As the COVID crisis sickened or killed millions of Americans, it also pushed many of the most vulnerable citizens out of work and into economic desperation. Renters who saw their jobs disappear or hours cut have faced eviction and the health consequences of becoming homeless during a pandemic. After much debate, and what some activists see as foot dragging, the Biden administration finally extended the eviction moratorium this week, meaning that more Americans will be able to stay in their homes. One of the people responsible for turning up the heat on the eviction issue is Julián Castro. He’s the former mayor of San Antonio, the former housing and urban development secretary, and a 2020 presidential candidate. He’s now the host of the Our America podcast. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Castro about the eviction crisis and why progressives are demanding stronger presidential action on issues like housing and voting rights. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: What are your thoughts about the extension of the eviction moratorium? Does the language include everything you hoped for? Do you think it’s too late? What do you think of the decision that came down from the administration this week?
Julián Castro: Well, it’s definitely a positive step. What the Biden administration has done is basically say, OK, look, we’re not going to extend a nationwide eviction moratorium through the CDC. Instead, what we’re going to do is say where you have COVID hot spots, places where the delta variant especially is surging, now the eviction moratorium will apply there. They say that that covers about 90 percent of Americans. Look, that’s a very positive step. Do I wish that it covered everybody? Yeah, I do, because there are a lot of people –those other 10 percent of Americans, in places where COVID is not necessarily surging– but where we could see a quick uptick within a matter of days or a week or so. But either way, still a lot of people that are facing eviction, no matter where they are, in a time when a lot of people are still recovering economically because of the pandemic, quite separate and apart from the situation on the ground with COVID right now. Ninety percent of Americans is a lot of Americans. I wish we could get to all of the Americans, so there is some still unfinished business.
One of the things that is probably strange to a lot of observers is it seemed like for a long time, there was almost this circular firing squad. The Biden administration said, “Yeah, Congress needs to do it,” and Congress is like, “Well, actually the Biden administration needs to do it,” and then someone’s like, “Well, actually it’s the CDC’s job.” Were you frustrated seeing for weeks, and at some levels months, multiple federal agencies all claiming that they couldn’t do anything about this problem?
Yeah, it was crazy. I mean, you had, as you say, the administration pointing their finger at Congress, them pointing their finger back. Within the administration, the word was, well, it’s really the CDC’s decision, but the president is asking them to go back and rethink what they’re doing. There was a lot of back and forth. In the meantime, you know that what we’re talking about is a policy that affects a lot of the most vulnerable Americans out there, people that are already living on the edge, people that in fact are more likely to have experienced COVID or have a family member that does, more vulnerable in general in our health care system, our education system, our employment system, and so the stakes were very high. This was a rare, for this administration I think, dropping of the ball early on.
Now, to their credit, they have come back, and as I said, it’s a very, very positive thing they’ve done, the amended moratorium, but it shouldn’t have taken all the way until the day before or two days before the eviction moratorium was going to expire for them to make a push with Congress to say, “Hey, look, this really should be extended,” and in the meantime, really to extend it themselves the way they have. It never should have lapsed in the first place.
What exactly does the eviction moratorium do? Does it just mean, “Hey, if I haven’t paid my rent, I have a couple more months to do it? Do I just have to pay a percentage of my rent?” What does it do if you are a property owner? If you’re a property owner and your tenants aren’t paying rent, is there any sort of protection for you? What are the actual mechanics of how an eviction moratorium works?
The CDC put an eviction moratorium in place under the auspices of public health, that because of these unique circumstances with that COVID-19 pandemic, in order to protect the public health, it made sense not to have people thrown out into the street, basically evicted. The moratorium itself, you can think of it like cover. It basically provides cover and says, “Look, you’re not going to be kicked out of your home, your apartment.”
It addresses renters. Homeowners are a different story. If they have a mortgage, there were protections that were put in place through the FHA and FHFA and through people working with their banks that essentially allowed for forbearance for people that have a mortgage. Here, with the eviction moratorium, we’re talking specifically about renters. It provided cover. It provided a blanket and said you cannot actually evict somebody from this point in time until this point in time. The CDC had extended that eviction moratorium three times previously based on the conditions in our country with COVID-19, the fact that we still weren’t over this pandemic completely, and now there’s a fourth extension, although it looks different from the other ones because it’s not a fully nationwide extension.
It’s important that the other side of the equation is, in the meantime, that Congress allocated $47 billion of rental assistance for renters to be able to avail themselves of funds, people who were behind on rent. And by one count, we had about $23 billion of back rent, with the average renter owing $3,800 in back rent, just to give you a sense of how dire the circumstance is for a lot of people. $3,800 for most people, I mean, they do not have it. You might as well ask them for a million dollars.
These funds that were granted out to the states and from the states into localities were meant to provide a bridge so that people would have the resources they need. The problem has been that only about 7 percent of those funds have actually been allocated. In many ways, it’s been government living up to the worst reputation. Look, I’m somebody who believes in the power of government to do good, to help people, to make things better. But we have to acknowledge that sometimes you do have examples where there’s too much red tape. They make the application too difficult, too cumbersome. There’s not enough outreach, especially in vulnerable communities that can be hard to reach anyway. For those reasons and others, I’m sure, the system has been a subpar by far. So a lot of the pressure for extending this moratorium has come from both the fact that we’ve seen a surge in the coronavirus, but then also, hey, these funds are still out there and they’re not getting to the people that actually need them.
We’ve talked about the politics of this, but this is something that I think a lot of people may not understand when it comes to evictions. If you get evicted one time, certainly earlier in your life, it can have long-term consequences, because every other place that you try to rent is going to ask you, “Have you been evicted?” Can you talk a little bit about what the long-term implications are of millions of Americans being evicted in mass if we don’t make sure that programs like this last all the way throughout this crisis?
