The Black Lives Matter uprising is a wakeup call for America. It is an essential reminder of all the ways that systemic racism impacts every aspect of Black life, from police violence to the coronavirus pandemic to the housing crisis. As the poet Audre Lorde says, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” To challenge racism requires more than condemning police violence alone, it requires all of us to support Black communities against the looming housing crisis to come.
Black communities are disproportionately impacted by the economic recession; they are often the hardest hit and the slowest to recover — as we saw with the Great Recession of 2008. Despite the recent report of job gains as the economy reopens, Black unemployment has not improved and is now at 16.8 percent. These numbers, though, fail to capture the generations of Black exclusion from the job market or the racial wage gap. In places like New York City, rampant racial and economic segregation show just how devastating the coronavirus pandemic has been and remains for Black communities.
While the pandemic has resulted in millions of Americans being unable to pay their rents and mortgages, Black communities are particularly vulnerable. The housing crisis is undoubtedly a race issue when Black and Latinx people are disproportionately renters, and therefore they are disproportionately impacted by evictions. To be even more specific, Black women-led households experience some of the highest levels of evictions due to a host of factors related to race and gender, as noted by sociologist Matthew Desmond.
During this pandemic, tenant advocacy groups have highlighted the need to protect tenants through a universal eviction moratorium and canceling rents. As housing advocates like to say “housing is healthcare.” The threat of evictions and the struggles for people who are homeless is a public health issue and it has life and death consequences. This is not hyperbole: Black and Latinx communities suffering from the highest levels of coronavirus deaths, further compounding the devastating realities of this pandemic. There is no way to social distance and self-quarantine if you must go to court to fight an eviction or if you are homeless on the street or residing in an overcrowded shelter.
In response to the outcry and demands for eviction moratorium of the housing justice movement, temporary eviction moratoria were implemented at the city, state, and federal level. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, many of these eviction moratoria are set to expire shortly. In fact, twelve states already ended eviction protections in May. In New York alone, housing advocates predict 50,000 new cases may be filed for nonpayment of rent following expiration of Gov. Cuomo’s eviction moratorium. To return to the eviction business as usual will result in massive evictions and a homelessness crisis on a scale we have never seen before.
Once again, housing advocates are demanding eviction moratoria be extended, along with passing legislation to cancel rents and provide tenants with rental assistance. The movement to cancel rent have been growing since March, and it is beginning to fuse with the Black Lives Matter movement. After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry against the devaluation of Black life all across our society, including in the context of housing and evictions.
The property interests of landlords can be sharply contrasted with the Black and brown communities who face homelessness during this pandemic. Black and Latinx people in America are disproportionately impacted by homelessness. In Los Angeles, Black people make up only 8 percent of the total population but 34 percent of people experiencing homelessness. These disparities are true in other cities as well. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates 57 percent of heads of household in shelters are Black and 32 percent are Latinx in New York. The homelessness crisis is a crisis of criminalization of race and poverty—as police arrest and escalate confrontations with people sleeping on the street, in the subways, or in their car.
Further, The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition has noted how “landlords have used marshals like their personal police force to evict mostly black and brown tenants.” The story of Eleanor Bumpurs highlights the grotesque intersection of evictions and the ugliness of law enforcement. In 1984, Ms. Bumpurs was shot in the chest and killed by New York Police Department officers in her Bronx public housing apartment. The NYPD was called in response to a scheduled eviction for nonpayment of rent. Ms. Bumpurs was a 67-year-old Black woman with a disability.
The only reason to reopen the courts is to resume evictions and to put the profits of landlords over the lives of Black people. Evictions are a form of state violence and are part-and-parcel with systemic racism. The scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has defined racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Evictions destabilize a person’s employment, education, and healthcare. Evictions also subject Black and brown communities to increased exposure to the coronavirus — the same groups already at heightened risk of death from this disease.
When we say Black lives matter, we mean Black lives have to matter against all forms of state violence and all forms of racial inequality. We must demand systemic changes and radically transform our collective priorities, including the looming housing crisis ahead. We need a world that prioritizes Black life above policing, profits, and evictions.
Lisa Edwards is a Black activist and civil legal services attorney for the past three decades, and was a former Civil Vice President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325.
Jared Trujillo is President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325, a union of non-profits in New York that represents lawyers, paralegals, and social workers that focus on criminal defense, immigration, juvenile rights, parent defense, and employment. He is also a Steering Committee member of Decrim NY, an organization that advocates for the decriminalization of sex work and the empowerment of sex workers. Twitter: @JaredTruEsqueer.
Jason Wu is a legal services attorney in New York City, and a trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325. Follow him on Twitter: @CriticalRace.