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UpFront – March 10, 2021

Western Center’s Director of Policy Advocacy, Mike Herald, was on KPFA radio to discuss Governor Newsom’s March 9th State of the State Address.

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(Interview begins at 9 min 25 seconds)

U.S. and California History Directly Impacts Housing Instability during COVID-19

We are one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the foundation of California’s precarious housing policies are crumbling, leaving a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) with low incomes vulnerable to mass evictions, housing instability, and homelessness.

It’s a sad reality, but not surprising since California’s housing laws and policies were built on a foundation of racism and white supremacy. Colonization and land theft by European settlers led to the devastation and genocide of Native communities, and planted seeds for centuries of racialized housing practices that we still see today. Generations of government sponsored housing segregation and private discrimination keep BIPOC communities in poverty, contribute to the racial wealth gap, and is a direct cause of housing instability for BIPOC communities during this deadly pandemic.

BIPOC communities are the hardest hit by the pandemic, which is partially a result of historic and current political decisions to uphold white supremacy within housing policies. To understand how and why we are facing an immense economic and housing crisis for millions of people within our communities, we must understand and accept that the housing system was sanctioned by the government to keep BIPOC communities segregated. Only then can we begin to heal and work toward a more equitable future.

In 1934, the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration, which is often applauded for making home-ownership accessible to many Americans by guaranteeing home loans. But the FHA explicitly refused to guarantee home loans for Black people or to even insure mortgages in white neighborhoods where Black people were present.[1] The policy ensured that neighborhoods were racially segregated, often to the detriment of Black neighborhoods. If a Black family could afford to purchase a home, exclusionary zoning kept them out of white neighborhoods, forcing them into devalued, low-income neighborhoods. That had a profound impact on Black families’ ability to acquire wealth through homeownership, and in turn prevented them from passing down generational wealth. Black families today have disproportionately less generational wealth than white families, placing them at increased vulnerability for economic crashes and job insecurity as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only did the federal government obstruct homeownership for Black families, but local governments in California, particularly in the Bay Area, also promoted racial segregation, which kept Black Californians in poverty. In the 1940s, the city of Richmond, California, led by the federal government, created racially segregated neighborhoods to accommodate the growing Black population. However, those publicly funded buildings were poorly built and resembled shanties. Communities were also created for white war workers that explicitly forbade any newly constructed homes from being rented to Black people, forcing Black people to rely more and more on public housing, blocking upward financial mobility.[2]

San Francisco, one of the most liberal and forward-thinking cities in the Bay Area, intentionally segregated Black communities by forcing them into public housing in Hunters Point and the Western Addition.[3] These local policies created “ghettos” whereby Black families were forced to remain in “undesirable,” poverty stricken urban neighborhoods. Now those neighborhoods are facing unprecedented attacks, enduring economic devastation from the pandemic and increasing gentrification and displacement from the same developers who undervalued the neighborhoods.

Those racially discriminatory practices did not end, but continue to impact Black communities today. In 2008, many Black neighborhoods were devastated by the financial collapse caused by predatory subprime mortgages.[4] Since many Black families lost their homes and savings, they were thrust into housing instability with little to no financial safety nets. The federal government did not provide support for low-income residents harmed by predatory lending, but instead decided to bail out the predators – the banks. In a particularly appalling move, the federal government sold those foreclosed properties to large private equity firms, rather than non-profit developers or residents, allowing corporate landlords to monopolize the housing market.

Today, corporate landlords use homeownership and “house-flipping” as a way to further concentrate their wealth on the backs of BIPOC communities, causing long-term harm. Due to these policies, our communities have a rational fear that another housing crisis similar to 2008 is coming, which will lead to more corporate ownership of California’s scarce housing stock.

Since BIPOC communities are being sold to corporate owners, many BIPOC people must rent, which also causes housing instability. Housing instability stems from the tangible problem that people simply cannot afford rent. Since 1990, rent prices in California have skyrocketed as wages stay primarily stagnant.  For example, in 1990, the average one-bedroom apartment was $799; today that same one bedroom is $1400.

Studies show that Black renters pay more for housing than white renters for units with similar characteristics in similar neighborhoods, simply because the renter is Black.[5] Additionally, the median income for Black renter households was $32,140, compared to $42,000 for Hispanic renter households, $45,000 for white renter households, and $62,220 for Asian renter households.[6]  In 2018, the California Housing Partnership Corporation found that renters need to make 3.5% the minimum wage, or about $38.54/hour to afford median rents.

Given the high cost of rent, it’s no surprise that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many California tenants struggled to pay rent in an increasingly expensive and hostile housing market. In December 2020, 1.1 million California households were behind on rent, owing an estimated $7.3 Billion in arrears.[7]

The high price of rent is not the only problem when analyzing housing affordability and instability for renters, other costs such as utilities, access to transportation, rental application fees, security deposits, etc. all contribute to unaffordable costs of housing. Approximately 17 million Californians are renters, and 1 in 4 are considered severely housing cost burdened, paying over half of their income on housing prior to the pandemic — Black (59%) and Latinx (57%) households are the most housing cost burdened.

Since BIPOC communities are forced to pay more of their income towards housing costs, their quality of life is deteriorated. Often, our communities are forced to live in substandard conditions, which impacts health and job opportunities. Many people of color live in conditions where they are exposed to mold, lead, pests, and lack basic necessities like heat and running water, resulting in illness and death. Families are forced to pick between paying rent or going to the doctor for basic health needs, which is especially important during a global health crisis. Due to the high cost of housing, some families are forced into overcrowding, which can lead to an increased exposure to infectious diseases. Our communities are forced to deal with a trifecta of crises all highlighted by the pandemic and rooted in racism.

