A protest in New York calling for an extension of eviction moratoriums and a cancellation of rent.

On the Eviction Crisis: This is Dire

Editor’s note: 

At the time this piece was written, no decision had been made on whether or not the eviction moratorium would lapse or remain in place. On 8/4, US President Joe Biden bowed to popular pressure and directed the CDC to extend the federal eviction moratorium until October 3. However, it is important to note that the new measure is more restrictive than the first as the updated terms defined a “covered person” as someone who:

  • has used best efforts to obtain all available governmental assistance for rent or housing
  • has earned no more than $99,000, or $198,000 if filing jointly in 2020 and expects to earn less than that in 2021
  • is unable to pay the full rent or make a full housing payment due to substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a layoff, or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • would likely be rendered homeless by eviction
  • resides in a US county experiencing “substantial” or “high” rates of community transmission levels of SARS-CoV-2 as defined by the CDC

While the moratorium is in theory being “lifted”, millions of people weren’t covered by the last CDC eviction moratorium that had much fewer restrictions. The specific restriction that measures eligibility on a county by county basis is largely reflective of a culture of “means testing” that is virtually meaningless in a country where the development of the virus is ramping up and evolving every day. Why not just cancel the rent? This largely does not read as a victory for working class Africans in america, therefore, we have moved to publish the piece in full as it’s urgency is still relevant. 

This is dire. The continued failure to cancel rent payments in the pandemic on Biden’s watch means people will die, families will be separated, and the carceral system will act to claim both parents and children. How? Families with small children are more likely to be behind on their rent, especially Black families. The moratorium did not eliminate rent payments but simply halted them, meaning those families will now have to pay impossible sums or face eviction from landlords who have been chomping at the bit for this moment to present itself. When families are evicted–forced into being unhoused or transitionally housed i.e… living in cars or shelters or finding an available couch or room here and there–the chances of children having contact with the juvenile carceral system skyrockets as does contact with the family regulation system (aka child welfare). As we know, approx. 53% of Black children have at least one child welfare visit before they are 18. The state, under the guise of knowing and doing what is best for children (the doctrine of parens patrie), is ever watchful of Black families and in particular Black femmes, ready to penalize them for raced and classed determinations of negligence and take their children. A friend once told me her colleague found a Black mother negligent because she had three children sleeping in one room and on another occasion for clothes being visible on the floor. If you are part of a Black family, you know this is the norm whether via sleepovers or sharing limited space with an abundant family. However, classist and racist criteria for what makes a parent “negligent,” particularly when that parent is Black and femme, means Black parents are punished for cultural norms and societal shortcomings. After all, having less than you need is a direct consequence of living in a failed capitalist state where profit demands a perpetually downtrodden underclass and racial capitalism dictates that underclass is (and will) inevitably be Black, Brown, poor, femme, disabled, undocumented, queer, etc…

When the federal eviction moratorium and state moratoriums alongside it lift, we will see Black and Brown families unhoused in a time where having a safe place to shelter–whether from the escalating climate crisis, the emerging and deadly strains of COVID-19, or being Black in a country where Blackness is punishable by death–is key. This will lead to harm and death on its own. And because the family regulation system (child welfare) will see the loss of homes (likely coupled with prior financial/job loss) as a personal and not societal failing, those classist and racist determinations of negligence mentioned above will be made which will see Black children forcibly removed from their homes at a time when so much is already up in the air. Because of what we know from studying these systems and because we know evictions escalate the contact children and families have with both the family regulation and juvenile carceral systems, which cause near irreparable harm to vulnerable children and bereft parents, we will see a wave of family separations at the hands of morally bankrupt systems who will operate as they have been.

On the adult side, and even for youth, because this country criminalizes poverty–makes punishable by the law those actions necessary to survive when poor in a country of plenty like stealing, sex work in some cases (heavy on the in some cases), sleeping outside in increasingly unbearable conditions and even the simple act of being unhoused–we will see contact with the adult systems also escalate. And for individuals incarcerated in certain jurisdictions who may have managed to keep their children in the home, 27 states permit the termination of parental rights following incarceration for a felony offense or prolonged period. For context, in NY and many other states, stealing more than $1,000 is a felony. And a quick scan of other poverty offenses will reveal a whole host of other asinine “crimes” that will result in obscene charges and sentences not to mention the financial cost of incarceration which must be paid by the incarcerated or their family—most often Black femmes via “fines and fees.”

In short, by failing to officially cancel rent, Biden continues to sentence youth and families to potentially irreversible separation via the family regulation system as well as the carceral system where COVID is flourishing and close conditions as well as poorly ventilated facilities, a lack of hygienic materials, and guards who come and go each day acting as transmitters, will make catching COVID nearly inevitable. All while leaving vulnerable families without a safe place to shelter in the middle of multiple crises. This is a vile relegation of vulnerable community members to predictable and preventable horrors, and we all see it coming. This lapse is a morally unfounded and appalling show of cowardice and exhibits profound indifference to human life and suffering. However you organize, do that. However you resist, do that. However you show up or would like to show up for your community or communities to which you owe support, now is the time. Make plans to oppose this in whatever way moves you and if (when?) governments fail to respond, plan for that too.

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Jindu Obiofuma

Jindu Obiofuma is an attorney and abolitionist walking in the ever-unfolding spirit of abolition democracy. She works as a researcher at the Columbia Justice Lab in support of eliminating youth incarceration and divesting from carceral approaches to youth altogether.
Prior to joining the Lab in 2020, Jindu began her career at Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program where she contributed research to projects related to e-carceration, bail, pretrial detention, criminal court debt, emerging adult justice, and racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Jindu holds a juris doctor from Columbia Law School where she founded the Prison Healthcare Initiative, interned at the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, served as a Staff Editor for the Columbia Human Rights Law Review’s Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual and worked as a Teaching Fellow at the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. She also holds a BA in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis.

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