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 cafe 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 In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.