Even though many tenants are housing cost burdened, federal, state and local governments have dramatically cut spending on publicly funded affordable housing. While public housing has a history of racial exclusion and criminalization, it is a critical safety net for people of color with low-incomes because it provides the opportunity for families to pay lower housing costs while maintaining safe and stable housing. Since the 1970s, funding for public or subsidized housing has drastically declined and policy makers have failed to restore it.[8]  Today, California has fewer than 300,000 units of public housing and about 219 public housing projects. It’s no coincidence that there is a lack of funding for public and subsided housing considering that people of color are often those who reside in them.

However, public housing is not without its own history of racism. The War on Drugs is famously known for the criminalization of Black and Latinx communities, and it also had a secondary effect of influencing public housing policies. Beginning with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which sought to terminate the “reign of terror “of criminal activity in public housing communities, HUD authorized grants for public housing authorities to actively investigate and eliminate drug crimes in public housing authorities.[9] A consequence was over-policing, deliberate harassment, and targeting of people of color in public housing communities.

The Cranston-Gonzales Act of 1990 expanded the definition of eviction to “include any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment”.[10] Public housing authorities were also granted the authority and discretion to terminate tenancy if a family member or guest of the tenant was engaging in drug-related criminal activity, regardless of if the family member or guest was under the tenant’s control.[11]

Now, nuisance ordinances are used to further target communities of color.  Citations of minor violations like excessive noise, parking multiple cars in the parking lot, or having items on a patio are used to harass communities of color.  Since those evictions are based on something other than non-payment of rent, tenants are still being evicted during a pandemic because renter protections do not apply to them.

In a broader sense, evictions further compound racial segregation in housing. Evictions systemically target people of color — in San Francisco, 24% of Latinx households and 21% of Black households were threatened with eviction from 2013-2018, compared to only 12% of white households.[12]

In courts across California, you can see the racial disparities. As a former tenants’ attorney in Los Angeles, the majority of my clients who were evicted were Black women and Latinx families, and the landlords were white. This is particularity atrocious considering that most tenants are unrepresented.  Many are left at the mercy of unjust renter protections, an inaccessible and confusing court system, and potential homelessness.

Insufficient legal protections for renters, plus a lack of financial support from the government, plus the preexisting affordable housing crisis and looming economic recession may lead to even more devastating effects on BIPOC renters for generations to come. Lack of financial support and government intervention could also lead to an increased rate of eviction, particularly for BIPOC renters already experiencing cost burdens. The combination of increased rent burdens on top of already high rent will lead to inevitable displacement and homelessness among BIPOC renters.

Despite the history, we have a chance to change our future. To create a more equitable housing system and heal from the past, we must work together to strengthen our housing policies for communities of color, and actively fight against racist and discriminatory policies. As we’ve seen with shelter-in-place orders, housing is literally a matter of life or death. Governments need to ensure that all people have access to safe, stable, and affordable housing.

Second, the pandemic has shown that evictions lead to death, so we must expand renter protections and rent forgiveness, and end discriminatory housing policies. Finally, the voices of communities of color must be central in creating solutions to affordable housing. We need to place decision making power back into communities to assist in planning, administering and creating housing policies that honor and stabilize our communities.

We can use momentum from the unprecedented nature of the COVID pandemic to fix our broken housing policies, the question is, will we?

________________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Richard Rothstein, The Color of the Law A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Sophia Weeden, Black and Hispanic Renters Face the Greatest Threat of Eviction in Pandemic, (2021), https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/blog/black-and-hispanic-renters-face-greatest-threat-eviction-pandemic

[6] Id.

[7] National Equity Atlas (2021), The Coming Wave of COVID-19 Evictions: A Growing Crisis for Families in California, https://nationalequityatlas.org/research/analyses/COVID-19-evictions-california

[8] Amee Chew, Chione Lucina Munoz Flegal, Facing Hisotry, Uprooting Inequality: A Path to Housing Justice in California, (2020) https://www.policylink.org/sites/default/files/pl_report_calif-housing_101420a.pdf

[9] Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, Pub. L. 100-690, 102 Stat. 4181 Ibid. § 5122 (1988). 42 U.S.C. §§ 1190-03 (2012)

[10] Sarah Clinton, Evicting the Innocent: Can the Innocent Tenant Defense Survive a Rucker Preemption Challenge?, 85 B. U. L. Rev. 293, 297 (2005)

[11] See Pub. L. No. 101-625, §. 503, 104 Stat. 4079, 4184-85 (1990); See e.g. Hous. Auth. of Joilet v. Chapman, 780 N.E. 2d. 1106, 1108 (Ill App. Ct. 2002) (holding that public housing residents can be terminated for the criminal conduct of her guest regardless of whether the tenant had control of the guest); See also, Bennington Hous. Auth. v. Bush, 933 A.2d 207, 212-214 (Vt. 2007) (finding that a housing authority can evict an entire family for the misdeeds of one family member).

[12] San Francisco Planning Department, San Francisco Housing Needs and Trends Report, (2018),  https://default.sfplanning.org/publications_reports/Housing-Needs-and-Trends-Report-2018.pdf

Californians with low incomes to receive $600 checks under $9.6-billion COVID-19 economic package

“The state stimulus will provide needed help to the poorest Californians, but more assistance is required, said Courtney McKinney, a spokeswoman for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

“Any money to help people stay afloat is needed right now,” McKinney said, adding that “it’s good news, but there is still much more needed.” In particular, she said, her group is supporting legislation that would provide food assistance regardless of immigration status.”

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California measure aims to pay off 80% of most unpaid rent

“This really sort of puts the ball into the landlords’ court in a way that we’re not quite happy with,” said Cynthia Castillo, policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It does the urgent work of extending the (eviction) moratorium, which we were very concerned about.”

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