The Fierce Urgency of Now

This weekend marks the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.  But I want to focus on one he made four years later, exactly a year before his murder.  On 4th April 1967 he spoke at Riverside Church in Harlem about Vietnam, breaking his silence on the most pressing political issue of the time (text of the speech here, well worth a read).  I’ve been reflecting on his words since hearing the US Supreme Court has declared that protecting tenants from eviction during a pandemic is unlawful.

The Supreme Court exists to maintain the founding principles of the nation, as expressed in the Constitution.  Given the nature of that document and the men behind it, it’s no surprise that it also exists to protect landlords.  But for this truth to become so self-evident at this moment is, I think, significant. 

After eight months in office, some of the weaknesses of President Biden have been exposed.  I’m in the “pleasantly surprised” camp when it comes to his overall domestic policy agenda, but any illusions should be erased by his failure to act decisively on the eviction threat now hanging over millions of Americans.  We still don’t know how much of his ambitious spending package, which includes the possibility of some serious money for housing, is going to emerge from the Washington DC swamp.  But even if it is fully enacted (which is very unlikely), it won’t help those facing homelessness now. 

Biden could have used his executive power to extend the eviction moratorium, instead of relying on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to do it for him. In fact, reading the Supreme Court opinion (not something I’ve done before!), the grounds for striking down the moratorium are more to do with the CDC exceeding its authority, than the ban itself being legally wrong.  The President intervening directly would still have led to howls of protest from the real estate lobby and legal action, maybe even a constitutional crisis.  Of course, nothing we know about Biden suggests he was ever going to do that and stick up for tenants, instead of landlords. But by not doing so, he could further weaken his position, at a time when he needs all the friends he can get.  His administration’s ability to pass legislation is wafer-thin and he needs the “progressives” just as much as the “moderates”.  It will be interesting to see how much pressure Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and co. can put on him now, both in terms of stemming a tide of evictions in the short-term and insisting on policies that make them less likely in the long-term.

All along, Biden’s has been playing for time on evictions, but as Dr King said in his Riverside speech “there is such a thing as being too late”.  We don’t yet know how bad the homelessness situation will become, or how quickly.  What we do know is that, although (as in the UK) people have been losing their homes throughout the pandemic, the federal eviction moratorium has halved the usual rate, at a time when tenants in arrears have doubled.  With the eviction courts re-opening, the President and others have put their faith in the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).  But this has been grossly mismanaged with, to date, only 11% of the $45 billion funds (effectively, payments to landlords who already receive significant government largesse) being allocated.  There may be some incentive for some landlords to hold on for the ERAP payments to arrive, but others may not and decide that getting a tenant out is their best commercial option, particularly with vulture capitalists waiting to pounce.  The housing market is too volatile a beast to expect patience and forbearance from. 

This brings us to the nature of US landlords.  The media and real estate lobby likes to present them as small, independent “mom and pops”, struggling to get-by.  But this is a distortion.  Increasingly, rented homes are owned by global institutional investment companies like Blackstone and its subsidiary, Invitation Homes.  Although, according to a 2017 Harvard University study, most rented homes in the US are still owned by individual landlords, they note that the picture’s changing – and that was based on information that’s now six years old.  More recent data suggests the trend towards the concentration of housing capital has continued.  There will be significant regional variations here too.  Looking at buildings with 50+ homes (which will include most in NYC), 60% are owned by big investors who, as CBS News report, have posted record profits during the pandemic.  With an eye to the next investment opportunity, they are also far more likely to issue eviction notices than individual landlords.            

So this is a perilous moment, but also one when the narrow scope of housing ideas, debate and demands have been apparent.  I was chatting about this to a prominent NYC housing campaigner earlier this week who was saying how soul-destroying it is to be continuously focusing activity around extensions of eviction moratoria.  Of course, that is an essential demand, without which, many more people would already have lost their homes.  But we must try to elevate the discussion and look beyond the next crisis point. Otherwise, our housing situation increasingly resembles Van Gogh’s “Ronde de les Prisoners”.

Although Dr. King was talking 54 years ago, about something different (but bearing in mind that he did recognise the importance of housing justice in his later campaigns), I think his words from Riverside resonate with today’s housing malaise.  There is a pervasive political silence around the issue, or at best, a superficial mention that goes nowhere near the heart of the matter.  We do sometimes seem “mesmorised by uncertainty” but we are “deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness…a revolution of values”.  

It’s difficult to see how the next few months are going to play-out.  As another NYC activist has said to me, perhaps the worst thing will be a steady drip of evictions, rather than a wave of homelessness that demands attention and action.  But on this – and many other fronts – “tomorrow is today”.     

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