Date December 18, 2020
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Conversations on COVID: How the pandemic could increase homelessness in 2021

Francesca Mari, a visiting lecturer at Brown, spoke about what might happen when the federal eviction moratorium ends on Jan. 31 — and why millions of disadvantaged Americans have struggled to afford urban housing for years.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Jan. 31, 2020, looms large in Francesca Mari’s mind. It’s the date on which millions of Americans may be at risk of losing the roofs over their heads.

According to Mari — a journalist and visiting lecturer in literary arts at Brown University who has recently published national news stories about the rise of Wall Street landlords, the transfer of housing from individuals to private equity firms and the rising trend of companies hiring the homeless as house-sitters — said more than 30 million people in the U.S. could be in danger when a federal moratorium on eviction lifts. For many, the moratorium, originally issued in September by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus, was the only thing keeping them sheltered in the midst of an economic recession that has come with historic rates of job loss.

Francesca MariBut the pandemic, Mari said, is only the latest hit to the most disadvantaged American renters and homeowners, who have for decades found themselves at the mercy of corporate landlords and crooked lenders — actors who have taken control of the housing market across the country as a result of bad zoning and financial policies at the city, state and federal levels. 

Just weeks before the eviction moratorium was scheduled to lift, Mari answered questions about her journalistic background, rising homelessness in the U.S. and how the pandemic has shone a glaring spotlight on a growing housing crisis in American cities.

Q: How did you begin writing about housing and homelessness?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and when I came back in 2016, the region had changed so much. Home prices and rents had skyrocketed, and there was so much more homelessness. I became really interested in finding out what factors were conspiring to make it so expensive, and why, in a city that considers itself one of the most progressive in the country, much of the housing policy was so conservative and even hypocritical.

I saw alliances between some strange bedfellows. Politicians who defined themselves as super progressive were working with people who were outright conservative, joining forces to oppose legislative measures to upzone areas around transport hubs. They wanted to block cities from being able to build denser housing — like multi-story apartment buildings and duplexes — in places where it was most needed. They argued it would negatively affect the look of the neighborhood or displace people. But not acting ultimately displaces way more people.

Their opposition campaigns worked, perhaps because homeowners are more likely to vote than non-homeowners. They vote because they have this large investment sunk in one geographic location, and they’re motivated to maintain scarcity and keep the value of their own property and assets as high as possible.

Q: What’s the connection between zoning legislation and housing insecurity in cities?

Los Angeles is a good example of the strong connection here. In the 1960s, the city was zoned for 10 million homes. Now, it’s zoned for some 4 million. So as the city has ballooned in size, the number of homeowners for whom it was zoned has been more than halved. As a result, there’s just not enough housing — particularly affordable housing like apartments — for everyone who lives there. The vacancy rate in Los Angeles is one of the lowest in the country; it’s hovered in the low single digits for years.

That’s significant, because it offers renters who do have housing less protection. If a city’s vacancy rate is fairly high, landlords might be more lenient or generous with tenants who miss a month’s rent because they lost their job, because they don’t know if they can quickly get another tenant to occupy that apartment. But in a place like L.A., landlords know there’s so much demand for housing that they can always replace tenants quickly.

Q: What might that mean for financially insecure renters when the eviction moratorium lifts?

Millions of renters who may have been otherwise protected by the eviction moratorium may lose their housing the moment the moratorium lifts, because their landlords know there’s enough housing demand to replace them. 

When the CDC put the national eviction moratorium in place in September, it seemed great for renters, but actually the policy wasn’t very good. For one thing, there was a heavily bureaucratic process that had to be followed: Renters had to actually be aware of the moratorium, and they had to submit formal letters to landlords with documented proof that they had lost their income, otherwise they wouldn’t get protection. For another, the moratorium didn’t actually stop eviction cases from going to courts and getting rulings; it just stopped landlords from executing on the rulings and actually evicting people, at least until the end of the year.

Renters aren’t the only ones at risk: This month, an estimated 6% to 8% of homeowners are in mortgage forbearance programs. Oftentimes, homeowners are given a one-year grace period to catch up on payments, but realistically it is difficult for anyone to come up with a year’s worth of mortgage payments after a long period of unemployment. So in the next year, we may see millions of people face eviction or pressure to sell their homes.

