In the Indianapolis eviction court where my law students and I work, we are fighting to keep Natasha and her kids in their home. (I will not use our clients’ real names here.) Natasha’s life isn’t easy. She commutes thirty-five miles each evening to a suburban warehouse, where she stocks shelves and fills orders until four o’clock in the morning. Despite having steady employment, the rising costs of overnight childcare, medical debt, and car repairs have caused Natasha to fall behind on her rent. She has no help watching the kids during the day, when she should be sleeping, so she comes to court exhausted.
Amanda is another client. She receives a monthly Supplemental Security Income check because of her disability. But it is less than $900, while her monthly rent exceeds $1,000. My students and I filed motions and begged for extensions for Amanda. Even so, she lost her apartment and is now homeless.
Unfortunately, Amanda isn’t the only one. After another client, Patricia, was evicted, she lived amidst rusty rakes and lawn mowers in a friend’s garden shed. Kenneth and his three young sons slept in a 2004 Buick LeSabre. Elise snuck in each night to lie down in her rented storage unit, then cleaned herself the next morning in the bathroom of the fast-food restaurant where she works. All of them had sought subsidized housing, only to discover that the local application list already contained thousands of names, with an average wait time of five years.
Our clients have a problem that even the best housing attorney can’t fix. They simply cannot afford to keep a safe and secure roof over their heads. Their predicament is more common than many Americans realize. Across the country, one in every five U.S. households does not earn enough income each month to reliably afford market-rate housing. Seventeen million U.S. households meet the threshold of being “severely housing cost-burdened,” meaning they pay half or more of their pretax income on housing.
Abstract terminology like “cost-burdened” obscures the grim reality that my students and I often witness firsthand: our clients desperately juggling different gigs only to fall short every month. A single turn of bad luck often has outsized effects. A child gets sick. The used car they rely upon to get to work breaks down. There is an urgent need to flee from an abusive partner. These crises lead to paychecks shrinking or disappearing altogether. The rent comes due, and they can’t pay. And then we see them in court.
Though U.S. eviction rates dipped due to pandemic moratoriums, they have since climbed back to pre-Covid levels. And we have every reason to expect that those rates will continue to rise: 10.4 million U.S. renters currently report being behind on their rent (65 percent of them are people of color), while more than four million people feel they are at least “somewhat likely” to be evicted in the next two months. This all comes at a time when average rent costs have increased more than 20 percent over the past two years, and even more in some U.S. cities.
Federal emergency rental assistance approved earlier during the pandemic has been a lifeline for millions, including many of our clients. But some states and cities have already run out of funds, and others are on the verge. The effects can be devastating. Tisa, a mother of three young children, was waiting for her eviction hearing when she learned that she had reached the limit of her benefits and was blocked from further aid. She cried out, “I don’t know what I am going to do! I want to die!” Then she ran out of the courthouse in tears.
Tisa’s despair is neither an accident nor a rarity. It is the predictable result of decades of U.S. housing-policy choices that have lavished rewards on wealthy corporations and individuals while shrugging at the struggles of those who can’t afford to house themselves. The problem isn’t that federal, state, and local governments are absent from the housing sector. It’s that, often in the name of “free markets,” they have used their heavy hand to tip the scales in favor of the wealthy.
Things used to be much better for Americans in need of affordable housing. So how did we get here? In the 1970s, federal spending on affordable housing amounted to 1.4 percent of the U.S. GDP, far exceeding tax giveaways to homeowners and investors. But after that came decades of reduction and reversal. Federal tax breaks now exceed affordable housing expenditures by billions of dollars, making Americans at the top of the socioeconomic ladder among the largest recipients of public largesse. Consider the mortgage-interest tax deduction, which mostly benefits the wealthiest 20 percent of U.S. households. It even includes tax incentives for those who can afford to purchase second homes. Together with the similarly regressive capital-gains tax exemption for home sales, these tax breaks end up costing the government more than the hypothetical sum required to provide subsidized housing vouchers to Tisa and every other eligible low-income renter in the country.
Corporate landlords have also fared exceedingly well under the present tax regime. During the early months of the pandemic, the largest corporate landlords received tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies. They took advantage of this preferential tax treatment to dramatically increase their holdings of both multi-unit rental properties and residential homes. In several American cities, including Indianapolis, where our clinic is based, more than 40 percent of homes purchased last year were bought by corporations or limited liability companies.
Disturbingly, these sales took place disproportionately in Black and brown neighborhoods, continuing a pernicious trend begun more than a decade ago. During the recession-fueled foreclosure crisis of 2007–2009, corporations targeted homes owned by Black and brown families, often buying foreclosed homes in bulk directly from the government. Former homeowners became renters as Black household wealth, much of it dependent on home values, fell by nearly 50 percent, exacerbating already scandalous racial wealth disparities. (Today, just 44 percent of Black households own their homes, compared with 75 percent of white ones; Black households possess an average net worth of less than $10,000, while white ones have $171,700.)
