A Last-Minute Reprieve for the Homeless…for Now

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Things looked bad for renters on July 31. The rent moratorium had expired, so millions faced eviction and homelessness. The number of vagabonds, already 500,000, was set to balloon. So what did our brave representatives in the House do? They went on summer vacation. Did the president demand they remain in the capital until they solved this problem? Until they prevented this drift toward social murder? He did not. And what were local Dems and Republicans across the country busy doing? Arresting homeless people in huge numbers, just to make sure the luckless souls about to be evicted knew what awaited them. And what about the Republican free-market fanatics on capitol hill? Well, you can guess where they stood: if those families can’t pay rent, that’s their problem, and they better not pitch their tents in any affluent districts – that’s the GOP view. In other words, on this life and death matter for millions of Americans, there was no daylight between the dismal Dems and the Republican reptiles. Both had washed their hands of these unfortunate tenants and headed to their summer homes.

Then at the eleventh hour – no, actually later, after the moratorium lapsed – Biden blinked. Then he backtracked. On August 3, he directed the CDC to reinstate the moratorium until October 3, thus sparing 90 percent of the affected tenants. (The 10 percent who will get booted out, well, we don’t talk about them.) Rent forgiveness would be superior to a moratorium, but at least this extension staves off a lot of misery. And boy is there a lot of misery in the U.S.

Renters aren’t the only ones risking a crash landing on the pavement. Over 2 million homeowners are behind on their mortgage payments. Add that to the 2 million who would have lost their protection from the moratorium and you have a lot of people sleeping under overpasses. That is now postponed, thanks to the CDC, which cannot be blessed enough for its wonderfully helpful and creative move, issuing the moratorium in September for health reasons related to the pandemic. But, as USA Today announced on July 30 – a view widely and wrongly accepted – the supreme court supposedly made it clear the moratorium “wouldn’t be extended beyond the end of July without congressional action.” This was Biden’s excuse for inaction. It was false. In fact, this SCOTUS ukase came in Brett Kavanaugh’s nonbinding concurrence, so convenient for politicos, who claimed it tied their hands. It didn’t. Why not? Well, according to the People’s Policy Project, “we have 5 [SCOTUS] judges who have ruled that the CDC can do eviction moratoriums…” Kavanaugh’s comments are nonbinding dicta.

The People’s Policy Project argues that Kavanaugh is “signaling” that if the CDC extends the moratorium without an act of congress, and then someone sues, he will change his vote. So even if extending the CDC moratorium causes another court case and then a SCOTUS reversal, “the process of getting to that point takes a long time, during which the eviction moratorium will be in effect.” When he about-faced, Biden essentially cited this argument. Why he had to wait until evictions actually started is the inscrutable tergiversation of a president stumbling smack into the iron tyranny of capital. In this case, real estate capital.

Clearly Biden cringed at ignoring the wishes of the property developer class, including those that finance them, and his first instinct was not to offend these bigwigs. But then there was the obstreperous left-wing of his party, throwing fits about this catastrophe, haranguing him and embarrassing him quite publicly, and there were the terrible optics of ejecting parents and children from their homes, jettisoning playpens and baby cribs onto the curb – no self-preserving politico could fail to see the dangers of being blamed for that.

Meanwhile CNBC reported on May 31 that “more than 11 million Americans are behind on their rent.” Add them to the aforementioned 4 million and we’re looking at a lot of folks sleeping under the stars. “Around 15 percent of adult renters are not current on their on their housing payments,” according to CNBC, while “the country’s massive rental arrears…could be as high as $70 billion.” Back in May, states still had not disbursed all of the $45 billion in rental assistance okayed by congress. “We need to let this moratorium stay in place until we spend this money,” tenant attorney Mark Melton told CNBC. Well, it almost didn’t.

Logically you’d think that landlords, as well as tenants, would want that bailout cash. But many don’t. Reports abound of landlords reluctant to receive this money: many would rather evict and jack up the rent. Little do they care that a tenant with an eviction on their record will have trouble signing a new lease.

Black, older and low-income renters are more seriously underwater than others, according to the CNBC report, which argues that those living paycheck to paycheck before covid struck are most at risk. Alarmingly, before the moratorium extension, 550,000 people over age 55 expected “to be evicted within the next two months.” Quite the way to spend your sunset years – sleeping on park benches and washing up in the local McDonald’s bathroom.

In short, we in the U.S. have a problem, namely the savagery of our economic system. It’s supposedly free-market – which would be bad enough – but it’s not, not even close. It’s socialism for the few very rich people who own the economy. Those billionaires and their corporations indenture students to the tune of nearly $2 trillion. They deprive millions of adequate medical care, simply by pricing it out of their reach. They pay starvation wages. They charge astronomical rents. They have bought and paid for the congress, the white house and all other politicians, to ensure this savagery never lets up. And they will now, as of October, render vagabondage the norm for lots of current tenants. People lose their homes and live in their cars. The unlucky ones sleep on sidewalks, lose their jobs, for obvious reasons – can you imagine trying to look presentable for work after a night tossing and turning on the sidewalk? – lose their miserable pay and wind up diving into dumpsters for dinner.

On August 2, right before his deer-in-the-headlights reversal, Biden, suddenly mindful of the looming tsunami of destitution and, you might as well say it, the deaths that living on the street causes, called on states and localities to cope with this problem. The same states and localities busy arresting people for sleeping in public. The New York Times reported that the white house urged states to “speed up disbursements of billions in bottled up rental aid, while pleading with local governments to immediately enact their own extensions.”

This was disingenuous on the part of our president. If Biden had seriously intended to thwart these evictions once and for all, he would have told Nancy Pelosi to keep the House in session until there was a bill for him to sign. But he didn’t, so she didn’t, and next he was trying to deflect criticism by turning the spotlight on states. In the end he had the fundamental decency to reverse himself, though not to resolve this predicament afflicting multitudes, because the shadow of dispossession still looms. Come October 3, it will engulf millions. When it does, you may be sure Biden will do what he did August 2: He will point his finger at localities for a problem he very well could have solved, and one he knows even better they have no intention of coping with in any way besides stealing the tents of the destitute and then arresting them. Meanwhile more families will be tossed out on the street. The lucky kids will get to sleep in the car, because that, folks, is American capitalism.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.