For many of us, our nation’s housing crisis is all too evident. If we live in a city, we can see proof that nearly 600,000 Americans experience homelessness every year. If we are among the 44 million households who rent, we don’t need to be told that rent prices have skyrocketed in recent years—including an almost 20 percent increase in 2021 alone.
My students and I see the crisis up close in our Indiana law clinic. Each week, we represent tenants facing eviction. The courtrooms where we work are overflowing, a testament to the fact that, along with rents, eviction rates across the country are rising. The latest census reports show nearly eight million households are behind on their rent, which means they are on track to join our clients and tens of thousands of others lining up each day to fight to stay in their homes—or, more often, to learn which day a judge will order them to move.
Twenty-five million people in the United States live in households paying more than half their income on rent, and that spells trouble, too. These families may be meeting all of their financial obligations now, but experience tells us that they may be one broken-down vehicle or unexpected child’s illness away from eviction court. Decades of research show that each eviction causes significant damage not just to a family’s finances, but also to their physical and mental health—particularly the health of the children in these displaced households.
When it comes to housing in the United States, it can be tempting to despair. But we shouldn’t, because we know how to end this crisis.
We know that we can prevent many evictions by making simple changes to the way eviction courts are structured. Currently, these courts overwhelmingly favor the interests of landlords, who often use them as a quick, inexpensive tool to collect more money. There is nothing stopping us from raising the cost of eviction filings. Research from Princeton’s Eviction Lab shows that higher filing fees, even in low-income areas like Alabama, are associated with significantly lower eviction rates. Eviction rates are also low in cities where landlords are required to show “good cause” before putting tenants out and refusing to renew their leases.
We know from the experience of U.S. cities like Houston and Denver, as well as places like Finland, that a “Housing First” approach can effectively address homelessness. Prioritizing a safe, secure roof overhead as a human right, and then addressing other social-service needs, is the most humane way to support those struggling with chronic homelessness. And it works: reducing the number of people who are unhoused interrupts the common path from homelessness to arrest and incarceration.
We know that rent control works, too. Over a hundred U.S. municipalities already have rent-control measures in place. Price regulation doesn’t just stop price gouging on behalf of greedy landlords. It protects renters from losing their homes when rent shocks occur. (In our area, rents have risen more than 30 percent in recent years.) Rent control hardly condemns landlords to penury; usually such laws allow for regular rent increases that often exceed inflation, preserving the Supreme Court’s holding that landlords are entitled to a “fair return” on their investment. Rent control’s long-term presence in some of our nation’s most profitable real estate markets (like New York City, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area) proves that such measures not only protect tenants, but can coexist alongside a robust climate of new construction and housing rehabilitation.
We know that we can overcome gentrification and segregation. When racist housing covenants that segregated our communities were finally ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948, many areas simply replaced them with zoning rules that limited neighborhoods to single-family homes with large lot sizes and parking restrictions. White neighborhoods found that these exclusionary zoning rules had the same effect as the racist rules they replaced: most people of color and nearly all low-income families were effectively barred from the communities. Sociologist Matthew Desmond calls exclusionary zoning “our politer, quieter means of promoting segregation,” and it is fully legal in most areas of the country.
But that can change, as proven by cities like Santa Fe, which adopted inclusionary zoning rules. Such rules blunt the forces of gentrification by ensuring that affordable housing can be built in areas where working-poor families, seniors, and others can access jobs, schools, health care, and public transportation. As with rent control, none of these pro-tenant regulations have slowed the development of new housing: New Jersey, in particular, has proved that housing construction can thrive and even boom in locations where both inclusionary zoning and rent control are the law.
For the millions of families whose incomes are too low to consistently afford market-rate housing, we know that public housing can be a reliable alternative. Examples from across the United States and around the world prove that we are capable of protecting people living with disabilities and low incomes.
For our clients and their families, housing costs are far and away the highest expense in their household. But other income supports like child tax credits, more robust food vouchers, and occasional stimulus checks can help keep these families housed. For evidence of their effectiveness, we need only look at the first years of the pandemic, when the expansion of benefits pushed U.S. poverty rates to the lowest they have been in recorded history—even in the midst of widespread joblessness and illness.
That is the good news. The bad news, as our clients can attest, is that these proven approaches are not the norm across the United States.
Our courts too often operate as collection and displacement factories for the benefit of corporate landlords. Homelessness is effectively criminalized in too many communities. Proposals to expand rent control and invest in public housing are derailed by advertising and lobbying blitzes funded by the private-equity firms making billions in profits on rental housing.
Well-funded NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) forces perpetuate generations of housing segregation by blocking the development of affordable housing in communities where it is desperately needed. Good-cause protection for renters was recently rebuffed in the New York legislature, which just four years ago had passed one of the country’s most ambitious pro-renter housing measures in decades.
We can do better, and we must. The most promising developments are not the islands of progressive reform where effective policies have been passed, but the growing and increasingly vocal tenant movement insisting that these policies be adopted nationwide.
History tells us that social change happens when movements are led by those who are most impacted. So it is exciting to see tenants pushing to the front of the line. The most prominent example is the People’s Action Homes Guarantee campaign, mobilizing tenants across the country under the “Rent Is Too Damn High” banner. They are demanding a tenants’ bill of rights that includes good-cause guarantees and federal action on rent control.
Alongside other housing activists, Homes Guarantee is employing tactics ranging from canvassing to occupying vacant buildings to pushing ballot initiatives. It has already notched some impressive victories. In the 2022 midterm elections, from Kansas City to Portland, Maine, to the entire state of Colorado, ballot measures to both mandate rent control and fund more affordable housing won, often by comfortable margins. As I have previously written for Commonweal, religious communities—including Catholic institutions—are prominent supporters of housing justice. The National Low Income Housing Coalition conducts a “HOUSED” campaign to expand rental assistance to every eligible household and create a national housing-stabilization fund to provide emergency help. The HOUSED campaign is joined by Catholic Charities USA, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the national leadership of the Episcopal and Methodist churches.
After tenants traveled to the White House and Congress to press their demands, President Biden responded in January with a “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights.” The Blueprint was short on tangible guarantees, but it did include a statement of federal commitment to protecting tenants and promised to evaluate expanded regulation. Organizers and tenants have returned to Washington and are going door-to-door in their communities, using Biden’s statement to continue applying pressure.
It should not be controversial to insist that housing is a human right. That right is not a reality here and now, either in the letter of the law or the daily experience of our clients and millions of others. But we know how to change that. Visionary tenants’ groups and their leaders are showing us the way. We need to make sure our elected officials listen.