B Livolsi has been threatened with eviction from their Las Vegas apartment four times in the last 18 months because they were unable to pay rent. As a union stagehand for big-time productions and conventions, they were largely forced to get by on unemployment checks when the pandemic all but shuttered the city.
Livolsi, who identifies as trans and nonbinary, lives with their wife, who is both disabled and immunocompromised, which makes getting odd jobs to make ends meet even more difficult.
“I did everything I was supposed to do,” Livolsi told Yahoo News. “We did everything right, and through no fault of our own we now can't afford housing.”
Each time Livolsi has faced eviction, they were bailed out by a federal eviction moratorium that also funded landlords. But they recently learned that their apartment building had been sold and that an October eviction would be final.
“The landlord finally settled on selling the property, so regardless of whether we pay up or not, we have to go,” Livolsi said, adding, “I didn't think I would ever be in this position.”
Millions of Americans like Livolsi are now facing what many are calling a nationwide housing crisis. More than 8 million Americans say they are currently behind on rent, and 6 percent of renters nationwide, or just over 3.5 million people, say they are “likely” or “very likely” to face eviction because of the pandemic, according to data from an August Census Bureau survey.
LGBTQ renters are faring even worse than the general population. About 1 in 5, or 19 percent, of LGBTQ renters are behind on rent, according to an August brief from the Williams Institute. Of that number, nearly half fear they will soon be displaced.
Six states — California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Washington — have temporary protections, but most states do not. Without last-minute legislation, many of America’s most vulnerable citizens will soon face eviction.
Both federal and state bans on evictions were put in place earlier this year to protect tenants who might not have been able to pay rent because of loss of work or other challenges due to COVID-19. But in late August the Supreme Court blocked the federal ban, and some state moratoriums have expired.
“It’s going to be a perfect storm for a lot of folks,” Jordan Dewbre, a staff attorney for BronxWorks, a New York community organization assisting tenants and landlords with emergency rental assistance applications, told CNBC. “We are still in the middle of a pandemic.”
While Democrats have been pushing for additional moratoriums, some Republican lawmakers say the time for that assistance has passed.
“Congress appropriated $47 billion of rental assistance to address this exact problem,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., tweeted last month. “The admin’s time would be better spent dealing with its failure to get money owed to landlords rather than papering over its failures with illegal actions.”
Through July, just $4.7 billion of the $47 billion appropriated by Congress had reached landlords and tenants, according to the Treasury Department, leaving both landlords and state groups who are in charge of disseminating the aid frustrated.
“Getting the funds to landlords has been incredibly slow, and that has impacted those tenants who are truly in need and those landlords who are not getting paid,” Tom Bannon, president of the California Apartment Association, the state’s biggest trade group for landlords, told the New York Times. “We could support a limited short extension, but there has to be a way to get the funds out faster.”
Jerry S. Dickinson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a civil rights attorney representing many low-income tenants in the Pittsburgh region, believes the responsibility of providing adequate housing for Americans falls squarely on the shoulders of the government.
“Congress has enormously broad power to act to address economic problems, like housing and evictions, under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause,” Dickinson told Yahoo News. “There is no doubt that evictions are an economic activity that have a substantial impact on the American housing market and commerce. ... It’s an economic transaction from the day the tenant signs the lease to the day the landlord goes to court to evict.”
A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll supports this notion, showing that Americans remain in favor of a policy that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants who are unable to pay rent during the pandemic.
Forty-three percent of Americans support a policy that would prevent the eviction of tenants under those circumstances, while 32 percent oppose, the survey of 1,605 U.S. adults conducted from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1 showed. Another 26 percent remain unsure.
Additionally, 43 percent of respondents said they feel that affordable housing should be a priority of the Biden administration, nearly 10 points more than the 32 percent who said the minimum wage should be more of a focus.
Sheena Mooney from Washburn, Kan., who was evicted from her home in August, says she understands how devastating life can be when you’re evicted.
“How did this happen?” Mooney told the Kansas Reflector. “How was I able to fall through the cracks and get no help?”
Mooney lost her job at the snack food company Frito-Lay in March 2020 and fell behind on rent shortly afterward. She applied for unemployment but didn’t qualify. Her eviction was later approved between the time the state’s moratorium expired on May 26, 2020, and Gov. Laura Kelly’s eviction ban went into effect on Aug. 27, 2020. Now Mooney lives in a trailer park a few miles outside of Washburn, unsure of how her fortunes turned so quickly.
According to Dickinson, “Congress could do more” to help people like Mooney.
“The eviction moratorium was a necessary and proper exercise of Congress’s commerce power to regulate economic activity,” he said.
Americans working a minimum-wage job cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment in any state in the country, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual “Out of Reach” report. The pandemic has only exacerbated housing issues as low-wage workers have been laid off at higher percentages than other earners and have been more likely to catch COVID-19.
Today the country is nearly 7 million units short of what it needs to meet housing needs nationwide, according to a June National Association of Realtors report. The lack of supply drives up demand, in turn raising rent prices, particularly in the most populated areas.
In New York, for every 100 low-income renters there are just 37 affordable homes, according to data analysis by Vox. In both Texas and California, there are fewer than 30 homes for the same number of renters.
And these challenges have been growing for decades.
For more than 30 years, between 1968 and 2000, the U.S. built an average of about 1.5 million new housing units each year. But for the past 20 years the country has built only 1.23 million new housing units every year, taking into account the Great Recession.
That’s why the National Association of Realtors report calls for a “once-in-a-generation” policy response.
"The state of America's housing stock ... is dire, with a chronic shortage of affordable and available homes [needed to support] the nation's population," the report states. "A severe lack of new construction and prolonged underinvestment [have led] to an acute shortage of available housing ... to the detriment of the health of the public and the economy. The scale of underbuilding and the existing demand-supply gap is enormous ... and will require a major national commitment to build more housing of all types."
In an effort to boost home construction and lower the barriers to entry for first-time home buyers, the White House announced last week that it would leverage its authority over regulators, including the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The changes aim to increase the amount of affordable housing by building and preserving 100,000 affordable homes for buyers and renters over the next three years, according to a press release.
Gene Sperling, a Democratic policy aide in charge of overseeing White House pandemic relief programs under Biden, estimates that about 40 percent of vulnerable tenants in the country are either receiving assistance or temporarily protected from eviction by state and local moratoriums.
Dickinson wants Congress to pass a law to impose a nationwide rent control policy for the duration of the pandemic, in addition to adopting a policy that creates a statutory right to counsel to ensure every person has access to a lawyer in a civil legal proceeding. He adds that Congress can also pass a law prohibiting landlords from discriminating against subsidized tenants on the basis of income, among other reasons.
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., one of the most outspoken politicians on the issue of affordable housing, has drawn on her own experience to push Congress to act on housing. In late July, Bush, alongside Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., slept outside the U.S. Capitol in protest of the end of the eviction moratorium.
“I have been evicted three times myself. I know what it's like to be forced to live in my car with my two children," Bush wrote in a letter to her Democratic colleagues that she later posted to Twitter. "Now that I am a member of Congress, I refuse to stand by while millions of people are vulnerable to experiencing that same trauma that I did."
Bush has also introduced the Unhoused Bill of Rights, legislation that seeks to end the homelessness crisis by 2025 by increasing affordable housing, providing universal housing vouchers and increasing funding to federal housing programs and social services.
While Americans like Livolsi appreciate tweets from politicians like Bush, she’s hoping enough Democrats will sign on and get the bill passed into law.
“This is your job,” Livolsi said. “We voted, and we got you the majority in both the House and Senate and you got the presidency, and now what are you all doing with it? If they want people to show up for them, they have to give people a reason to vote. And it’s hard to vote when you’re homeless.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Spencer Platt/Getty Images, John Moore/Getty Images
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