­nize Flori­da and dozens of oth­er grass­roots groups that would sus­pend rent and mort­gage pay­ments for the dura­tion of the cri­sis, with land­lords and mort­gage hold­ers receiv­ing fed­er­al aid to cov­er their loss­es if they agree not to evict ten­ants with­out cause, among oth­er con­di­tions. For land­lords who want out of the hous­ing mar­ket, the bill would cre­ate a fund for non­prof­its, pub­lic hous­ing agen­cies, coop­er­a­tives, com­mu­ni­ty land trusts and local gov­ern­ments to acquire their prop­er­ties.

The bill has not yet attract­ed wide­spread sup­port in Con­gress but is inspir­ing pro­gres­sive state leg­is­la­tors.

In July, Demo­c­ra­t­ic New York State Sen. Julia Salazar and Assem­bly­woman Yuh-Line Niou intro­duced a new bill to can­cel all rent and cer­tain mort­gage pay­ments, after a sim­i­lar bill faced oppo­si­tion from Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship. In this ver­sion, land­lords would be required to show they are expe­ri­enc­ing finan­cial dis­tress to con­tin­ue col­lect­ing rent, says Rebec­ca Gar­rard, cam­paigns man­ag­er for hous­ing jus­tice at Cit­i­zen Action of New York, a grass­roots group.

We don’t need a pub­lic bailout of bil­lion­aire Wall Street land­lords in New York,” Gar­rard says. We hope that this approach will sig­nal to oth­er states and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment what pos­i­tive solu­tions could actu­al­ly look like.”

The push gath­ered momen­tum from grass­roots orga­niz­ers in Itha­ca, N.Y., which in June became the first city to pass a res­o­lu­tion call­ing for rent can­cel­la­tion — though the mea­sure requires action from the state to take effect.

While it was pre­vi­ous­ly unfa­mil­iar ter­rain” upstate, ten­ant orga­niz­ing has real­ly bloomed,” Gar­rard says. If there’s a pos­i­tive, unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of the pan­dem­ic, it’s that there’s a fierce ener­gy from ten­ants to mobi­lize and defend each oth­er.”

Accord­ing to Genevieve Rand, a mem­ber of the Itha­ca Ten­ants Union, that ener­gy evolved out of an active net­work of work­place orga­niz­ing. Rand worked at a café pri­or to the pan­dem­ic and formed a union in May 2019. She then helped orga­nize week­ly meet­ings with oth­er ser­vice-sec­tor employ­ees to talk about wages and local work­ing con­di­tions.

As in many oth­er cities with a high con­cen­tra­tion of low-wage ser­vice work­ers, Itha­ca now has a high unem­ploy­ment rate — and a brew­ing evic­tion cri­sis. Rand her­self faces evic­tion. But the Itha­ca Ten­ants Union has been expand­ing expo­nen­tial­ly.

Every sin­gle per­son” who was involved in the work­place orga­niz­ing net­work has tak­en part in both ten­ant orga­niz­ing and Black Lives Mat­ter protests, Rand says.

On August 6, as local hous­ing courts reopened, about 50 mem­bers of the Itha­ca Ten­ants Union staged a block­ade to pre­vent attor­neys and land­lords from enter­ing. The same day, Demo­c­ra­t­ic New York Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo announced an exten­sion of the evic­tion mora­to­ri­um.

These are small steps, but accord­ing to Rand, they send a mes­sage to those in pow­er. We’re get­ting ready,” Rand says. We’re not going to let our neigh­bors be tossed out on the street.” 

At least a dozen oth­er groups nation­wide staged phys­i­cal block­ades of courts and homes in July and August to pro­tect ten­ants. In Prince George’s Coun­ty, Md., more than 50 peo­ple showed up with only a day’s notice after the DC Ten­ants Union and oth­er groups spread word that a land­lord planned to change the locks on someone’s home — the kind of ille­gal evic­tion that orga­niz­ers warn may per­sist, even with an evic­tion mora­to­ri­um.

In Chica­go, the Autonomous Ten­ants Union, Chica­go Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, Chica­go Teach­ers Union and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty groups took turns occu­py­ing a plaza out­side the city’s evic­tion court in mid-August. The action result­ed in an exten­sion of Illi­nois’ evic­tion mora­to­ri­um, but orga­niz­ers say self-styled pro­gres­sive lead­ers must do more to avoid the unthink­able — being out­flanked by Trump on hous­ing.

Democ­rats should prove their com­mit­ment to hous­ing jus­tice by bridg­ing the gaps in the CDC order,” Jake Mar­shall says. Pur­sue just cause’ for evic­tion leg­is­la­tion, leg­is­late to can­cel rent and make sure each and every ten­ant knows their rights.”

This sto­ry was sup­port­ed by the
Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH