Americans are still being evicted during the coronavirus pandemic

John Moore / Getty Images

Four years ago, Matthew Desmond changed the way American policymakers look at eviction.

With engrossing reporting and scholarly rigor, his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City revealed how unstable the private sector housing market is for low-income Americans. 

Since then, as the housing crisis in the United States grew more acute, some city leaders have begun focusing on the issues facing low-income renters. Right-to-counsel laws have been passed in big cities like New York and Philadelphia, beginning the process of guaranteeing lawyers to tenants in eviction court. New municipal-level rental assistance programmes supplement inadequate federal policies, while rent regulations are under serious consideration for the first time in decades. 

Desmond, meanwhile, founded The Eviction Lab at Princeton University and established the first national database for tracking eviction data. Since the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the nation, Desmond and his colleagues have been tracking the eviction moratorium, utility cut off bans, and other protections enacted to preserve housing during this time of self-isolation and quarantine. This week, they released a scorecard for every American state.

CityMetric spoke with Desmond about the gaps in pandemic-era eviction protections, the differing profit margins for landlords in the low- and middle-income rental markets, and opportunities for public sector investment in housing during the Covid crisis. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What are the most meaningful policies that states and cities can enact right now to stop widespread evictions after the crisis?

There are many states, with millions of renters, that haven't stopped evictions. The most important thing states can do is put a moratorium on the initiation of all evictions, period. Some states have said you can't file eviction if it's Covid related. But in practice, what isn't Covid related right now? Should we be placing this kind of burden of proof on renters, where they have to get a notice from their employer and a fax machine? 

What are we going to do after moratoriums lift? There's some housing advocates calling for a big injection of federal funds to allow the rent to be paid in a lump sum. But that doesn't mess with the fundamentals of the system. Then there's tenant groups saying this is an opportunity to cancel rent and rebalance the scales of power. I think there's a lot of opportunities in the middle of that debate. We can start asking hard questions like, what is a fair rate of return for landlords? Our answer to that question, for a long time, has been a shrug. 

Then we have to think about this coming wave of evictions if we stay the course, if the status quo prevails. We could provide legal counsel beyond just in Philadelphia and New York. We could ask for a freeze on late fees and on rent raises. You remember what happened after Hurricane Katrina? There were massive rent raises in New Orleans because a lot of the housing had been destroyed. There were rent raises during and after the financial crisis.  

The Eviction Lab has a new scorecard ranking states’ Covid-era eviction policies. What have policymakers done to defend renters and what are the biggest gaps in their protections?

The states that have the strongest protections have stopped evictions being initiated, they’ve stopped the court process, and they’ve stopped their execution. That’s the beginning, middle and end of the eviction process. To us, the initiation process is the most important thing, because even if evictions are not being executed right now that still means there's going to be a spike in evictions after the moratorium lifts. At best, it still means you're going to have this eviction record on your name even if you don't lose your home and that can sully your credit and ruin your future housing prospects.

Then we think it's critical that states offer other short-term support, like foreclosure moratoriums, making sure the states are able to keep the utilities and gas flowing during the moratorium, and steps like banning late fees and rent hikes during this time where we're all in this together. 

Then there's the big step, which is what do we do about all these rental arrears? When the moratorium started coming out, I thought the news coverage was pretty rosy. But when we dug into literally thousands of pieces of legislation we saw, gosh, there's a lot more holes in these moratoriums than we thought. 

Even in states that are known for strong renter protection, like California, they leave a lot up to local discretion. Then if you go down our list, there's a lot of states that are completely lacking real tenant protections in this crisis.

Let’s talk about right to counsel, guaranteeing lawyers for renters in eviction court, all over the country.

We're extending right to counsel in housing court in New York City, in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Newark. But the housing crisis isn't located in just five American cities.

The top evicting cities according to our data include Richmond, Virginia, and North Charleston South Carolina. These places have eviction rates that far outweigh Philadelphia or New York.  What about renters in those kinds of communities? You could think of a policy that says if we're going to let these evictions go forward after Covid, the least we could do is to supply lawyers in eviction court to make sure everyone has a fair shake. 

Many landlords say they understand the need to pause evictions, but that they aren’t in a financial place to give tenants a break. What do you think of those claims and do you think relief should be extended at least to smaller landlords?

We've been digging into landlord profit margins. There's a national survey of property owners and landlords, which you can use to calculate how much folks are making and see how profit margins vary across different kinds of neighbourhoods. 

One of the findings that we came back with, which is incredibly strong, is that landlords in poor neighbourhoods make considerably more than landlords in middle class or even affluent neighbourhoods. The expenses in those neighbourhoods are a lot less, but the rents aren't that much less. The median landlord is not carrying a mortgage and does not have mortgage debt. Because in many poor neighbourhoods, it doesn't take a long time to buy a property and often landlords buy it outright. 

The narrative that if we don't pay the rent, we're going to go into foreclosure is a narrative that applies mostly to landlords in non-poor areas of the country where most evictions don't happen in normal times. I think there's an opportunity coming from that data to ask, why are rents so high in those poor neighbourhoods? 

What was in the CARES Act or other federal legislation in response to the pandemic that has addressed the kind of housing needs we are talking about?

The stimulus was not enough. The median rent in this country is over $1,000. If you think of a $1,200 dollar check, most of that's going to be eaten up by rent. 

This a chance for policymakers to think about not only triage to get us through the crisis, but as an opportunity for us to create a new, more just society. Representative Ilhan Omar's bill has language that would allow landlords to get out [of the industry]. I think the idea would be that property would be turned into something like public housing or cooperatively owned and run housing by the tenants. That's an interesting idea that comes directly from tenant advocates around the country. 

Let's talk about a policy you’ve long advocated. People who don't follow these issues super closely might not be aware that Housing Choice Vouchers are not like food stamps, where after you cross a certain income threshold you just automatically get access to them. 

Prior to the pandemic, vouchers went to fewer than 20 percent of poor renters. In the Democratic primary, candidates like Bernie Sanders proposed making them accessible for all low-income Americans. Are you hearing anything like that now in D.C.?

I haven't with respect to the Covid response. But in the context of this crisis it has multiple advantages. First, relief for tenants and property owners would be immediate. Second, a federal moratorium on evictions could be executed through that system. Right now, the federal government is scrambling to figure out how it can intervene for the third of the country who rents their homes. I think a massive expansion of the Housing Choice Voucher Program would solve that. 

I'm a huge fan of taking this program – that works pretty darn well – and expanding it to everyone who qualifies for it. It makes complete sense financially, and it makes complete sense on a moral basis.

Speaking of affordability, housing construction right now is paused in a lot of places. Even after the lockdowns end, I imagine it'll be very difficult to get financing to build new housing. But even before this catastrophe we weren’t building enough homes to meet the need. What could the pandemic mean for affordability in the long term?

This was the lesson we learned during the Great Depression. The private construction industry could not handle the crisis and it caused this incredibly acute housing shortage. In that space, the federal government intervened to create our public housing system.

By the 1930s, America was the only rich democracy in the world that lacked a serious federal investment in housing. This kind of problem that you're talking about, we've been here before and out of that problem came significant government intervention. Could something like that come out again? We are playing fortune teller here, but maybe the best thing we can do is look at history and the lessons we already learned. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add about eviction policy during the pandemic?  

The most immediate thing is I don't think the average reader recognises that people got evicted today in America. If our vaccine is our home, if shelter is our protection against Covid-19, then preserving homes right now seems to be the most important thing. I think that's not getting enough play in the media right now.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for 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.