The eviction moratorium is a useful lesson in how reforms actually happen

Ray Valentine describes how collective disruption “outside the political process” won tenants significant concessions.

It didn’t make a lot of headlines, but in the recent stimulus and government funding deal, Congress extended what is probably the most significant federal housing policy in a generation: the nationwide eviction moratorium. We should study how it came to be, because it illustrates how working class people successfully influence public policy through collective action outside the political process.

Originally implemented by the CDC in September, the moratorium is obviously imperfect in a number of ways: it is clearly designed to be narrowly targeted at “deserving” tenants and to compel people to pay what they can, its reach is limited because in practice it has to be implemented by local judges and sheriffs actually responsible for carrying out evictions, and ultimately it’s a temporary measure that won’t do anything about all the rent that millions of tenants owe. People are definitely being evicted despite the ban. Still, the moratorium has protected millions of people, and it is striking to see such far-reaching intervention by the federal government in private market relations, especially if we compare it to the rest of the federal response to the pandemic or to the recent past of housing policy.

Over the summer and into the fall, activists, academics, and journalists warned of an oncoming tsunami of evictions, as people slipped through the cracks of dysfunctional state unemployment systems, benefits expired, and emergency state and local protections expired. The Aspen Institute estimated 30-40 million people might be at risk of losing their homes. It was right to sound the alarm, but in the end, evictions appear to have fallen significantly in 2020 compared to previous years. Comprehensive figures are hard to come by, but Princeton University’s Eviction Lab has been tracking court filings in 27 cities during the pandemic and in all of them, landlords have sued fewer tenants than they normally do. Even as the enhanced unemployment benefits keeping many people afloat expired over the summer and nearly eight million Americans fell into poverty, eviction filings have remained lower than they have been in recent years. This is no small thing.   

This is not normal

Is this so strange? You could argue that halting evictions during a global pandemic is an obviously necessary emergency public health measure, and you’d be right. Evictions appear to spread COVID-19, so suspending them seems like an obvious precaution. But the obviousness of the policy makes it more remarkable in a way. Let’s compare treatment of tenants and workers: the same administration that enacted the moratorium has also been fighting to allow poultry plants to speed up their lines during the pandemic as evidence piled up that infections were raging out of control as a result. In general, the federal government has taken a laissez-faire attitude towards employers during the pandemic, with devastating consequences for workers’ health and safety. But they could not countenance the eviction crisis apparently. 

The moratorium also stands in stark contrast to federal handling of the foreclosure crisis a decade ago. Roughly 10 million people lost their homes in the course of the subprime mortgage crisis, even as the banks that were foreclosing on them depended on public bailouts. Presidents Obama and Bush probably could have avoided costly political defeats for their parties by rescuing homeowners, but they declined to. Rather than blanket protections against foreclosure, the Obama administration created a complicated, voluntary program to encourage banks to re-negotiate delinquent mortgages, which they largely declined to do unless it was profitable for them. And these were homeowners, who can usually count on much more generous treatment from public authorities than renters can. And yet, tenants received unprecedented protections under Trump, while homeowners were left in the cold by the Obama administration. What can account for the difference?

An uptick in collective action

In 2020, tenants who lost their jobs in the pandemic did something that homeowners caught up in the subprime mortgage crisis mostly did not do: they fought back. Although calls for “rent strike 2020” originated among weird online grifters, the last ten months really did see an uptick in collective action by renters. Actual organized rent strikes broke out in a number of cities, as tenants who had lost their jobs refused the pay and demanded that their landlords forgive the rent. The LA Tenant Union’s slogan “food not rent” eloquently captured the situation: people refused to make painful sacrifices to keep paying their landlord and decided to take care of their families instead. Over the summer, protests against eviction shut down courthouses in Richmond, Boston, New Orleans, and Kansas City, homeless families squatted in vacant homes in LA and Philadelphia, and crowds stopped illegal evictions in Brooklyn and suburban Maryland. These moments were uncommonly militant, rare examples of actual direct action rather than dramatized lobbying from the street that activists agree to call direct action. 

