PREthinking the next eviction crisis rhino!UP for June 6, 2021
As advocates look forward with trepidation to the tsunami/avalanche/flood of evictions that will follow the end of the moratorium in a few weeks, there's an awareness that "back to normal" could mean a return to the "normal" crisis.
Remember that before the Corona Recession, there was already a crisis level of evictions resulting from the high cost of rental housing, stagnant wages, and a low savings rate. These made low and moderate income tenants subject to homelessness as a result of a medical bill, a car repair, or a sudden job loss.
Happily, in the short run this crisis may be mitigated by rising wages, a perceived labor shortage, a homeownership boom that reduces demand for rental housing, and local courts made accustomed to "non judicial" solutions to back rent. One hopes for a brief respite from "crisis" so that advocates can look at the past year for lessons for the future.
Why a moratorium? The nature of a moratorium is a temporary halt to normal business as usual until conditions return to normal. The idea of a moratorium was to halt evictions until emergency assistance was delivered. The failure of federal and local agencies to deliver timely assistance bolloxed the plan. Lesson 1: Economic disasters aren't that different from "natural" disasters. FEMA has learned from multiple failures that local health and housing facilities are as vulnerable to a disaster as their constituents. Communities need to build resilient systems.
Why CDC? This is still a puzzler. An agency focused on public health is writing legal procedures for local courts? HUH? Lesson 2: CDC is not set up to handle local judicial systems. There's no precedent and so the CDC moratoriums were easy targets for conservative legal firms.
Why not HUD? Unfortunately, HUD has been gutted by budget cuts and reorganizations to the point that there's little or no "local knowledge" in their systems. Lesson 3: Congress should invest in a Federal agency that has local roots to deal with emergencies.
How long is an emergency? In March 2020 it was clear that emergency measures were required to keep the economy from falling into a dead stall as emergency rooms filled up and businesses closed down. But three "stimulus bills" later Congress continued to use stop gap measures to stabilize the economy. Legislators had opportunities to create structures for the longer haul of recovery and re-stimulus, but they continued to depend on non-existent delivery systems. Lesson 4: Stop the bleeding and start rebuilding along a continuum, not a series of crisis interventions.
Entitlement vs. assistance? One system that worked well in the series of pandemic legislation was the IRS checks that went to taxpayers. No rules, no forms, no reports--in essence it was an entitlement. Rental assistance, by contrast, was rule burdened and documentation intensive. Part of the problem was the requirement that tenants had to do all the paperwork and landlords got the money. Lesson 5: Keep housing assistance simple, more like an entitlement.
Let's not wait for the next financial disaster, let's start planning now for the worst. One key step will be to make housing vouchers an entitlement and strengthen public housing authorities (PHAs) to deliver them efficiently. These relics of the Great Depression could be recast to be affordable housing service centers. Rethinking PHAs could complement the progressive agenda of A Green New Deal for Housing. An alternative would be renter tax credit administered by IRS. The newly enacted Child Tax Credit will be creating a model for this kind of direct to the citizen assistance that bypasses local delivery systems.