Over the course of her first term in Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar has proven herself a fierce advocate for the nation’s vast working class. And her pushes for progressive reforms have been arguably most urgent and forward-thinking when it comes to the country’s ever-growing housing crisis. Back in April, as the COVID-19 pandemic was first beginning to push American social systems to their breaking points, Rep. Omar proposed what some deemed a too-radical piece of legislation calling for the waiving of rent and mortgage payments until the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Co-sponsored by fellow progressive Congresspeople like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act has yet to make its way to a vote in the House Financial Services Committee. Yet, the nationwide eviction crisis the bill was meant to prevent has only drawn closer and more desperate over the past five months. It was just one of Rep. Omar’s big, proposed plans for easing the housing crisis and other social burdens that have plagued Americans since before the pandemic began. 

Though she is coming up on the end of only her first term in Congress, Rep. Omar has established a track record for advocating for progressive reforms. In November 2019, the Congresswoman introduced the Homes for All Act, a sweeping plan and commitment to provide $1 trillion in affordable housing by 2031. Meanwhile, this year, as nationwide Black Lives Matter protests have grown nationwide, Rep. Omar was one of the public leaders that responded meaningfully to calls to hold police departments accountable for brutality and outsized budgets, speaking out in favor of dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department, whose officers killed George Floyd on 25 May this year. She told CNN in June: “It sounds ludicrous to me to have people pour out into the streets asking for the system to be transformed and for us to say, in order for that transformation to happen, we’re just going to give more money to the system without really doing any kind of systematic change.”

We catch up with US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar about housing, the coronavirus pandemic, and her first term in Congress.
A portrait of US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Official courtesy photo)

Because of her progressive stances as well as her intersecting identities — Rep. Omar is Somali-American, a black woman, a Muslim woman, and a refugee — the Congresswoman is often a target for xenophobic, racist, and sexist vitriol from the right. Yet, her continuing pushes to change and improve the American social system—in the face of public threats, fear-mongering, and even presidential bullying—has made her a progressive icon of determination over the course of her two years in Congress. Now up for reelection and just a few months before election day, Rep. Omar spared a few minutes to talk to INSP about the housing crisis and look back on her term. 

Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Tens of millions of Americans are now finding themselves facing a public health crisis and the housing crisis. What will it take for the federal government to meaningfully address housing justice now, and for the future? 

Ilhan Omar: The housing crisis that we’re seeing right now didn’t begin with the coronavirus. There was a housing crisis before COVID-19 hit. This pandemic, it’s not only causing a public health crisis, but it’s causing a financial crisis. And with so many people being unable to pay their rent in April, we’re going to see a catastrophe, really, if we don’t cohesively address the crisis that’s upon us. And so there are policies that I proposed that we can implement that deals with the crisis in itself, which is to cancel rents and mortgages and make sure that people are not only relying on an eviction moratorium that means, once it lapses, people will have to come up with back payment, which we know they’re not going to be able to do when they’ve been out of a job and out of a paycheck for so long. And then in the long term, we’re going to have to address this holistically. Our Homes for All housing guarantee legislation addresses the need that those who are unhoused and housing insecure are having, not just in this moment, but even before the crisis. 

AG: One criticism opponents of the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act have is that it will encourage tenants to claim COVID-19 financial hardship that they haven’t actually experienced. How do you respond to this concern that people will try to game the system? 

IO: So, in Minneapolis, the city put together rent relief for those that were hit the hardest because of the coronavirus. They said that the majority of the people who applied were people who already would have qualified for housing rental assistance, even prior to their challenges in COVID. And so, there are serious needs that people have in our communities that have existed longer than COVID. And I don’t believe that we shouldn’t address those needs, because we are worried about non-existent people without challenges who might ask for these resources. That’s just not the case. There’s no history or data that shows that that’s the kind of thing that happens. 

AG: There’s widespread misunderstanding around what calls to dismantle or defund police departments actually means. What do you think is the thing people most get wrong about calls for dismantling and defunding the police? And what do you think is at the root of that misunderstanding? 

IO: What we are trying to do has never been done. So, the fact that people are confused makes sense. We are trying to create budgets that have proper investment in communities and address the drastic disinvestment from these communities and the overemphasis on policing poverty, criminalizing poverty, the overemphasis of criminalizing mental health and substance abuse. 

And so what the defund campaign is urging policy makers and communities to reckon with is the reality that years of social and economic neglect have brought us to this moment and have made us complacent to the brutality that many of our communities are faced with under systems that are not willing to address their needs. For me, I don’t want people to get lost in this idea that we have to have perfect narratives and perfect messages in order for us to implement change. What we are asking is not to have perfect messaging, it’s to be really courageous in the demand for investment in the things that make our communities whole, in the things that make communities safe, in the things that make our communities feel served. And that’s investment in housing. That’s investment in crime prevention. That’s investment in crime interruption. That’s investment in youth programming. That’s investment in addressing substance abuse. That’s investment in ending our homelessness crises in our cities. That’s investment in healthcare and education. For those that are stuck on whether the messaging is clear or confusing, they’re the ones that don’t want to hear this message anyway because they don’t believe that there needs to be that kind of investment and care for communities that live on the margins of society. 

AG: Coming up on the end of your first term, what would you say your biggest accomplishment has been? 

IO: In the CARES Act, we knew that there was going to be a shutdown of our schools and that the investment in education wasn’t going to capture the plight of many of our children in our schools who struggle with food insecurity, who oftentimes get their meals from a school setting. As someone who knows what real hunger feels like, I wanted to make sure we were able to advocate on behalf of those kids. So, we introduced the MEALS Act, which would provide meals to 22 million children across the country and their families. We were able to pass the MEALS act and have it be part of the CARES act that passed on 27 March. And it’s been implemented last school year and it continues to be implemented. It was not only a big policy undertaking for me, but it was also something that’s close to my heart and a policy that I am personally glad is implemented because I know how many kids are going to be able to have the opportunity to have their bellies fed before their brains are fed.  

In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.

Courtesy of the International Network of Newspapers, at INSP.ngo.