Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, eviction and forced moves were among the leading causes of homelessness in the United States — and Philadelphia, with eviction filings impacting nearly one in 14 renters each year. While many have stated that the pandemic exposed or “laid bare” inequity and broad system failures, these inequities have always been plain, raw, bare for anyone who wanted to see them. Policymakers’ conscious decision not to prioritize housing stability and affordable housing is at least partly to blame for why the virus has severely deepened inequities, especially for Black and brown families. Since the pandemic began in Philadelphia in March, through January, landlords have filed to evict more than 3,000 families. Many of the areas with the highest COVID-19 prevalence are also majority Black communities experiencing high eviction rates.
Housing exclusion and instability are racial in nature, sewn into the very fabric of our institutions, policies, and value systems. Today, more than 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968′s prohibition against housing discrimination, exploitive real estate practices and the deep inequities flowing from them are not historical artifacts. These practices, particularly for renters, keep showing up. They appear in the form of Realtors and property managers showing Black renters fewer options in neighborhoods cut off from adequate transportation, grocery stores, or green space. They appear as exclusionary zoning practices that discourage density or affordable, multifamily buildings in wealthier, whiter areas. They also take the form of tenants with housing choice vouchers being barred from renting in higher-income neighborhoods and facing other forms of income discrimination.
The timeline from 1968 to 2021 reflects a society designed to systematically leave Black families and other marginalized and vulnerable people behind. In this chapter of Black history, Black renters have been effectively locked out of the future. Under constant threat of displacement from their homes, and often occupied with planning how to financially survive the next day, week, or month, Black families are often left unable to dream about and plan for the future.
That has to change as we seek to recover as a planet and country from a reality-altering pandemic. Our society prioritizes homeownership as a pathway to wealth building first and housing stability second, treating renting like a less worthy step toward the ultimate dream of homeownership. A 2017 Pew Research Center report showed that, although more U.S. households are renting than they have since 1965, one of renters’ top goals was still purchasing a home.
It is time to break the assumption that stable housing and financial stability require traditional homeownership, which has its roots in — and has reinforced — systemic racism. The racially restrictive covenants that prevented property owners from selling homes to Black people and other people of color also locked them out of affordable, habitable homes on rental markets. As Black people were driven further into segregation in neglected and crowded housing, rentals became associated with poverty, blight, transiency, and lower property values. Such rhetoric is still present and embedded in Philadelphia’s “city of homeowners” values, baked into exclusionary zoning and NIMBYism that hinder affordable housing.
Conversely, what Blacks lost, white people gained via a long history of affirmative action that created uneven access to accumulated wealth, passed on between generations via housing. The future calls for reprioritizing our values to emphasize intergenerational housing stability and health and eliminate the debt that keeps Black families forever running to catch up on the timeline of progress. Families can build wealth, access education, and avoid poverty when they aren’t being pushed out of their communities through eviction, redevelopment, rising rents, and property taxes — when their communities are invested in before they get pushed out and the neighborhood gentrified.
If we have any hopes of fundamentally breaking away from patterns of the past and rupturing the inadequate present, the future can no longer be envisioned in the interests of one group at the expense of another. It can no longer be constructed or led by a bootstraps narrative of personal responsibility and self-determination that treats only some as deserving a roof over their heads. Our measure of progress must rely on how much we can transform our values to make homelessness intolerable and obsolete, providing equitable housing access across race, gender, age, ability, and sexuality as indispensable to our humanity.
Philadelphia’s communities need housing policies and models that include everyone, unapologetically prioritizing youth, Black people and other people of color, the formerly incarcerated, survivors of violence, women, seniors, LGBTQ, nonbinary, and trans people, disabled people, immigrants, and others who are disproportionately evicted or impacted by housing instability. At the individual level, that means considering one thing you can do in the next six months, such as learning more about how and why housing instability disproportionately impacts these groups, donating to or joining organizations that assist them, or calling on your local elected officials to support policies that create housing opportunities.
On the broader level, stakeholders — impacted tenants, neighbors, government officials, landlords, advocates, and the private sector — have to determine how we build and implement housing models that allow everyone the stability to dream about and pursue bold futures.
Rasheedah Phillips is a queer housing attorney, parent, interdisciplinary artist, and Black Futurist cultural producer whose writing has appeared in Keywords for Radicals, Temple Political and Civil Right Journal, the Funambulist Magazine, Recess Arts, and more.