The most fundamental question is whether the need for an eviction moratorium still exists, from a public health standpoint, and there can be little argument over that. Vaccination efforts are ongoing. That homelessness spreads COVID-19 by forcing families into shelters or onto streets is unquestioned, and it is absolutely assured that an expiration of the moratorium will lead to a surge of new COVID-19 cases. That the $45+ billion worth of emergency renter’s assistance included in recent months has not been fully distributed to the renters and landlords it is supposed to help.
Amid all the rest of this, a wave of lawsuits from landlords and interest groups are claiming government has no authority to impose a moratorium at all, and in facing widespread renter confusion over their rights, many landlords and jurisdictions are largely ignoring the moratorium rules to force evictions anyway. The rule was never not going to be a mess because, like business closures and other safety measures, it uses emergency powers to reach into the economy and forcibly grab hold of some of the largest gears—but that is what an “emergency” is, of course. We are in a time of war, one with half a million casualties and an enemy that is already wedged into every nook and cranny of the country.
If scientists had discovered that each virus was wearing a teeny-tiny shirt promoting red communism, there would be few in the public and nobody in punditry who dared demand this new war be fought meekly. Anyone refusing to get a vaccine would likely be dragged kicking and screaming into public clinics by angry chanting neighbors, and Do Your Part posters with uncomfortably nationalist overtones would feature burly suit-sleeved arms and hands tearing a past due bill in half rather than conspire with our tiny enemy.
About 20% of all American renters are currently behind in their payments, with Black Americans yet again bearing the brunt of this crisis, too. The stakes here are mass homelessness, subsequent mass poverty, a new wave of infections, and an extension of the pandemic overall. That last part is more concerning than it sounds; as the number of variants swell, we are now in a race between vaccinations and new outbreaks able to evade those vaccinations. We … do not want that. Homelessness was already rising before the pandemic, and threatens to become a major health crisis on its own in the immediate aftermath.
If there is anything positive here, it is that once again the pandemic crisis is showing us that American poverty and homelessness has in large part been a policy choice, on our part. We have done it to ourselves. That is “positive” only in the sense that it therefore can be undone, and in the urgency of the current emergency we have been able to take straightforward steps to keep some Americans out of poverty that were long, long blocked by our own national cruelty and stubbornness. Programs to house homeless families—not to provide them nebulous “assistance,” but actual shelter in the form of a hotel room or similar, were yet again proven to cheaply boost both health and safety, and giving a secure footing that allowed better employment to follow.
The best cure for homelessness is, literally, to provide housing. It’s simple, it saves government money in the long run, makes communities safer and is better for literally everyone except for that fraction of America that exists only to spite the rest. It will help fight future pandemics as well.
This is not a new discovery, of course. Far from it. America has invested in public housing before, but in recent decades has abandoned it in favor of pseudoreligious trickle-down notions that instead supposed that the formation of a new gilded class of gorged overconsumers would require enough care and feeding to allow the rest of America to comfortably live as their butlers. We abandoned mental health programs, housing programs, actual housing units, and much of the rest of the infrastructure on which American prosperity was built in favor of not doing those things, handing the money to the rich, and requesting their benevolent support. Didn’t work out.
The moratorium on evictions is, when coupled with renter’s assistance, meant to help renters and landlords both. An eviction does not result in landlords winning the rent in arrears, and mass homelessness after an economic collapse does landlords themselves no good except in the edge cases in which property owners are trying to evict to allow pricer redevelopment—not something that’s going to be in vogue, with commercial property markets currently in a death spiral. We are not giving $45 billion to renters; we are giving $45 billion to landlords, in exchange for cooperation during a public health crisis.
That still isn’t nearly enough to solve the crisis that will occur the moment the moratoriums do end and renters face past due bills for many months of rent, all at once and with no further help. We are only delaying mass homelessness, hoping that vaccination will bring on such an economic miracle that workers are suddenly and inexplicably flush with cash. That is obviously a pipe dream, and we had better start discussing what the bridge will look like between an eviction moratorium and a full return to the “free” market. It’s not going to build itself.