The same corporations that eagerly received help from the federal government during the pandemic have hardly been as generous with their struggling tenants. Last year, large institutional landlords filed 88 percent of the evictions in our community. This number is no mere abstraction to the people we serve in our clinic. When Donya, a tenant living in a poorly maintained apartment owned by one such corporation, came to court, she showed us photos and videos of rampant mold as well as sewage backing up in the shower and kitchen sinks. Despite numerous maintenance requests, her landlord never responded. They had apparently laid off their entire maintenance staff. After Donya finished explaining all this, she looked up from her papers, gestured over to where the corporation’s attorney and property manager were seated, and said: “But they sure do show up here, don’t they?”
She makes a good point. Since the Reagan era, even as homelessness spiked as a result of Congress’s dramatic slashing of housing benefits, federal dollars once reserved for public housing have increasingly gone to private landlords. The idea was that direct payments and tax breaks would encourage them to provide affordable housing. Today, these subsidies—in the form of Section 8 vouchers and project-based programs—continue to flow not to the low-income people who need them and whom they are ostensibly intended to benefit, but rather to for-profit corporations and other wealthy investors looking to maximize their returns.
Inevitably, at least in the short run, our response to the housing crisis will need to employ policy tools that rely to some degree on the private market. The mechanisms currently in place, though, have proved to be deeply flawed. Take the federal voucher program, in which low-income renters receive vouchers they can use to pay for housing. If a landlord accepts their application, the federal government will pay the difference between market rent and the renter’s contribution, which is capped at 30 percent of the renter’s income. Vouchers are hard to come by: three out of every four eligible families are unable to get them. But even those who do manage to receive them often have a hard time using them, since many private landlords refuse to accept tenants with vouchers. Thus, nearly one in three recipients is ultimately forced to forfeit their benefits. Our client Belinda’s dilemma is a case in point. Though armed with a voucher, she’s currently sleeping on a friend’s floor. If her housing search isn’t successful, she’ll soon lose it.
Programs for increasing the country’s supply of affordable housing by collaborating with for-profit entities are similarly ineffective. For example, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) attempts to coax private companies into building affordable housing by offering a ten-year tax credit, as long as their developments include a certain number of affordable units. But in the end, the affordable units don’t actually go to renters at the bottom of the earnings ladder: less than half of all LIHTC households are classified as extremely low income (defined as making less than 30 percent of area median income). And the promise of affordability can vanish when the tax credits expire after thirty years, at which time many of the formerly “affordable” developments quickly switch to market-rate rents.
Still, there are some clear winners in the LIHTC program. Although many LIHTC developers may themselves be not-for-profit, the tax-credit benefit often leads them to rely on for-profit investors for capital. One major LIHTC investor is the notorious private equity firm Blackstone Group, which also happens to be the country’s largest landlord. Among Blackstone’s many critics is the United Nations’ special rapporteur for housing, who has accused the firm of “wreaking havoc” on the global housing market with its aggressive evictions, inflated rents, and unreasonably high fees for routine maintenance. Yet Blackstone still receives a large share of federal dollars supposedly earmarked for affordable housing.
There is a better path available to us. It is known as “social housing,” grounded in the principle (enshrined in Catholic social teaching, and virtually every other major faith tradition) that housing is not a commodity but a fundamental human right—something that must be available to all, regardless of ability to pay. Small, incremental tweaks to the current system won’t get us there. What’s required instead is a radical shift toward public land acquisition, financing, construction, and operation.
Typically, social housing is owned by the government or nonprofit organizations. This makes it more responsive to democratic control by residents and keeps it protected from the profiteering of the private market. Units are designed to remain affordable for the life of the building—there is no expiration date. Here in the United States, the most common form of social housing is public housing, which uses federal funding and local agency management to provide subsidized units to nearly two million people. (There are currently millions more Americans on waiting lists for such units.) Another form of social housing with a long tradition in the country is what’s known as a community land trust, in which a nonprofit trust retains ownership of the land while residents purchase the houses built upon it. In exchange for a commitment to limit profits on any resale, buyers pay sharply reduced prices for their homes. This ensures that such housing can never become a speculative investment opportunity.
Like public education, public safety, the justice system, and critical infrastructure such as roads, sewers, power, and water, social housing recognizes that the private market cannot be relied upon to supply every essential good. A family’s need for a roof over its head is too important to depend on whether it can scrape together enough money to pay the rent. Social housing sees housing first and foremost as a necessity, not a commodity or a tool for building wealth.
