Renters in the United States have had limited protection from eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic through a combination of federal law passed by Congress in emergency relief bills, and through emergency eviction moratoria declared by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
This patchwork of protections collapsed on Saturday, as House members fled the U.S. Capitol, heading to their homes to begin their long August recess. Most members, that is. Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri wasn't going anywhere.
As a formerly unhoused single mother herself, she decided to protest the expiration of the latest eviction moratorium by camping out on the Capitol steps. She was joined by other House progressives including Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, along with scores of supporters.
By Tuesday, amidst mounting pressure from their protest, the Biden administration extended the CDC's eviction moratorium for two additional months.
"I could not walk away from this situation and go on vacation, recess, knowing that millions of people could end up on the streets," Representative Bush said on the Democracy Now! news hour, speaking from her protest on the Capitol steps.
She was moved, she said, "to make sure that between 7 to 11 million people don't end up forced out of their homes," because "lawmakers, our government, the levels of government with some jurisdiction with this crisis, chose not to do anything."
Banning evictions during a pandemic makes perfect sense. Those experiencing homelessness are often forced into what the CDC calls "congregate settings" where the coronavirus can spread like wildfire.
Eviction bans have been paired with emergency rental assistance funds in the COVID-19 relief bills, so that landlords can expect some rent even from tenants who are out of work. Of the $47 billion in rental assistance appropriated by Congress, however, only $3 billion have actually been disbursed.
Blame is being passed around for the haphazard rental relief program. Congress blames the White House for only giving them two days to pass a new eviction moratorium.
The White House says its hands are tied, pointing to a late June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, "clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation) would be necessary for the CDC to extend the moratorium."
Republicans blame the Biden administration for failing to disburse the funds, but the bipartisan bills that allocated the $47 billion in rent relief largely delegate the details of the programs to the individual states.
Progressive Democrats lay the failure to pass an eviction moratorium in part on so-called "moderate" Democrats who, they say, are protecting the interests of large property owners.
After The Daily Poster reported that billionaire Biden backer Grant Marcus, a real estate tycoon, donated $1 million to the House Majority PAC, which raises money to help Democrats get elected to Congress, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit called on members to return any donations from Marcus.
As Cori Bush's Capitol steps encampment continued, pressure to take action mounted on the White House. On Tuesday, the CDC issued a new, modified eviction moratorium, targeting the 90 per cent of U.S. counties with high COVID-19 infection rates.
"I am an activist. I'm an organizer," Rep. Bush said.
"I got my start in activism after Michael Brown's murder in Ferguson in 2014. We protested more than 400 days. We've protested for years against injustices related to police brutality and more, and even the housing crisis. There was no way that I can do that work at home in St. Louis and then come here and see an atrocity taking place, that I have a hand in, and just sit by and let it go."
As a seasoned activist, Bush knows that merely responding to crises is not enough. Three days before the eviction moratorium was set to expire, she introduced House Resolution 568.
"The Unhoused Bill of Rights lays out civil rights protections," Bush explained. "What dignity looks like for our unhoused neighbours…The rights of every person who's experiencing homelessness should be protected. They should have the same dignity as anyone who is housed."
The Alabama and Georgia affiliates of the National Association of Realtors have already filed a motion in federal court seeking to overturn the CDC's new eviction moratorium. Meanwhile, coronavirus delta variant infections are exploding across the country, pushing hospitals beyond capacity. More than 99 per cent of recent COVID-19 deaths have occurred in the unvaccinated population.
The ongoing pandemic only highlights what activists like Congressmember Cori Bush have known all along: both housing and health care are human rights, and until all of us are protected, none of us is safe.
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!
Image credit: Miki Jourdan/Flickr
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