Ever since Faith Plank’s family was evicted from North Fork mobile home park in Morehead, Kentucky in March, the 17-year-old has been balancing school and work to help her mom afford the $825 increase in rent at their new apartment.
In late September, the teenager’s packed schedule grew to include another pressure-filled event: she chaired a meeting with the White House about pandemic evictions as part of a tenant delegation in Washington.
Faith’s visit to the capital wasn’t just a personal milestone. It also reflects the seismic shift in how elected leaders, and the public, understand access to housing and the rights of people to stay in their homes during a pandemic.
The tenant delegation’s visit coincided with the debate in Congress over a $3.5tn infrastructure bill which includes a $327bn investment in affordable housing, a sum not seen in the US for generations.
Covid-19 and the resulting employment crisis highlighted just how many people are living on the edge. The Eviction Lab estimated the federal eviction moratorium which began in September last year staved off an estimated 1.55m evictions through July.
Housing experts are now watching and waiting to see what happens since the supreme court ended the moratorium in late August.
In early September, nearly 3.3 million people told the Census Bureau they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to be evicted from their homes in the next two months. And more than 5.7 million renters said they were “not at all confident” about being able to pay the next month’s rent.
The tenant delegation spoke to federal officials on behalf of these families, sharing their own stories and demanding better renter protections, including a new eviction moratorium.
The tenants also appeared at a press conference with Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and Representative Cori Bush, of Missouri, where the legislators introduced the Keeping Renters Safe Act. The bill would give the health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the power to implement an eviction moratorium to respond to public health crises.
“This pandemic isn’t over, and we have to do everything we can to protect renters from the harm and trauma of needless eviction, which upends the lives of those struggling to get back on their feet,” Warren said.
The tenant delegation was brought together by People’s Action, a progressive political advocacy group. Tara Raghuveer, homes guarantee campaign director at the organization, said: “I don’t think the tenant movement has ever been in position in the history of this country to demand and then get a meeting with that set of players in the White House.”
Raghuveer said one immediate success from the meetings was that the treasury department agreed to regular, formal meetings with tenants about the emergency rental assistance program, which has set aside $46.55bn to help landlords and renters. The treasury department said that as of August, less than $8bn of that money had been distributed, meaning renters who could be protected from eviction with the funding might be forced out of their homes because of administrative delays.
“Since the beginning of the Biden administration, the treasury has engaged tenant advocacy groups as part of our broader effort to ensure the Emergency Rental Assistance program serves as many vulnerable renters as possible,” a treasury department spokesperson said. “We are committed to continuing that engagement going forward.”
Some states are struggling to distribute the money more than others: at the end of August, 18 states had spent less than 10% of the money allocated to them, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). The organization is tracking the spending using government data and its own assessment of state and provider data.
Sarah Gallagher is the lead of the NLIHC project to ensure rental assistance reaches the people most in need, End Rental Arrears to Stop Evictions (Erase).
Gallagher said a host of factors have contributed to the delayed dispersal of money, including the basic lack of infrastructure to support such a large investment in housing.
There are also hold-ups because some program administrators are not adopting processes the treasury department recommended to make it easier to distribute the money, such as allowing people to self-declare they have a hardship from the pandemic, instead of requiring them to prove it with documents. And because of the way the government determines how much money each state should get, some states with lower renter populations have more money than they can distribute.
The NLIHC is also advocating for the housing infrastructure funding in the Democrats’ reconciliation bill. The money would be used to expand rental assistance, improve housing affordability for low-income individuals through vouchers and provide communities with funding to create affordable housing.
“It’s groundbreaking,” Gallagher said. “This is an opportunity in the housing world we haven’t seen before and that could really change the future for affordable housing for millions.”
Meanwhile, Faith Plank is reminded each school day of what brought her to Washington, when she drives her 11-year-old sister to class and they pass the construction site where their mobile home used to be.
Normally, Faith waits to cry until after she’s dropped her sister off, but at the school parking lot on a recent Thursday, she couldn’t hold it together when her sister looked at her and said: “I miss it.”
“I immediately just took her in my arms and we just sat there and cried for a good ten minutes before going into school,” Faith said. “It’s been six months since we were evicted and our neighborhood is gone, but those repercussions will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”