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.
But 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.