The author of Evicted says: “Pandemic brings new mission to ensure housing for everyone”

Following the widespread shutdowns caused by the coronavirus, the national conversation around eviction has changed.

Nearly 50 million Americans rent their home, and with unemployment claims surging past 30 million, the need to protect renters and prevent further homelessness is finding renewed urgency under the pall of a pandemic.

But tenant protection isn’t that simple.

Matthew Desmond, best-selling author of Evicted, is working with his colleagues in the Eviction Lab at Princeton University to track eviction moratoriums, utility cutoff bans and other renter protections. And they’ve found that not all states are created equal.

Matthew Desmond, best-selling author of Evicted and lead investigator at The Eviction Lab (courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation)

The federal government responded to this new eviction crisis with part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which became effective 27 March and included a six-month moratorium on evictions.

While many states have passed statewide legislation to prevent evictions for a month or more, many other states are a patchwork of conflicting federal and local eviction moratoriums.

And even within states whose protections are widespread, the question remains of what will happen to renters after the measures are lifted and renters are required to pay a massive backlog of rent.

Street Roots spoke with Desmond about these questions and about what the future of housing and eviction reform might look like.

Street Roots: With COVID-19, the housing crisis is brought into a new light. We’re hearing about rent freezes and moratoria on evictions, and we’re seeing more than ever how vulnerable our unhoused communities are. What is the pandemic teaching us about the state of affordable housing in our country?

Matthew Desmond: COVID-19 hit the United States in a moment when the country was experiencing the worst housing crisis it has seen in a century.

The pandemic has brought to light how close so many Americans are to missing a rent payment and being evicted. For millions of those families, the housing market wasn’t working before the pandemic and it certainly is not working within the pandemic.

If we organize our society around a housing market that, with only one month of lockdown, fails us, maybe we should rethink some basic things.

The Eviction Lab is one of many organizations that is advocating for housing reform. Can you tell us about some of the emergency housing policies and actions that are in progress and how they can inform long-term structural change?

When the pandemic started breaking out, states started rolling out eviction moratoriums. The media coverage of those moratoriums was fairly rosy and positive.

Our team started looking into these documents, and that meant literally scouring thousands of legislative acts, and what we found is that there are some states, like Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, Minnesota, that have developed pretty strong renter protections. These protections include anything from stopping the eviction initiation to making sure utility companies can’t shut off your gas and lights during this time of mass joblessness to thinking about supports that extend people’s tenancy throughout the crisis and beyond.

But there are a significant number of states that tens of millions of renters are living in that have rolled out very few protections. And many of those states are actually rolling back the initial protections that they had rolled out in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

For example, North Dakota has struck its moratorium and allowed eviction court to be held virtually, by phone or by Zoom. So that means the court is recognizing that this social distance is important for public safety, but it does not seem to be extending that concern to families that will be displaced.

What opportunities for long-term reform can emerge from our response to the pandemic? What specific outcomes are you hoping to see?

I don’t know, to be honest. I’m listening hard to the debate that’s going on. It’s a hard question to answer really because this is a once-in-a-century crisis, which means it’s a once-in-a-century opportunity for real structural change.

So what do you ask for when given that opportunity? How big do you dream when given that opportunity?

There are groups out there saying this is a real chance to get the federal government more involved in the lives of renters, to expand housing choice vouchers — not just to the lucky minority that receive them, but to a lot more people. Maybe even everyone that qualifies! That’s something I’ve advocated for and would advocate for now.

And there are people saying that individuals who are evicted during this time need and deserve a lawyer for eviction court. And they should be provided one! That’s something I’ve also advocated for.

And then there are groups that are advocating for different things, like for mortgages to be put on hold and for rents to be canceled during this time. Otherwise we’re going to have this giant backlog that’s coming down the pike.

So I’m doing a lot of listening.

I’m trying to question who gets to decide what’s realistic. I think whatever happens, let’s hope we come out of this with a deeper recognition of the sanctity of home and how essential it is to all of us.

You say you’re doing a lot of listening. Whose voices are you trying to echo and amplify during this time?

I’m in a moment in my thinking where I’m trying to listen across the board.

I wear a lot of different hats. Sometimes I have my researcher hat on and I’m trying to use the tools of my discipline to come up with morally urgent statements about the world that are hard won. Sometimes I have my advocacy hat on when I try to push policy.

And sometimes I have my journalist hat on, and I feel like in this moment, that’s the hat I’m wearing.

I’m listening to tenant advocacy groups, to landlord groups, to groups in Washington that are walking very closely with policy makers, beyond housing even. I’m really interested in what the labor movement is doing and what anti-poverty advocates in general are advocating for.

I feel like the pain of this moment also comes with a deep moral responsibility to ask, is this going to be in vain for us? Are we going to come out of this the same? Will the only thing to show for it be a death count and poverty?

Or are we going to come out of it renewed and with a deeper commitment to fairness, justice and equality. I want to come out of it like that.

In a normal time, I would have clear answers to these questions. But this isn’t a normal time, and I’m not sure if the moment deserves clear answers. I think the moment deserves some real soul searching about the state of the nation before this happened and the state of the nation after.

Do you think the pandemic response will change how the public views the need for affordable housing and eviction regulation?

I do. When it started, I didn’t. But it has lasted longer than I think many of us thought, and there’s no economist that I know of that thinks this is going to be a quick recession. I think we’re in for something much more traumatic for workers out there.

The story of making rent and facing eviction has been a major story of this crisis. So I think this elevates in the public narrative a problem that a lot of Americans thought about month in and month out in normal times.

It gives us a renewed mission and purpose to affirm ways to make sure that each person in this country has a safe and affordable place to live.

What can people do to support the movement?

At the local level, there are people in each community serving homeless folks and trying to prevent evictions right now.

I built a website years ago to amplify those community organizations. For folks looking to pitch in with time or resources, or for folks facing homelessness or evictions, they can go to the website The traffic to that website has ballooned since the crisis hit. And that’s sad because it’s telling us that people are looking for help.

At the federal level there are a lot of important things happening. There was a joint House and Senate bill proposed that would provide $100 billion for rent relief, which would be such a necessary intervention. So folks can help at the federal level by calling your senator and your congresspeople and lending your voice to that bill.

What are you hearing in your own community? What are the stories that people are sharing?

For the folks I know that live below the poverty line, it’s been really brutal. It’s basic questions of survival.

For folks I know that are working poor, they are often still working, and one of the lies that I hope is put to rest in this crisis is the idea that people get paid what they should in the economy.

Tell that to the home health aide who is considered an essential worker and is one of the only lifelines to elderly patients in their homes right now. I connected with a home health aide I know the other day, and she said, “I’m just trying to be brave.” And that’s what she’s doing every day, just going out and trying to support her family.

And then I think we’re seeing something interesting and potentially fruitful: Many Americans who never had to rely on safety nets are now relying on them and often responding in ways that they’ve been socialized to respond, with shame and embarrassment.

And that’s just wrong.

This is an opportunity for us to reframe what is means to be in a position where you rely on the government. We catch each other, which means we invest in a civilization, a community. If you’re out of work, that’s OK because we’ve got you! We’ve got this thing called unemployment insurance.

I think the welfare state in America has been denigrated since we invented it. So this is an important opportunity to put that to rest.

This is an opportunity to think of freedom as more than the opportunity to work and the opportunity to consume.

We should have the freedom to live without this deep insecurity, an insecurity which is part of American life below most income levels.

This article was originally published in Street Roots, Portland’s street newspaper. Courtesy of