Dear National Lawyers Guild Members,
We are living through an extraordinary moment, one of sadness, disorientation, and dread. Yet much of this emergency is man-made. Our system was already in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrown into relief its immense inequality and the injustice of profiting off of basic human needs like healthcare or shelter.
Recognizing Housing as a Human Right
Human rights must be at the forefront of our response to COVID-19. Like healthcare, housing is a human right, not a privilege, which cannot be rationed and must be afforded to all. Yet millions of people were, and still are, without housing, despite the millions more vacant homes or short-term rentals owned by speculators and the urgent public health need for housing for all. Many more people live in substandard or unaffordable housing, creating an eviction crisis in the United States that threatens to become an avalanche as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Mobilizing Around Housing Justice
A movement is growing to demand housing as a human right, not a commodity. Activists who are homeless or precariously housed are occupying vacant properties. Tenants all over the United States and the world are organizing for the suspension of rent for the duration of the crisis (and beyond) and, in some cases, organizing mass rent strikes. These movements are strengthening as all levels of government have failed systematically to protect people from the pandemic and are instead propping up an exploitative financial system. Government actions all but ensure that people who are poor, unhoused, precariously housed, incarcerated, people of color, immigrants, indigenous people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ will continue to bear the brunt of this man-made emergency.
As radical lawyers, law students, and legal workers, we must support these movements of people most directly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and their calls to decommodify housing and provide housing for all. The National Lawyers Guild Preamble states that “Human rights and the rights of ecosystems shall be held more sacred than property interests.” Our fidelity to human rights over property interests means that we must swiftly respond in support of movements for housing justice, particularly in the context of a global emergency that has systematically placed wealth and profitability above the individual health and well-being of people within our communities. This is a human crisis, and people, not property, must be protected. We have a historic opportunity to support the movements struggling to transform our society into one that meets all of our needs, humanely, equitably, and with dignity.
The COVID-19 Crisis Is Also a Housing Crisis
America’s housing crisis is a major obstacle to mobilizing an effective response to the pandemic. In 2006 epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, who worked with WHO to eradicate smallpox, described the ideal pandemic response as requiring early detection and early response. The United States now represents 20% of COVID-19 cases while having the fastest growth rate of new cases, with a 68% growth rate in new cases over the last three days. The lackluster initial response, along with disinformation, have enflamed the threat of COVID-19, placing additional strain onto systems that were already ill-suited to meet people’s needs.
Commodified Housing Exacerbates the Pandemic Spread
Because our society treats housing as a commodity and as an elective, not a human right or a basic necessity, millions of Americans were already without homes, precariously housed, or severely rent burdened. Incomes over the last three decades have stagnated across the economy, and more people lack the ability to cover the increasing costs associated with living. At the same time, housing costs have increased substantially, in no small part due to speculative investment in real estate by hedge funds, private equity, and the ultra-wealthy and intensifying gentrification in many cities. Nearly 50% of renter households are now cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their gross monthly income on housing. Millions of Americans are unhoused or precariously housed, yet the country is short more than seven million units of affordable or public housing to meet the needs of just extremely low-income renters (despite millions of vacant homes, short-term rentals, and second homes). Over the past decade, there were nearly ten million foreclosures and millions more formal and informal evictions, causing many to cycle in and out of houselessness, a crisis that has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities.
The COVID-19 emergency will only worsen this housing crisis. Unemployment is sky-rocketing, and a majority of working class people in the United States lack the savings to cover a personal financial emergency of $400, far less than the average monthly rent. Rents and mortgages are coming due, and even more people are at risk of eviction, foreclosure, and losing their housing.
This widespread poverty, houselessness, and housing insecurity will exacerbate our ability to effectively respond to the pandemic, increasing the spread of the virus among those most vulnerable to serious infections who also systematically lack access to healthcare. The COVID-19 virus has most severely sickened those with underlying health conditions and the elderly (some of whom have a 1 in 7 mortality rate). Approximately half of people who are homeless are 50 or older, and they have higher rates of underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to serious COVID-19 infection, meaning they will be especially hard hit.
Housing insecurity and houselessness also increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and make treatment more difficult. Crowded shelters with communal sleeping areas make it impossible to maintain social distance, let alone self-quarantine, endangering all residents and especially those who are immuno-compromised. The response of many local governments has been to move shelter beds slightly further apart, which does not eliminate the inherent unsafety of homeless shelters in this pandemic.
Rather than providing suitable housing and healthcare, many local governments continue their long-standing policy of criminalizing homelessness and activities necessary for human survival. Governments have failed to provide even basic sanitation facilities or bathrooms, despite the importance of hand-washing to prevent COVID-19, making it more challenging for people without housing to follow public health guidelines. Despite CDC guidance recommending that encampments remain in place and that local governments provide services, such as bathrooms and handwashing facilities, cities continue to sweep encampments, dispersing often tight-knit communities that are best-equipped to look after each other in this crisis. These sweeps have disrupted people’s connections with their healthcare providers and increased likely social contacts and the potential spread of the virus.
