On the edge of eviction

Today, about 7 million Americans stand on the edge of homelessness. The national ban on evictions (which was never comprehensive) has expired and so landlords can resume or commence legal action to force people out of their homes, even if they’ve lost income, through no fault of their own, due to COVID. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues – and the US Congress has broken up for its summer holidays.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that almost 15% of tenants across the country are in arrears, to the tune of $23 billion, or an average of $3,800 per household owing rent. The much-vaunted $25 billion emergency fund to help tenants has been patchily – in some places shockingly badly – administered. In New York State, not one cent of the allocated $2.4 billion has been allocated. The plight of many tenants in arrears will be made worse by COVID unemployment benefits also expiring around now.

As campaigners correctly point out, the emergency rental assistance is, in effect, yet another public subsidy to private landlords. At this point, it’s imperative to point out that, unlike in the UK, most privately rented housing in the US is owned by huge corporations, with thousands of buildings on their books, not the fabled “small landlord” (we have been warned!). As they did after the 2007/08 crash, the likes of Blackstone and the other vulture property capitalists, will be seeing the looming eviction crunch as a commercial opportunity.

But it’s the “rights” of those landlords that are the primary concern of the US State. The Supreme Court, under pressure from the super-wealthy real estate lobby, had made it clear it would not countenance another extension of the eviction moratorium and this appears to have rendered Congress and the President impotent.

And so we wait. Here in the Bronx, about a quarter of tenants are in arrears and it’s probably significantly more in some neighbourhoods. Yesterday, I watched a documentary, “Decade of Fire” (it’s on Youtube and highly recommended), about the huge wave of landlord arson that swept the Bronx during a previous period of acute capitalist crisis. In the 1970s, with the city bankrupt, owners torched their buildings to cash-in on insurance payouts. Decades of political neglect and institutional racism caught up with the Bronx and thousands of people were made homeless. The situations may be different in some respects, but there are similarities. Politicians fiddled – and landlords were on the fiddle – while the Bronx burned.

Partly due to the strength of its housing campaigns, the eviction ban has another month to run in New York, but with the legislative options running out, discussion is turning to organised resistance. It will build on a rich tradition. I chose the place I’m living completely at random. Thanks to this article, I now know it was a hotbed of eviction resistance (and communism!) in the 1930s. Again, the comparisons across the decades aren’t exact, but I can’t help feeling that something similar is going to be needed to avoid the fires this time.

South Bronx, 1970s.

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