Eviction Crisis Opens Emergency Housing Rights Battles

On Friday, August 27, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the eviction Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium on evictions. This followed an August 13 ruling against New York State’s “Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act.” That ruling followed a dramatic end of July, after the federal eviction moratorium ordered by the CDC nearly expired on July 31. Heroic action by DSA member Cori Bush, congressional representative from St. Louis, got a new extension, till October 3.

Image via Cori Bush/Twitter

As Congress closed for summer recess, Cori Bush staged a “camp-in” to force an extension of the eviction moratorium. “With a camping chair in one arm and my phone in the other, I invited my colleagues to return to DC and join me on the stairs of our chamber,” Bush tweeted. “At first it was just me and my staff. Then my sisters in service, community members, friends and colleagues turned out in a show of force I could never have foreseen.”

“My adrenaline was pumping,” Bush tweeted. “It was a familiar feeling—one rooted in trauma. I’ve been evicted three times in my life.”

The same feeling gripped tenants and housing justice organizers across New York in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision. “It’s outrageous and unacceptable,” declared Camila Wasserman of NYC DSA’s Housing Working Group, “that the Supreme Court put New York landlords’ profits ahead of public safety, especially when we are still waiting for pandemic rent relief and the delta variant is worsening across the country.”

An emergency meeting of the Housing Justice for All coalition, which attracted 150 organizers, detailed how to protect tenants statewide from eviction and mobilize for action. Coalition legal counselors reached out to more than 20,000 tenants at risk, offering help to file hardship declarations to qualify for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), and offering to defend against evictions both in court and in front of people’s homes if marshals show up. 

Tenants across the country can apply for ERAP help. It’s a “last chance” for millions of tenants to get help paying back rent. But the process is cumbersome and slow. So far only about 11% of the $46 billion in federal Rental Assistance Funds allotted last year as part of the pandemic rescue package have been distributed, reports the New York Times. Dave Linge, a DSA activist in Knoxville, TN, told Democratic Left  that many judges there “were surprised when we informed them” of the moratorium. He added that “many people facing eviction had to wait so long for the rental assistance system to work that they were evicted while they waited to hear from the agencies.”

The Supreme Court’s second ruling said that “if a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue, Congress must specifically authorize it.” This could take the housing movement back to the Capitol steps, to the White House, or to state capitols to apply pressure. 

New York City tenants and organizers hit the streets on August 19 to protest in front of federal court in downtown Brooklyn, with many being arrested for “disorderly conduct.” Among those arrested were DSAers Marcela Mitaynes, a New York State Assemblymember from Brooklyn, and Zohran Kwame Mamdani, an Assembly member from Queens, as well as NYC DSA-endorsed City Council candidates Sandy Nurse and Alexa Avilés. As Mitaynes was cuffed and led to a prison transport van, she said that legislators need to return to Albany immediately to restore protections for tenants. 

Photo by Ben Brachfeld, Brooklyn Paper

As all this was happening, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped down due to a sexual harassment scandal. His departure could help struggling tenants. The new Governor, Kathy Hochul, declared on August 20, just before taking over, that “no New Yorker who has been financially hit or displaced by the pandemic should be forced out of their home. As New York’s next Governor, I look forward to working with the Legislature to quickly address the Supreme Court’s decision and strengthen the eviction moratorium legislation.”

Permanent solutions needed

Eviction is not the only housing problem facing the country. Nearly 600,000 people are unhoused across the United States, and some 120,000 of them are in New York—a direct result of rampant gentrification. As Cori Bush unveiled an “Unhoused Bill of Rights” in Washington on August 2, she said that “nearly 11 million households face imminent eviction if the federal eviction moratorium is allowed to expire… We must commit to implementing permanent solutions to this crisis, such as drastically increasing the affordable housing stock, providing universal housing vouchers and bolstering funding to federal housing programs, shelters, traditional permanent housing programs and social services.” [emphasis added]

Those permanent solutions are on the agenda for the “budget reconciliation” package passed in Congress, August 24. Details are subject to a tug-of-war in Washington. Senate leader Chuck Schumer has said privately that housing and climate change issues are included, but has not been specific. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—with support from other congressional progressives—are pushing for the whole Green New Deal, including a Green New Deal for Public Housing that would save and fix about 950,000 public housing units across the country, half of them in New York.

“The moratoriums and temporary rental assistance are Band-aids on a hemorrhaging wound,” says DSAer Fran Quigley, director of the Human Rights Clinic at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. “This nation has a massive crisis in the lack of affordable housing; it predates the pandemic and it will last beyond the pandemic. We need to guarantee safe and secure housing as a human right, and urgently create the public housing necessary to ensure homes for all.” (See “A System That Makes Housing a Commodity Can’t Serve Human Needs” in Jacobin.)

Public housing is a major part of “traditional permanent housing programs.” It is in crisis, facing privatization schemes that will lead to more evictions. NYC Housing Authority eviction cases are in the multiple tens of thousands per year, according to City Limits magazine, and even higher in buildings under private management through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. City Limits reported August 23 that just 20% of NYCHA applicants for rental assistance have been processed to date. 

NYCHA residents are fighting back, not only against eviction, but also to win resident management of NYCHA buildings, and to get public funding for needed repairs and conversions to green energy. They oppose privatization schemes like RAD and the so-called “Blueprint for Change.” (RAD is a national program to put public housing under private management; the Blueprint is a plan to put all NYCHA residents on Section 8 vouchers instead of Section 9 leases.) Both schemes would  devastate public housing residents’ access to legal protections in exchange for shoddy cosmetic repairs. This has already happened in properties that have been converted to RAD. Some residents accept RAD because they desperately need real repairs to plumbing, heating, crumbling and moldy walls, broken elevators, etc. The NYCHA workers’ union sees privatization as a union-busting effort, introducing outsourced labor. 

NYCHA tenants in many groups are organizing against privatization by signing petitions, staging rallies, filing a class action lawsuit, and threatening a rent strike in September. They want a fully-funded and fully-public NYCHA; and jobs for public housing residents to do the repairs and conversion; and a repeal of the Faircloth Amendment that blocks any increase in public housing. 

A resolution before the NYC DSA Convention (September 25) proposes a cohesive coalition of all tenant groups in the city around the slogan “Housing is a Human Right.” It’s part of a national movement whose moment has arrived. As Cori Bush said, “Our government has allowed this crisis to continue and worsen for too long… It is our duty to make people’s lives better. Ending this crisis requires a comprehensive approach. We all have a role to play.”