“ What happened in the 2008 recession should serve as a cautionary tale. If there’s no relief for renters when the eviction moratorium expires, my greatest fear is that the mom and pop landlords... won’t be able to make their mortgage payments. And if they can’t make their payments and are forced to sell, private equity stands waiting. ”

Francesca Mari Visiting Lecturer in Literary Arts

Q: The pandemic and resulting recession may increase rates of homelessness and housing insecurity, but these were growing issues before 2020. What has contributed to this rise in recent years?

In L.A., volunteers dedicate one night a year to a point-in-time count of people who are experiencing homelessness, and they survey many of the unhoused people they encounter. In the last few years, those they talked to who had fallen into homelessness for the first time cited economic reasons. But chronic homelessness happens for a big and complicated variety of reasons, like the lack of funding for social services for people with drug dependencies, mental illnesses and disabilities. The gutting of these social services has coincided with the lack of affordable housing construction, and that’s made the cost of living too high for those who are battling other issues.

One fact that always sicks with me is that cities like L.A. and San Francisco have thrown a tremendous amount of money at the homelessness problem, and yet it still persists. Seven months ago, L.A. was housing an average of 150 people a day, which is astounding. Unfortunately, at the same time, 170 people were falling into homelessness every day. So it looked like L.A. wasn’t doing anything, when really they were making a huge effort. It shows that the real issue is that there simply isn’t enough housing for everyone, which goes back to land use and zoning laws.

Q: You have also written about how a rising lack of transparency among limited liability corporations — LLCs that own housing units — has contributed to the problem. Can you explain that?

A lot of the time, we don’t know who owns homes or apartment buildings because the listed owners are LLCs with mysterious names. During the Great Recession, corporations and private equity firms began to buy properties en masse in an effort to create, if not monopolies, then oligopolies that have market power. 

In places like L.A. and Phoenix and Miami and Atlanta, these corporations and private equity firms gained market power in certain neighborhoods by buying foreclosed homes en masse — I’m talking about more than 200,000 homes in a couple dozen markets with high employment and that are close to transport hubs and where most residents were people of color. The private equity firm Blackstone made some deliberately complicated financial maneuvers that allowed them to buy a bunch of houses, sell the mortgage debt on those houses and immediately use that new liquidity to buy more houses. Essentially, they pawned off their debt to get access to more capital at a time when disproportionately Black and Latinx people had ruined credit because they had been targeted by predatory mortgage loan companies.

What happened in the 2008 recession should serve as a cautionary tale. If there’s no relief for renters when the eviction moratorium expires, my greatest fear is that the mom and pop landlords, who control close to half of the rental units in the U.S., in turn won’t be able to make their mortgage payments. And if they can’t make their payments and are forced to sell, private equity stands waiting.

Q: From a public policy standpoint, what are the best ways to confront the homelessness crisis and the high cost of living in these cities?

The problem has gotten so bad that we need action at the state and national levels. Cities don’t have the political will to make the decisions they need to make to change land-use rules. 

We need to protect the vulnerable. We need to “upzone” around transportation hubs and change land-use regulations so that it doesn’t cost an insane amount of money to construct new affordable housing. Tokyo is a city that has done a great job with this. They’ve loosened land-use rules and created a tremendous amount of housing in the last 20 years. As a result, the number of those sleeping on the streets decreased by 80%.

To confront the immediate looming crisis, I think direct cash payment to everyone below a certain income level is the solution. We saw that solution’s effectiveness at the start of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The stimulus check that everyone received was helpful. Even more so was the $600 supplement to unemployment insurance. That saved a lot of people. Some critics were worried about that and said, “You can’t just give people money because they won’t spend it in the right way.” But the truth is, between July this year and July last year, only 1% more people missed their rental payments, despite the pandemic driving mass unemployment. That is proof that people used their federal relief checks to pay rent. 

In a way, that’s great news: The most effective solution requires the least amount of bureaucracy. There are no forms or processes to deal with, no rental vouchers to hand out. 

Q: What can people do to support individuals and families who are currently homeless and help curb homelessness in the long term?

I don’t want to discourage people from donating money to organizations that shelter people who are experiencing homelessness, because any amount of money can help improve individual people’s lives. But really, the most important thing you can do is lobby Congress and your representatives for more state and national action, because what we really need is to change policy. 

Most people probably aren’t that literate in housing policy because it sounds boring and it seems complicated, but they should be, because it affects all of us. Housing is the biggest asset class in the world and often the greatest factor in generational wealth. Demanding smart land use is important; demanding LLC and ownership transparency is important; demanding tax reform that enables communities to house the greatest number of people is important. To put it simply, if we want systemic change, we need more homes, and we need less pressure on housing costs.