America's housing crisis is screwing over millions of vulnerable Americans. Congress needs to stop twiddling its thumbs and use its biggest tool to help fight soaring prices.

America's housing crisis is screwing over millions of vulnerable Americans. Congress needs to stop twiddling its thumbs and use its biggest tool to help fight soaring prices.
Housing activists gathering in Massachusetts in October. Michael Dwyer/AP Photo
  • More than 3 million Americans are at risk of eviction when the federal eviction moratorium ends.
  • Classist zoning laws and private deconversions have widened the gap between landlords and low-income tenants.
  • Only by investing in public housing can America truly end its housing crisis.
  • Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer who has worked in the mortgage industry.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Despite a temporary extension by President Biden, the national eviction moratorium is scheduled to end on October 3. It's estimated that 3 million Americans are at risk of eviction when the moratorium finally ends, and even a further extension is only delaying the inevitable. Compounding this problem is the fact that with home prices rising and rental incomes falling, many private landlords are opting to sell their investment properties. This reduces the overall number of rental properties available.

Simply put, the moratorium is just a band-aid on a bleed-out. The pandemic may have spotlighted the precarity of America's renters, but it did not create this crisis. To truly fix America's housing crisis will require us to look at how it began and to completely overhaul how and where we build affordable homes.

Bureaucratic barriers

"Build" is the operative word here. Yet the 2010s was "by far the lowest decade of single family production in the last 60 years," according to the National Association of Homebuilders. Of the homes that have been built, the majority have been high-end "luxury" homes; 2020 alone saw the construction of high-priced homes rise 81% while construction of homes between $100,000 and $250,000 fell by 11%.

Most homes in the United States are owner-occupied. This means when the eviction moratorium ends, tenants who find themselves evicted will be forced to compete for a reduced number of houses. In urban areas, this lack of supply has been exacerbated by classist zoning laws and wealthy individuals turning multi-unit properties into single family residences by combining multiple units.

Across the country, zoning laws prevent multi-family properties from even being built. These laws continue to make low-income and affordable housing difficult to build. By restricting the type of construction that can be built in a specific area, zoning laws mandate everything from the number of units to the number of parking spaces.


While this is a nationwide problem, no state better demonstrates just how bad things have gotten than California. The Golden State is plagued with draconian zoning laws. So cumbersome and absurd are they that Bill Maher does a running gag on his HBO show about how difficult it was for him to simply build a solar shed in his own backyard, something that took more than 1000 days to complete.

This is not an accident. A 1970 environmental law is used by residents and policymakers to exclude affordable housing to increase their own property values. Even if builders do successfully navigate this bureaucratic nightmare, the permits alone cost as much as a quarter of the cost of construction. It's no wonder that the most expensive place in the world to build is San Francisco.

Affordable homes, affordable solutions

Zoning laws are not the only hindrance to new construction, though. Likewise, the dearth of affordable housing is not a problem unique to California. Across the nation, multi-family properties are being turned into single-family dwellings.

Chicago's North Center neighborhood had 774 permits issued for new construction with 754 permits for demolition between 2006 and 2016, according to Chicago's NPR station WBEZ. Primarily a residential neighborhood on the city's leafy North Side, North Center saw a startling number of multi-family, affordable homes deconverted into single-family dwellings.

"Two-, three- and four-flats historically have been an accessible income-producing homeownership opportunity and a key source of lower-cost, family sized housing for renters," Sarah Freishtat wrote for the Chicago Tribune. "Once lost, they are hard to replace with similarly large, affordable units…" This translates into real and staggering numbers: between 2013 and 2019, North Center lost 13.5% of its units, while neighboring Lincoln Park lost more than 15% of its units.


There is an obvious incentive for homeowners to protect the wealth they build through ownership. Similarly, landlords benefit from increased rents and property values coupled with historically low mortgage rates. The policy failure comes from not anticipating this clash of class interests - that of the owning class versus the renting class - and of not adequately addressing it through the public sphere.

Low-income Americans, the most vulnerable to housing insecurity and homelessness, cannot have their fate decided by the whims of the real estate market. The state has a vested interest in ensuring every American has an affordable home, as reducing homelessness is shown to have a direct correlation to decreasing crime rates while quality and stable housing is shown to increase children's educational and emotional wellbeing.

There are solutions to this problem, but they will require Democrats in Washington to spend their political capital. To begin with, Congress can expand Section 8 vouchers to include every eligible American - something President Biden already promised to do on the campaign trail. Landlords have a checkered history of discriminating against Section 8 recipients, though, meaning new laws to protect tenants must simultaneously be introduced. Several jurisdictions have done just that, instituting "source of income laws" protecting Section 8 voucher-holders from being unfairly discriminated against. This should become a federal law to ensure low-income Americans have fair access in the private market.

Clearly, though, the private sector alone cannot address this crisis, nor prevent it from worsening as the pandemic rages on and the moratorium ends. There is an obvious need for more social housing. The government must build more public housing to house the people being frozen out of the private market that shuns them.

To do this will mean ending two decades of public housing prohibition. The Faircloth Amendment was added to the Housing Act of 1937 in the 1990s to prevent any new public housing units from being built. As a result, public housing has stayed at or below the level it was at in 1999. This is despite the US population growing by approximately 54 million people in that amount of time, while a dollar today only buys 61% of what a dollar then bought.


The Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2021 would repeal the Faircloth Amendment and provide $70 billion to repair public housing and $45 billion to build and preserve affordable homes. By repealing the Faircloth Amendment and investing in our public housing infrastructure, we can finally deliver change that is long overdue. Classist zoning laws and the drive for ever greater wealth has literally left millions of low-income Americans out in the cold.

To solve this problem and get people into good homes, America must rethink its approach to housing. We can start by repealing cumbersome zoning laws at the local level and protecting low-income renters at the federal level. Only then can we truly begin to reverse the inequality which has for too long run rampant in our housing market.