Imagine being one of the millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic. You’re already struggling to stay afloat before your spouse gets hospitalized from COVID. Medical bills start piling up and your unemployment checks are barely enough to cover the cost of groceries. It becomes harder and harder to find a new employer, because you need to take care of your kids as they bounce in and out of distance learning.
This is the scenario Matt Desmond, the Principal Investigator at Princeton’s Eviction Lab (which gets funding from my organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative), has shared with me about the precariousness of our housing system. For millions of tenants, the federal eviction moratorium was a lifeline—helping countless people stay in their homes and put precious dollars towards food, car repairs, and other basic necessities. Now, with the recent ruling from the Supreme Court ending the CDC’s eviction moratorium, we’re in the midst of a once-in-a-generation eviction crisis that may pull people deeper into poverty and push those who were keeping their heads barely above water over the edge.
While the scale and gravity of this crisis is daunting, there’s also a little hope: we now have a historic influx of resources that can rebuild our housing system from the ground up. Though eviction numbers aren’t as high as many initially anticipated because of increased funding support for housing, they are rising—and there are at least eight million renters who are behind on rent. Instead of punishing people for losing their jobs and sending them into more dire circumstances, we need to embrace equity-centered solutions that will keep more people in their homes. We need to rebuild in a way that responds to the decades of racial and economic inequities that have disproportionately impacted communities of color. And we need to ensure that everyone, regardless of their job status, education level, or background, has access to a safe, affordable place to call home.
COVID brought widespread attention and magnified the current eviction crisis, but the systemic inequities within our housing system predate the pandemic. The United States has a long, well-documented legacy of racist policies and financial discrimination that has set the stage for what we’re experiencing today. The impact of redlining, for example, still affects the health and well-being of many Black Americans across the country. In the same vein, over half of all Black and Latino renters were cost-burdened before the pandemic, putting these groups at risk of losing their homes in the months ahead.
These data points show what many advocates already know to be true—what was previously considered “normal” wasn’t working for countless hard-working families who were already on the brink of homelessness. We have a tremendous amount of evidence, thanks to the work of Desmond and others, depicting the devastating toll of evictions on families, including worse educational and health outcomes. Research has shown us that prevention is also more cost effective than trying to help someone who has already lost their home.
While the odds are stacked against tenants facing displacement, there are numerous steps that housing groups, policymakers, and philanthropies can take to ensure more people can stay in their homes or find new housing. For starters, we can work to make the system less punitive for people who can no longer afford to pay rent because of a job loss or medical expenses. As it stands, landlords are able to deny housing if a potential rental applicant has a record of an eviction. Expunging these evictions or limiting the amount of time it shows up on someone’s record can open the door for many renters who are just trying to live in safe housing and provide more stability for their families.
Another solution that many advocates have championed is the right to counsel, which would give legal representation to anyone experiencing an eviction. More often than not, renters don’t have the tools and resources they need to navigate the complex legal web of an eviction proceeding. Ensuring that every tenant has access to legal support and accurate information about their rights can make the dynamic between renters and landlords more equitable.
There has also been exciting momentum behind different technologies and research efforts that may improve outcomes for tenants facing evictions. JustFix, for instance, cocreates tools with tenants, organizers, and legal advocates to prevent displacement and achieve stable, healthy housing for all. Their tools help tenants navigate complicated bureaucracy including the court system. Esusu is another example, which was founded to improve access to financial tools for renters, especially among communities of color. The platform allows tenants to opt in to a system that boosts their credit scores by sharing their rental payment history with major credit bureaus. Desmond’s work at the Eviction Lab has also led to much-needed data about the negative consequences of evictions—shifting the narrative and creating a pathway for meaningful policy change, so we can alleviate the enormous pressure facing renters during the pandemic and beyond.
The pandemic has only magnified the inherent power imbalance and barriers facing tenants, as well as the deep connection between housing instability and other social issues, like public health and educational outcomes, economic mobility, and more. We have an opportunity to reimagine this system instead of going back to what wasn’t working for so many people—and all we need is greater public and political will to make lasting change.
Ruby Bolaria Shifrin, is the director of housing affordability at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative