For renters, an affordable housing crisis was already raging. Then coronavirus hit

Los Angeles is one of the few US jurisdictions that has mandated a grace period for repaying rent missed during the coronavirus lockdown. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For many renters across the United States, access to affordable housing was precarious long before the coronavirus. Now, with millions freshly out of work, an inability to pay rent could amplify an already massive shock to the economy.

The early figures are eye-catching. Just 69% of US apartment renters had paid all or part of this month’s rent by 5 April – down from 82% a month earlier – according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, an apartment industry group. Nearly 17 million Americans filed new unemployment claims in the past three weeks, and job losses hit the service and retail sectors especially hard. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 10 million low-income US households were paying 50% or more of their income toward rent – and therefore at higher risk of experiencing homelessness – before coronavirus. Now, they estimate 1.5 million more could soon be in the same position.

Like the coronavirus itself, the rent emergency is playing out across borders, too. Residential landlords in the UK reported receiving just 44% of their expected rental income, according to the Financial Times. Canada’s CIBC bank estimates that about 70% of rent was paid in April, and tenant rights activists are organizing a campaign to cancel rent for May. In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced one of the boldest steps taken by a national government so far: promising to waive rent and utility bills for people who can’t pay.

The idea of a rent strike or rent holiday has gained steam in the US in recent weeks as renters point out that many simply don’t have another option: if they don’t have the money, they can’t pay. Landlords are in a jam, too. If they force a tenant out, can they find someone else to move in now? That’s why housing advocates and landlord groups alike are urging the US Congress to move fast to help people pay their rent.

“The good news is there are platforms that already exist” to give money to some of the most vulnerable renters, says Priya Jayachandran, president of the National Housing Trust and a former official at the US Department of Housing & Urban Development. Congress could direct more money “relatively quickly,” she says, to the Section 8 housing voucher programme for low-income tenants, or into other programmes that support housing for elderly or disabled tenants.

Advocates also want Congress to go further to protect renters against the possibility of eviction at a time when staying home is crucial. Federal, state, and local governments across the US were quick to offer at least some protections for renters in late March, as state-of-emergency and shelter-in-place orders went into effect. Congress paused evictions for 120 days for renters who live in homes with federally backed mortgages, a move that protected one in four rental units in the country, according to the Urban Institute. Many state and local governments went further, pausing new eviction filings, banning evictions for people affected by the coronavirus, and directing authorities not to enforce eviction orders until after a state of emergency is lifted.

Still, those steps don’t cover everyone, and they exist as a hugely uneven patchwork of policies that vary widely across jurisdictions. In many places, cash-strapped renters need to prove that coronavirus is the reason they can’t pay rent. They’re also expected to repay that rent once the emergency orders are lifted, possibly even right away.

Los Angeles is one of the few US jurisdictions that has mandated a grace period for repayment, giving renters 12 months to pay back their landlords or allowing them to come to another agreement. For anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck, even that repayment plan could increase monthly housing payments to an impossible level. For renters in cities and states without mandatory repayment periods, housing advocates fear the end of the coronavirus emergency will be the start of an eviction emergency.

“They’re really concerned that there will be an eviction onslaught once eviction orders are lifted,” says Alieza Durana of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

And eviction isn’t a one-time setback. “We call it the ‘Scarlet E,’” Durana says. That’s because an eviction on someone’s record can prevent them from getting housing, jobs, or loans far into the future.

Rent money matters on a larger economic scale, too. A 2015 US Census survey found that about 16.7 million rental properties in the U.S. are owned by individual landlords, accounting for about 46% of all rental units in the country. Many individual property owners live off that money, and large and small landlords alike pass portions of it along to financial institutions, utilities, maintenance workers, and state and local property taxes.

“We’re really hampered by not knowing how long this is going to last,” says Jenny Scheutz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “The difference between not paying rent for a month or two months and not paying rent for six to eight months is enormous both for the tenant and for the landlord.”

Sheutz agrees that the best solution is to give money directly to households so they can keep making the payments and purchases that they need to.

“Canceling the rent only takes off some of the pressure on renter households,” she says. “They still have other expenses that they need to meet. If you get money to renters, then they can keep spending it, and the landlord gets money and they can keep people on the payroll.”

With the bailout requests flooding in from all sectors, there’s one fact that gives rental assistance a deeper sense of urgency. A housing affordability crisis has been brewing for years, and Americans well into the middle class don’t have much savings to fall back on.

“There’s a lot of financial insecurity among the middle class that we papered over as long as the job market was good,” Scheutz says. “There are a lot of people who looked OK as long as they had a steady source of income, but they really didn’t have much cushion. We’re going to see as a result a lot of people don’t have savings to tide them over.”

For now, Jayachandran advises renters to talk to their landlords immediately if they can’t make their full rent payment, and to sign on to letters to lawmakers advocating for rental assistance.

“Far before this crisis, we failed in our housing policy,” she says. “When you lose that work, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.”

Adam Sneed is managing editor of CityMetric. 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.