Many of the working class people who are housing insecure are also at a higher risk of exposure. These include healthcare workers, who are disproportionately women, immigrants, and people of color, as well as the low-wage workers who continue to work in retail, service, and delivery industries like grocery stores and Amazon warehouses without safety equipment or access to sick leave.
There is an immediate public health need to ensure that all people who have housing retain their housing during the pandemic, regardless of their ability to pay the rent or mortgage. But beyond the immediate crisis, because of the widespread loss of income among tenants and homeowners already struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, we will soon be faced with a barrage of evictions and foreclosures likely far greater than the crises of the past.
NLG Members’ Response to the Call for Housing
National Lawyers Guild members should support the call for housing for all, both in this time of crisis and beyond. We should be prepared to meet the legal needs of the housing rights movement and the broader community of people who are unhoused or precariously housed. These needs are likely to change as the pandemic continues and as the movement to decommodify housing grows stronger.
We must defend people occupying vacant homes and living in hotels or encampments and fight to bring people inside
People need safe, stable housing to survive COVID-19. Housing protects people’s health, enables them to practice social distancing and frequent hand-washing, and ensures they can self-quarantine if necessary. But authorities are instead using the pandemic as a pretext for breaking up encampments; unlawfully seizing possessions, including tents and personal property; excluding people who are homeless from adequate shelter that already exists within the community; and trying to force people who lack housing out of their communities altogether. Legal help is already urgently needed to defend people who live in hotels, vacant homes, or encampments who are at imminent risk of eviction or arrest during the COVID-19 emergency.
We must support those tenants and homeowners organizing to suspend rent, mortgage, and utility payments
Tenants and tenants organizing movements also need our support. Eviction and foreclosure moratoria are a patchwork; many moratoria are incomplete, and all are only temporary. In many places, tenants are still being served with notices to quit, eviction lawsuits, or even put out by the authorities, creating the risk that they will become homeless at a time when staying home is a public health imperative. We need to push for stronger moratoria and fight to keep people in their homes right now, but we also can’t stop there.
We were already in the midst of an eviction crisis, but millions more across the United States will be unable to pay their rent or mortgage for April and likely far beyond as the economic impact of the pandemic grows. For working people, we are likely facing an economic recession as bad as, if not worse than, the 2008 recession, which resulted in nearly 10 million foreclosures and millions more evictions. When eviction and foreclosure moratoria end, there will be an overwhelming number of filings and few options for the majority who cannot pay up.
Right now, housing rights movements are organizing for the suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments for the duration of the public health crisis and the recovery period. Some are calling for a rent strike and organizing their buildings to withhold rent in solidarity with those who can no longer afford to pay. Guild members are supporting these organizing campaigns in many communities, and there is more work to be done across the country.
Now is the Time to Act
Many National Lawyers Guild members have skills to share in solidarity with these housing justice movements and with people who are unhoused or precariously housed, even if they are not housing lawyers. We must stand with the people who are most vulnerable and most directly impacted by this global pandemic, who are struggling for access to basic needs like water, shelter, and healthcare and to preserve their connections to their communities. We must also stand with those who are fighting against the economic and racial exploitation at the core of our current housing system. These movements help us see the possibility of a better future in the midst of this wreckage, one where housing is a human right and a public good.
NLG members may join the Housing and Homelessness Committee at nlg.org/join, and/or learn more by contacting the chairs, Sarah White (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Anthony Prince (email@example.com).
National Lawyers Guild Housing and Homelessness Committee
 See, e.g., “‘Housing is Health:’ Calls Grow for California to Give Vacant Homes to Unhoused People Amid Pandemic,” Democracy Now, March 30, 2020, available at https://www.democracynow.org/2020/3/30/california_homelessness; Dana Goodyear, “The Coronavirus Spurs a Movement of People Reclaiming Vacant Homes,” New Yorker, March 28, 2020, available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/california-chronicles/the-coronavirus-spurs-a-movement-of-people-reclaiming-vacant-homes (both accessed March 31, 2020)
 See, e.g., Aida Chavez, “Millions of People Will Struggle to Pay Rent in April, but Few in Congress Care,” The Intercept, March 27, 2020, available at https://theintercept.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-rent-suspension-evictions-bill-payments/?comments=1 (accessed March 31, 2020).
 Dr. Larry Brilliant, “My Wish: Help Me Stop Pandemics,” TED, Feb. 2006, available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/larry_brilliant_my_wish_help_me_stop_pandemics?language=en
 Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) available at https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (last accessed March 30, 2020).
 Francesco T., Covidgraph.com, Johns Hopkins CSSE (accessed March 30, 2020). The preceding three day period on March 27, had a 91% growth rate in cases over the three day period.
 See Federal Reserve, Distributional Financial Accounts, “Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989,” available at: https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/chart/.
 See National Low Income Housing Coalition, “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes”, available at https://reports.nlihc.org/sites/default/files/gap/Gap-Report_2020.pdf (last accessed March 31, 2020).
 See Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018,” available at https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2018-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201905.pdf (accessed March 31, 2020).
 See Interim Guidance, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) among People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/unsheltered-homelessness.html (last accessed March 30, 2020)