I think the most important thing is we know from social science research that housing is foundational. It is the key to stability in people’s lives. If you have a safe, decent, affordable place to live, a child is more likely to be able to get a decent education, focus on their schooling, somebody is more likely to be able to hold onto a job or get a job in the first place. Your health is better if you have a safe, decent, affordable place to live, which makes sense and it’s true. It’s foundational; it’s the key to a better quality of life across the board.
You’re also right that there’s a domino effect here, a domino effect to potentially personal ruin. If somebody gets evicted, their credit is ruined. They’re not going to be able to get an apartment because that next apartment manager or leasing manager that’s looking at their application sees on their credit record that they were evicted and that’s a huge red flag in a market that is often hot, where they have multiple applicants and they don’t need to take this kind of risk, in their eyes. It also makes it harder to access credit in the future if somebody is trying to build up to be able to buy a home, for instance. Access to credit for vulnerable communities is already a huge problem. It becomes even harder if you have an eviction on your record.
Not to mention the question of where people go once they are evicted. If they’re lucky, they end up being able to find a place, but the fact is that we had a rental affordability crisis well before this pandemic. Rents were spiking everywhere, just about, and it was difficult to find a place in the first place. People end up doubling up with relatives or at a friend’s apartment, or some people sleep in their vehicles.
It has this cascading effect toward personal ruin. We need to remember that—especially during this pandemic, but any time in our country—consequences of our policy decisions like this are bigger than just where somebody sleeps from one night to the next. They often have yearslong negative effects, or positive effects if we get it right, on people’s lives.
You were part of the Obama administration, which established a Democratic practice of building a new coalition to win presidential elections. And most analysts say, “Now look, in order to win for a Democrat, you got to get young people, brown people, Black people … you got to get all these different kinds of people involved to get elected.” And yet when it comes to issues like housing, $15 minimum wage, health care, in a lot of instances, critics say that, “Well, this coalition came together to get Biden into office, but he has been slow in addressing the issues of the community that got him in.” What do you think about that criticism?
Well, yeah, I would compliment him on getting the American Rescue Plan done. I would compliment the work that they’ve done to get this infrastructure deal done. And an important part of that is a reconciliation package that’ll come along with it. There’s no question that those will be big wins for even the most vulnerable communities and for communities of color.
I’d also say that there’s a political reckoning that is coming in his administration very soon. Because I feel like whether it’s the issue of climate or reimagining policing or immigration, that there were expectations in this coalition that we would also see progress on these issues. And what it feels like is that the administration has embraced this notion that previous administrations have that you can only get one thing done at a time. And I just didn’t see it that way. I think that we’re in a very different time right now. And especially after Trump, people almost expect that you’re going to go full throated for your agenda. Because especially that’s what folks saw Trump do.
Now, I didn’t like his agenda and was—like a lot of other people—raising my voice to do what I could to say, “We’re going in the wrong direction.” But Biden has the opportunity to not only get big things done in infrastructure, but big things done in raising that minimum wage and fighting climate change and doing justice for immigrants in our country and making sure that what happened to George Floyd doesn’t happen again.
So the question is, okay, when are you going to get it done? And the problem for the Biden administration is time is running out. I mean, somebody that’s just looking at it says, “Oh, well, look, this is just the first year of his administration.” Yeah. But politics being politics, the closer you get to these midterms, politicians start to get more and more cautious. Congress is going to be more and more difficult to get anything to move in and it gets less and less likely that you’re going to be able to make the big kind of change that was promised on the campaign trail. That’s what he’s facing.
Now, I also know that it’s not just up to the president, right? It’s up to congressional leaders. It’s up to the movement that got them there to keep pushing and to make these things happen, to not take no for an answer. I mean, what Cori Bush did recently, her activism out there sleeping on the steps, along with some of her colleagues to keep pushing the White House to extend this eviction moratorium. I think that’s the spirit that we all have to have. Now, I think pushing Congress is probably a lot harder than pushing the administration, but we need to be pushing on things like that: on setting aside the filibuster, getting voting rights done, addressing these other issues that are important to the everyday lives of so many people that are a part of that coalition, and just Americans in general, whatever their stripe.
I want to follow up on that. You live in a state that as much as people talk about Georgia being ground zero for voting rights, the entire Democratic caucus had to flee your state in order to go plead to Congress, “Can you please do something about voting rights?” Are you frustrated with individuals in the House and Senate? Are you frustrated with the administration because …Texas itself would be significantly more competitive electorally if this administration got something done with voting rights.
Well, this is a five-alarm fire. The fact that these Texas legislators had to flee the state, had to leave the state to break quorum. And I feel like there’s not that same sense of urgency in important places. After the infrastructure deal was tentatively put together, it was written up that the Biden administration had had something like 300 meetings with Congress working on pushing for advocating for ironing out the deal. I’d like to see 300 meetings pushing and advocating for and getting the deal done on voting rights.
And on the other side of it, because I know that it takes at least two to tango on the Senate side … I respect Sen. Manchin a lot, but we’re in a new political reality. The Republican Party of Donald Trump is not the old Republican Party. They’re not going to magically agree to give up their scheme to suppress the votes of people that they don’t believe are supportive of them, especially Black and brown communities. They’re not going to have a come to Jesus moment where they suddenly think that it’s good to expand voting rights and protect access to the ballot box, at least no time soon. And so, I see it as naïve to believe that you’re going to get up to 60 votes. You need to set aside the filibuster and that’s just staring at him plain as day. And unless his willingness to set aside the filibuster changes, the hopes of getting something significant done are dim.
Having said that, I mean, they’re going to keep working and being creative. And if there’s anybody who understands the legislative process and being creative with it and shepherding it, it’s Joe Biden.