/COVID-19 and evictions: The U.S. housing crisis
Graphic by Bell Jackson

COVID-19 and evictions: The U.S. housing crisis

By Xander Swain

There is a general consensus in the world that the three basic necessities of life are food, shelter and clothing. Without those three requirements, quality of life of an individual is expected to be low. While these three basic needs, along with others – healthcare, education and sanitation – overlap and correlate with one another, the most important and manageable is shelter.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an ever-growing housing crisis in the United States. With unprecedented unemployment rates, the constant fear of catching COVID-19 and month-long quarantines, housing soon became one of the primary concerns of COVID-19 relief.  

In September 2020, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) announced an unprecedented moratorium on most evictions due to lack of payment on rent in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The CDC claimed that the moratorium would aid people in following stay-at-home orders and to safely social distance during the peaks of the pandemic. 

The moratorium was originally set to end in December 2020 but was extended through January 2021 by the CDC, and then further by President Biden through July 31. The moratorium ended, but the CDC announced a second moratorium, set to expire October 3 due to the increase spikes of the Delta variant.  

Despite the precedent of the first moratorium, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, blocked the second moratorium on Thursday, Aug. 26; prior to the cut-off of the first moratorium, the conservative justices declared a further extension should be enacted by Congress, not the CDC. Regardless, part of the conservative ruling claimed that the CDC overstepped their executive powers that allowed them to also declare stay-at-home orders.  

The liberal justices, in their dissent, cited the new jump in cases of the Delta variant to justify the moratorium; with millions of possible evictions, transmission rates would only grow more out of control. They also claimed that an eviction moratorium did little to harm individual rights and powers compared to the previous quarantines enacted by the CDC.   

The ruling came from the “shadow docket,” an emergency decision-making process with little briefing, and zero arguments presented in court. The process is used in emergency situations of immediate “irreparable harm”, and historically in “uncontroversial petitions.” However, more recently the shadow docket has been used in politically charged cases and the decisions used to support policies like the death penalty due to the lack of clarity.  

With the shadow dockets in place, the validity and credibility of the Court becomes questionable when they offer little explanation for their decision. This is especially concerning when the decision affects nearly 6.5 million renters and comes in the middle of a surge of a pandemic where over 80% of counties are experiencing high transmission rates. 

Without the moratorium, nearly 90% of all renters will be affected. Millions of people will soon be out of homes in the coming fall and winter as the Delta variant continues to rage through communities and infect 150,000 people every day.  

The housing crisis in America certainly has been exacerbated by COVID-19 but isn’t something that’s new to the country. The Great Recession, among other factors, fed into a loop of a separate housing crisis from our current one. Wall Street bankers taking unnecessary risks of predatory lending for the sole sake of profit led the housing bubble to burst. Housing crises, however, are just one of the many symptoms of our consumption and culture of exploitation.  

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) there were 580,466 people who experienced homelessness on a single night in 2020. According to the Census Bureau there was approximately 17 million vacant homes in the United States. That’s about 29 empty houses for every homeless person in this country.  

While this is an oversimplification of the issue, it shows the inhumane way in which we treat housing. Rather than viewing a necessity as something that should be easily accessible and affordable, the American culture of consumption has transformed it into a commodity. Something as necessary as housing should not be treated as something as material or luxurious as a pair of Gucci sandals.  

It would be ignorant and misleading to not mention other forms of aid and relief that have been provided by the federal government. More than 1,000 Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs have been authorized or expanded during the pandemic according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

The federal government has also approved $46.5 billion in rental assistance. However, only 11% of this has gone out, totaling $5.1 billion. Moreover, tenants who need the assistance must go through multiple barriers, differing from state to state. Many people aren’t even aware of the available aid. In some instances, landlords won’t provide the necessary documentation for assistance, sign off on the relief application or even accept the aid

Renters and buyers are in desperate need of increased protections from the exploitive nature of the housing market. Without those protections, people will continue to be discriminated against in search of a home and continue to be viewed as nothing but the next paycheck for their landlord or bank. Housing should be a fundamental right in this country and basic needs should not be viewed as the next source of income to be squeezed by the systems of capitalism.

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Xander Swain is the copy editor for The Alabamian. He is majoring in political science, environmental studies, and sociology and wants to eventually obtain a Ph.D. in sociology. He enjoys cooking for his friends, listening to music and taking long walks on the beach.