Because social housing isn’t designed to make a profit, it can potentially succeed where the private market has failed. First, social housing is fiscally responsible: when government dollars are put directly toward the cost of affordable housing, instead of being diverted and diluted into private hands, there is more money available for building higher-quality housing for those who really need it. Second, social housing is designed to survive and prosper, in large part because its democratic management structure ensures that the interests of residents and owners are aligned. (Conflicts over maintenance and rent costs are also less likely to occur.) As an added benefit, social housing also helps drive down the cost of market-rate housing in general, as it sets prices well below what for-profit speculators would otherwise pursue.
There is abundant evidence, both internationally and in the United States, that these policies work. Take the case of Finland, which has set itself the goal of fully eradicating homelessness by 2027. If at first glance the target seems outlandish, it’s in fact realistic for Finland, which has been steadily reducing homelessness since 1987. Finland’s success is attributable to its model social-housing program, which fulfills the right to housing guaranteed by the Finnish Constitution with a Housing First approach that immediately places unhoused people into homes.
The affordable housing situation is improving elsewhere in Europe, too. Consider Vienna, which has been ranked as the most livable city in the world for ten consecutive years. That distinction is due in no small part to the fact that nearly 60 percent of its residents live in social housing, keeping rents lower than virtually every other European city. Or look at Berlin, where in 2021 the city’s residents approved a referendum to seize the property of large corporate landlords and convert the apartments to social housing. It is an attractive option in Germany, where strong protections for renters enables such stability that the average tenancy lasts eleven years.
In light of the many struggles public housing in the United States has endured due to underfunding and neglect, it can be easy to forget that it still serves as a lifeline for countless families. Public housing is particularly important for Black and brown families still impacted by generations of housing racism: 43 percent of heads of households in public housing are Black, while 26 percent are Latino. Public housing also assists many older Americans, with over a third of public-housing households headed by someone age sixty-two or older.
There are examples of thriving public housing across the nation, bolstered by residents and advocates fighting to preserve, improve, and expand it. Bronx public-housing resident Ramona Ferreyra, founder of the advocacy group Save Section 9, cites the affordability of public housing as essential to her grandmother’s dignified retirement and to the completion of her own college degree. Alongside Ferreyra, other advocates and lawmakers are campaigning for the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which would fund much-needed repairs and improvements to the public housing relied upon by millions of families. Officials like Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri, who is also an ordained minister, are demonstrating to ensure that the urgent issue of housing insecurity becomes more visible in Washington. In August 2021, Bush slept on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to advocate successfully for an extension of the eviction moratorium. She held a sign stating her simple conviction: “Housing is a Human Right.”
Shifting public opinion in the United States toward a more wholehearted embrace of social housing remains a serious challenge. Fortunately, the country’s different faith communities can help. Most, including the Catholic Church, already support in principle and practice the very kind of reform we need. Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) is one prominent example: the agency is a direct provider of affordable housing, owning and managing more than 37,000 units. But even that impressive work remains inadequate, as the country’s need for affordable housing far outstrips what religious and charitable organizations are able to provide on their own. Curtis Johnson, CCUSA’s vice president of housing strategy, has been blunt about the need for government intervention: “For the common good, we believe that government at all levels has a social responsibility to ensure that persons are adequately housed.”
Johnson’s position is well grounded in both scripture and doctrine. From Jesus’ earthly struggles with homelessness and the parable of the Good Samaritan to the sharing economy created by the earliest Christian communities, the biblical imperatives are clear. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the constitutions issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and the official statement on Catholic social teaching put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops all insist that housing is a human right—a direct challenge and inherent rebuke to many Americans’ ingrained deference to capitalist markets.
Catholics hardly have a monopoly on the issue. Other churches, along with Jewish and Muslim congregations, have been staking out similar positions. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church all embrace the right to housing. Judaism features an abundance of strong calls for a human right to subsistence, including housing. So does Islam.
This is all welcome and good, but it won’t stop the rent from coming due. What will matter most to people like our clients in eviction court aren’t papal encyclicals, human-rights declarations, or well-intentioned statements of belief, noble and beautiful though they may be. Rather, those in need of affordable housing deserve concrete relief from a political and economic system that disdains and exploits them, treating them as mere vehicles for profit and nothing more. Reversing decades of bad housing policy—and dislodging Americans’ faith in the power and supremacy of private markets—will require years of sustained effort in the face of well-funded, entrenched opposition. But neither should we despair. Policy solutions that align well with our deeply held religious and humanitarian convictions are already available to us, right now, in the form of social housing. We must demand that they be made a reality.