As recently as 2016, few people would have listed “evictions” high on the list of America’s political and social problems, maybe not even in the Top 100. That started to change with the publication of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted, by the Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, who chronicled a hidden crisis in low-income neighborhoods like the north side of Milwaukee, where he based his reporting.

Desmond chronicled cruel scenes like the eviction of one Latina woman and her three children and her “look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours.” The book created momentum for action in other cities like Philadelphia, where one in every 14 renters faced an eviction notice in 2017. The city did enact a 2019 law that offered some protection for month-to-month tenants against some evictions, but the initial proposal was watered down after fierce opposition from landlords.

But today a hidden virus is accomplishing — at least for now — what political activism could not. From coast to coast, government officials and business leaders are racing to halt evictions, utility shutoffs and other punitive measures that typically target the poor. That’s a recognition that such devastating actions seem harsh right when the pandemic is beginning to cripple the economy, yet it seems to also beg the question of why throwing mothers and children out on the street wasn’t seen as cruel in everyday America.

“This public health emergency is becoming an economic emergency, not just for the most vulnerable but for huge swatches of the American people,” Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym told me on Tuesday. Gym has sponsored a resolution calling for a city moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs, amid her concern that the Trump administration is more focused on bailouts for big businesses like oil companies or cruise lines.

City Councilmember Helen Gym speaks outside of City Hall during a press conference in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. The Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW) marched in support of stronger labor enforcement in city government.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
City Councilmember Helen Gym speaks outside of City Hall during a press conference in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. The Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW) marched in support of stronger labor enforcement in city government.

“People shouldn’t lose or be forced out of their home because of the spread of COVID-19,” California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom declared on Monday, in announcing an executive order halting foreclosures and evictions and seeking the same for utility shutoffs in America’s most populous state. Something similar is happening piecemeal in Philadelphia, where for now the municipal courts have stopped executing eviction orders for two weeks; the Philadelphia Housing Authority also suspended evictions, while Philadelphia Gas Works and the city water department halted shutoffs.

It’s hard to adjust to so many changes in American life in just the last week since the coronavirus crisis deepened — the loss of sports, movie theaters and bars, the deserted streets and people working from home, if they can — but one of most remarkable things has been the temporary collapse of the sometimes suffocating web of rules and regulations, not to mention low crimes and misdemeanors, that have defined life for the poor and increasingly the working class.

In a groundbreaking piece published last weekend by Slate, writer Dan Kois focused on the rash of sudden policy changes in the face of the pandemic and whether many of the rules in our day-to-day life suddenly look ridiculous, or at least unnecessary. He focused, for example, on how the Transportation Security Administration suddenly relaxed its longstanding ban on carry-on liquids to let passengers travel with 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer — and yet no one is seriously worried about the plane getting blown up.

While noting some of the other post-coronavirus moves like the federal government waiving interest on student debt, or carriers like AT&T suddenly dropping their broadband data caps, Kois notes: “All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest. Whenever the government or a corporation benevolently withdraws some punitive threat because of the coronavirus, it’s a signal that there was never any good reason for that threat to exist in the first place.”

The article is simply headlined: “America is a sham.” That’s a harsh judgement, and in a moment when citizens are seeking ways to come together and promote unity it may not be the message that some folks want to hear. But the question raised by the piece is a serious one: If a kinder, gentler America is really possible — in a moment of clarity when we can blame the struggles of marginalized people on outside forces — then can we keep that clarity, and look at ways to be less draconian, whenever this crisis has finally passed?

We’re already seeing this debate in the criminal-justice system, where a slow-motion and sometimes bitterly opposed reform movement aimed at curbing mass incarceration has suddenly been turbo-charged by the need to not put potential inmates in crowded jails where coronavirus might spread more quickly.

A number of prosecutors’ offices and courts are looking closely at issues such as stopping misdemeanor arrests and when to impose bail. That includes Philadelphia, where the charging chief for reform-minded district attorney Larry Krasner said in a memo that prosecutors should only make specific bail requests in serious matters such as gun and domestic violence cases. The push is coming even though just days ago police unions and their allies in politics and the tabloid media in New York State were having a mass freak-out over mild, common-sense bail reforms.

Say this much for the coronavirus crisis: It has altered our predictably gridlocked political world to a place where many if not all things suddenly seem possible — even if enough distrust remains that nothing is guaranteed, either.

Alise Way is battling with her landlord over an eviction case and fears the visits to the courthouse because of coronavirus. She is fighting cancer at this time with radiation. Her parakeets are named Banana and Bebe.
Steve Ringman / MCT
Alise Way is battling with her landlord over an eviction case and fears the visits to the courthouse because of coronavirus. She is fighting cancer at this time with radiation. Her parakeets are named Banana and Bebe.

Consider the once radical notion of universal basic income, or UBI — a guaranteed check for all adults from the federal government. The idea of a monthly payout of $1,000, with no red tape or means testing, fueled the rise of formerly obscure ex-presidential candidate Andrew Yang but was poo-pooed by the serious pundits...before the pandemic. This week, Sen. Mitt Romney of 47-percent-are-moochers fame stunned the body politic by proposing the government send that $1,000 check, at least this month, and other leaders are also proposing people-centered bailouts that might actually pass muster with the Yang Gang.

Gym told me that one of her hopes for dealing with the crisis is that policymakers have learned from the mistakes of the 2008 economic crisis — when government quickly bailed out banks but did little for the average folks facing foreclosures — and construct packages that direct aid to the working people who need it most. “If we’re not taking about economic security for everyday Americans,” she said, “then we’re not talking about economic security.”

Regarding the punitive web of evictions, shutoffs and jail stints that have enveloped America’s needy, no one is suggesting that coronavirus means emptying the jails, or creating scenarios where Silicon Valley whiz kids can stiff their landlord knowing there’ll be no consequences. Civilization will always need rules. But at the same time — just as officials in cities such as New York largely ended stop-and-frisk and saw crime rates actually drop — I can’t help but wonder if seeing that more humane policies on matters such as evicting tenants or turning off the heat didn’t cause the sky to fall will bolster the case for permanent change.

Maybe all of America isn’t “a sham,” but the nickel-and-diming of the nation’s poor has been a damn disgrace for decades. It’s ironic that an invisible virus is suddenly forcing not just better-off folks but our tunnel-vision policymakers start to finally see the people who work two or three jobs cleaning hospital beds or driving an Uber or slinging burgers and who make our economy go, even as they struggle just to cover the rent. When this thing is finally over, imagine a world where the new normal is actually better than before.