I have been organizing around housing issues in one form or other for most of the past decade, and tenants’ attitude toward the crisis this summer was truly remarkable. Stomp Out Slumlords, a tenant organizing group I am involved with in Washington, DC has organized rent strikes in a dozen properties since the beginning of the pandemic, with around 500 people continuing to participate. There were a few rent strikes in the city in recent years, but 2020 saw a dramatic escalation and we believe it’s the most serious wave of tenant militancy in the city since the 1970s, when rent control and DC’s unique tenant purchase laws were won. It’s a stark contrast with the experience of an anti-foreclosure activist group I participated in the wake of the Occupy movement. I spent much of 2011 and 2012 knocking on the doors of people facing foreclosure and encouraging them to fight back. Back then, big majorities of people we talked to seemed resigned to their fate and didn’t want to cause any trouble. This year, tenants I have spoken to have a strong sense that the crisis isn’t their fault and have proved willing to fight in comparatively huge numbers.  

The success of the tenant movement was probably inseparable from the broader anti-police rebellion that was unfolding. For many tenants, the connections between racist police violence, evictions, slum conditions, and the unequal experience of the pandemic were clear, and the outbreak of the protests strengthened their resolve to fight. People had seen it was possible to push back against the police and become used to street clashes, and were becoming more defiant of authority. Protesters could escalate knowing that police repression might invite even bigger protests and even riots.  A patchwork of state and local eviction bans started to lapse just as the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were starting to quiet down, and in such a context it was not hard to imagine that resuming evictions could provoke serious unrest. Evictions always come with plenty of police brutality, and they would have been a dangerous provocation at the end of a hot summer. It is highly suggestive that eviction filings have fallen further in the Twin Cities, where George Floyd was murdered, than anywhere else in the country, and that the Minnesota government has adopted the most comprehensive anti-eviction policies of any state in the country, according to the Eviction Lab

Where policy comes from

No one really demanded an eviction moratorium. Left-wing tenant activists called for rent to be cancelled and argued about whether landlords should be compensated or not. Meanwhile, liberal policy wonks as well as much of the real-estate industry wanted rental assistance. But the path of least institutional resistance led towards blocking eviction: the preferred solutions of advocates on all sides would have required congress to strike a deal to spend money, always a delicate and uncertain process in recent times, while the CDC plausibly had the authority to intervene in time to head off escalating confrontations. The real estate industry cried that the moratorium would ruin them economically by denying them the means to collect rent, forcing them to subsidize tenants. But they did not succeed in creating enough political pressure to reverse the policy. Eventually Congress did include $25 billion in rent relief (of about $70 billion renters owe) in the most recent stimulus bill, but only after landlords were deprived of their most reliable tool for squeezing their tenants for four months. 

It remains to be seen if the state will prevent the great wave of evictions or just delay it. Millions of tenants will still owe a lot of rent after the $25 billion has been distributed. It’s possible that the Biden administration will keep the moratorium in place and that the Democratic-controlled Congress will pass more money for relief. It’s also possible they will do nothing, like the Democrat-controlled congress and Biden’s old boss did in 2009 and 2010. States, counties, and cities will be able to offer tenants additional protections or keep the eviction machine churning along. They could use rental assistance funds as leverage to get landlords to forgive some back rent, as the DC government recently did, or attach other conditions to strengthen tenants’ rights, or they could find creative ways to spend those funds on the prison system, like Pennsylvania legislators did.

The path that policy takes from here probably depends on what tenants do or do not do. So far the places with the strongest anti-eviction policies are hot spots of tenant organizing, like Washington, DC and New York, or for riots, like Minneapolis, Washington, and Oregon. Although eviction moratoriums have never been the stated goal of the far left, they may prove to be an important “non-reformist reform” that signals the efficacy of protest and gives tenants the security they need to keep organizing over the medium term and win further concessions. 

The eviction moratorium represents a useful lesson about how reforms actually happen. Normally, reforms represent the desperate efforts of elites to defuse escalating social crises, especially politically and economically disruptive protests. The patient efforts of the advocates of reform to change the narrative and shift the Overton window and build a coalition and win over progressive legislative champions proved largely irrelevant. Such was also the case with all major social policies of the 20th century, social security and collective bargaining and civil rights legislation and the modern welfare state were all rushed through during exceptional periods of escalating strikes, protests, and riots. This time around, activists were hardly irrelevant, but we influenced the process by mobilizing tenants and stirring up unrest, not by articulating specific demands and then persuading policymakers to implement them. The new generation of autonomous tenant unions are tiny in the grand scheme of things, but punched above their weight by committing to disruptive direct action at an opportune moment and won something really significant. If we want to win more, we have a blueprint for how we need to do it. 

Ray Valentine is a member of Stomp Out Slumlords, DC DSA’s tenant organizing program.