Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an order that would prevent evictions for most renters through the end of the year. This order responds to tenant advocacy groups’ calls for eviction moratoriums and comes amid stalled congressional negotiations over an extension of the Cares Act. In July, more than one-quarter of people in the United States either could not or feared they would not be able to pay their rent. The order will help stop these tenants from facing evictions.
But tenants will still be responsible for back payment of rents, which many will find difficult to make, particularly given the high rates of unemployment and the expiration of the extra federal unemployment benefits. The order does nothing to address the root cause of this eviction crisis — a half century of federal retrenchment from providing low-income housing and the rejection of traditional multifamily public housing as a viable and effectual anti-poverty program. Very low-income Americans have been left at the mercy of landlords and private rental companies and covid-19 has exposed the consequences.
Public housing always had flaws. Its placement often worsened racial and economic segregation, separating low-income, disproportionately African American tenant families from centers of economic and political activity, public transportation, jobs and more. Yet, residents — and some politicians — offered alternative visions for what it could be. By the late 1960s, many public housing residents envisioned fully funded public housing in which residents played a decisive role in decision-making, rents stayed affordable and the housing itself would be augmented by initiatives designed to help people out of poverty including job training, day cares, health centers and more.
In 1969, public housing tenants in St. Louis organized a rent strike that brought the St. Louis Housing Authority to the brink of bankruptcy and forced Congress to pass legislation capping tenant rents at 25 percent of their incomes. Leaders of the St. Louis rent strike — many of whom were women — embraced a mixture of what they called “Woman Power,” which borrowed greatly from Black Power while rejecting some of its masculinist underpinnings, and welfare rights advocacy. They ended up constructing something best labeled tenant power, in which tenants’ grass roots activism drove housing policy and shaped the lived experience of public housing.
Yet, over the following decades, politicians and governmental agencies institutionalized and co-opted the ideas of power to the people without pursuing structural change.
Rather than recognizing tenants’ power and enabling community control, politicians’ focus became the “empowerment” of individual tenants through the increasingly popular political ideas of personal responsibility or self-sufficiency. In practical terms, this shift — which also permeated education, health care and welfare policies — resulted in Democratic and Republican politicians alike touting empowerment as a key policy goal for public housing reform but seeing it as something that they had no responsibility for facilitating. Instead, they could withdraw resources from public housing under the auspices of helping residents to gain self-sufficiency.