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The Eviction Crisis Should Be Biden’s Top Priority

It's both a dire moral emergency and good politics.

If you are like me, eviction is a foreign concept. My life, for the most part, has been a consistent series of privileges that have kept me insulated from many of the life-altering dangers that stalk normal Americans. I have struggled to pay rent, or been behind on months when late freelance payments put me behind. But I am young, unmarried, childless, and largely self-employed. If I were to lose my apartment I have a large support network of better-off friends and family I could fall back on without major inconvenience. What’s hard to connect with for people like me, and likely many people reading this blog, is the many millions of evicted people who simply have nowhere to go. Their home is their home; they have often sacrificed immensely to make it that way. If it is taken away, that’s it.

You can see some people who may be in this situation in this report from CNN.

The clip largely speaks for itself. An elderly woman escapes eviction for one day only because the cop putting her on the street is sufficiently concerned that the heat index could kill her. The family who does not own a car refers to their belongings as “trash” now because they cannot carry them. There is one question screaming in my mind throughout all of this: Where are these people supposed to go?

There is a different blog to write about the apologetic, but dutiful constable making a choice to enforce an eviction policy, but he is still a tool in the larger machine of government that has failed these people. Instead, I think the question is best directed at those who have the power to change this reality for every American facing it.

One of those people is Joe Biden. If Biden wins in November, the eviction crisis will be perhaps the most pressing issue he faces in his first days in office. On Sunday, the Trump administration directed the Centers for Disease Control to issue a temporary eviction moratorium that bars landlords from evicting people who meet a broad set of income and housing qualifications. It’s easy to see what this order is: a desperate reach for political goodwill going into the November election. For the people on the edge, like the ones in the CNN report, it represents precisely four more months in their home. But then it ends, on December 31. If Trump loses in November, it seems unlikely that he will extend the moratorium into 2021; I cannot believe that a lame-duck Trump administration will be marked by such acts of goodwill. Most crucially, the moratorium includes no provisions for rent forgiveness, meaning housing debts that still stand at the end of that period can again be used as grounds for eviction. If a family is thousands in the hole now, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to claw their way out during another four months of economic ruin.

That means, if Biden takes office on January 20, it is increasingly possible that we will have had 20 days of devastating, widespread, violent evictions across the country, numbering in the tens of millions. There is some small hope: Biden has indicated in the past that he is in favor of rent forgiveness during the pandemic, but it’s unclear what shape that policy may take if he’s elected, or how it might be weakened and watered down, just like what happened with the stimulus package the last time Biden took power during an economic crisis. I reached out to the Biden campaign to ask if they had a day-one plan for rent relief or eviction moratoriums, and I’ll update this post if they get back to me.

This is both a dire moral emergency and good politics. For some reason, during the worst recession since the last worst recession in history, Biden and Trump are polling roughly evenly on the economy. There is no reason for this: Biden should be speaking about these issues and what he will do to fix them every single day. The absolute worst this could do would be to pressure the Trump administration into making more stopgap reforms to keep people afloat until January. The best it could do would be to seal the election in Biden’s favor.

And the consequences of not doing so are equally as drastic. Picture a Biden presidency starting with millions of Americans desperately trying to find space in shelters and government housing and overwhelming social services already decimated by four years of the Trump administration. Imagine the spin that the post-Trump GOP will be putting on these images unless Biden acts immediately to put them right. This is not a risk we can afford to take; if things go wrong, the country itself will have nowhere to go.

Photo: Flickr/70023venus2009