Teetering on the Brink of the Eviction Crisis
Leaders Did Nothing and Put Millions at Risk of Poverty and COVID-19
If this were a Loony Tunes cartoon—and I realize that's a terrible comparison with a serious topic but bear with me—this would be the moment Wile E. Coyote has run off the cliff but is still in the air, just before stopping to look down and fall victim to gravity. That's the moment we're at. On Saturday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's moratorium against evictions expired. That put at least two million people, and as many as 3.6 million, at risk of eviction.
(A tent fire outside a bridge housing facility in Downtown Los Angeles, July. Photo by Nicholas Slayton)
How did this happen? The federal government let it. The Biden administration pointed to a June Supreme Court ruling that said the executive branch lacked the authority to extend it further, and put the proverbial ball in Congress' court. And Congress, for its part, called on the White House and CDC to extend it, despite that. Despite all of the developments in the last two months, government leaders seemed blindsided by it all. The White House waited until the last minute to say it wasn't going to try any sort of extension or alternative. And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi somehow only just learned about the expiration last week, despite the moratorium having been extended throughout the pandemic and the expiration date being very clear. Seriously; “We only learned of this yesterday,” she told reporters on July 30. Meanwhile other members, led by Rep. Cori Bush who has herself been homeless, camped outside the Capitol in protest.
There is some good news. Multiple outlets report that Biden is set to announce a new moratorium. Details are still unclear but it would be targeted to counties with high COVID rates (which, let's be honest, is most, so this could be pretty sweeping). The problem is that we were steps away from the long-time crash that would leave millions suffering and at risk of death.
Many of those who would be evicted might be able to stay with family or find a hotel for a short period, but the reality is that hundreds of thousands of people would be homeless and on the streets, and it's unclear what help they'd be able to get. When I spoke to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Executive Director Heidi Marston last May, when fears of a recession and homelessness surge were just starting, she said that LAHSA is not prepared for a sudden and massive influx of new unhoused people. Los Angeles County is one of the centers of homelessness in the United States, it's spent years working on providing services. As flawed as its response is, if Los Angeles can't handle a massive housing crash, it's unlikely the rest of the country could either.
It's as of this moment unclear if Biden's new order will be retroactive to Saturday, and if the people who in the interim days got eviction notices will be protected. However, as my colleague Miles Howard pointed out, Biden turned COVID-19 infection rates into a form of means testing aid. Astounding.
We'll see what happens with this. The Supreme Court could strike it down again, but it might provide a stop-gap. But we came so close to an economic, housing and public health collapse.
As I reported in Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles County's unhoused population has a vaccination rate more than 20 percent below the countywide numbers. Meanwhile unhoused people around the country face serious health risks, from displacement from encampments as what happened in Los Angeles' Echo Park Lake in March to being pulled from isolation rooms in hotels and being put back in congregate shelters in New York City. Health experts at the CDC warn against these very actions, saying it increases the risk of a major COVID-19 outbreak.
Here's the important thing to remember: Homelessness is not one type of situation. It can range from having to couch surf for a week or two to living in your car to being on the street in a tent. Everyone's reasons for being unhoused varies. Service providers work with those in encampments, yes, but also those in shelters, those who need an emergency motel room for a week to avoid ending up on the street. But with already rising rates of homelessness, those services are strained. Millions of people suddenly needing aid would overwhelm and break this. And given the slow response from Congress to....all of the last year and a half, it's unclear what would be done urgently to help people if the waves of evictions do take place.
Even on the most cynical partisan power level, this move and lack of any real plan by Democrats is shocking. Evictions make it harder for people to get housing again, and lack of an address can make voting harder, especially as more restrictive voting laws are put in place around the country. An eviction stays with someone for years. The fact that this happened, and in such a blatantly inept way, is a massive failure of leadership and governance.
Gears are already turning to use government force and action against people behind on rent during a crisis where people lost jobs and risked their health and safety during a pandemic. New Orleans is finally prioritizing and boosting vaccinations for deputy constables, but only so they have enough people to oversee evictions. And although California, for instance, has protections against evictions through September, the City of Los Angeles voted last week and approved (it goes into effect 31 days from signing) ordinance blocking camping and storing items near places such as libraries, schools, parks, etc. The approval includes provisions for City Council oversight, barring some exceptions. However, due to the sheer number of those facilities around Los Angeles, it means most of the municipal area is off limits to people. Which means either arrest or massive relocation during a pandemic. It is, perhaps shockingly to some, hard for people to relocate across town to avoid arrest, especially when destitute and trying to hold onto some personal belongings, or not having access to a car. This is not meant as some sweeping defense, but a statement of reality.
What gets lost is that people are still people even when out of sight. The result will be either more concentrated encampments in the few spots where people can be, likely isolated away from needed services, or—based on current actions—people unable to meet specifics will face harassment and arrests simply for trying to exist. As the embattled Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said in regard to using deputies and fear of arrest to clear the Venice Boardwalk, all while refusing to enforce a mask mandate and making far-right arguments against basic human and civil rights while under the guise of being anti “woke,” it's about controlling public space. Which is a hell of a statement.
The other baffling aspect behind this week's failings is what actions the federal government did set up prior to this to try to help people. Rather than monthly checks (remember how the Biden administration promised $2,000 checks in addition to the December $600, then only passed $1,400?), or canceling rent, Congress and the administration set up a rent relief program that instead gave billions of dollars to state and local governments to disperse. Programs were set up, but most of the money has not reached the people it is supposed to help. It's a bizarre and byzantine move, especially given that a proven model already works: Give people money. Giving people money works. We have the data and evidence to back it up. The mechanisms are in place, from the previous stimulus checks. The complete lack of action on monthly checks is astounding. Biden is not some leftist UBI advocate, he never was going to be, but he seemed to grasp the urgency of the crisis in the spring. Now, not so much.
The last year has been a steady wave of things getting worse, with debt piling up and aid drying up. Thankfully it looks like millions might get some reprieve, but it's distressing and worrying that the United States got so close to such a collapse.
A Public Service Announcement
I would also like to remind everyone that vaccines are free. I highly doubt the people reading this newsletter are anti-vaxxers, but I do want to speak to the uninsured and working people who maybe are avoiding vaccinations out of the fear of the cost. It is free! Free! Free healthcare, it's great. Get it. If anyone is trying to charge you, something isn't right. Get vaccinated, protect yourself and others. Also, if you're wearing a mask, the mask goes over your nose.
Today's Panic Music
I love The Beatles. George Harrison is my personal favorite in terms of solo work, but they're all good. Paul McCartney's latest album, McCartney III was very strong, and “Find My Way” was stellar. McCartney's song came out months ago, but a new album of remixes recently arrived, and Beck's update of “Find Your Way” is here and amazing. The lyric “You never used to be afraid of days like these / but now your overcome by your anxieties” hits a bit too close to home. But this newsletter is called Let's Do the Panic Again, so. The video is cool too.