“I think apartments really take advantage of people,” says Geneva Hodges, a renter who has been facing eviction from her apartment in Richland, Washington since December 2022. Diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — which she manages with supplemental oxygen and positive air pressure (PAP) machines — she needs consistent access to electricity to avoid relying on heavy, bulky oxygen tanks. She makes ends meet on a meager $886 per month in disability income. According to rentdata.org, Benton county’s Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a one-bedroom unit in 2023 is $1,012, a nearly 27% increase over 2019’s FMR of $798. This low income makes things difficult enough, but Hodges experiences employment discrimination due to her condition and need for mobile oxygen tanks outside the home. Because of this, most of her work opportunities necessitate a home office. This is on top of her needing additional space to store medical equipment. Benton county’s 2023 FMR for a 3-bedroom unit — which Hodges currently lives in — is a whopping $1664. “When a person tries to survive on that [income], and when you’ve got these high prices for everything, it’s just… it’s hard to find a place to live anymore around here,” said Hodges. “It’s been stressful because the rent is too high for the income that a person receives.”

Since being served an eviction notice, Hodges has been diligent and proactive in pursuing new housing, but it has been difficult to find a solution which matches both her means and needs. Bouncing from agency to agency, Hodges has had to file mountains of paperwork and make constant check-ins on the progress of each filing. She has followed leads for assistance from social security, Aging & Long Term Care of Southeast Washington, churches, motels, and the county’s Human Services programs. Hodges’ search for a stable housing solution even brought her into contact with the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) in Tri-Cities, which helps members of the community connect with housing assistance. “It gives me anxiety trying to go from Point A to Point B figuring out where I’m gonna be, what’s gonna happen, how I’m dealing with the situation,” Hodges said. “It’s like bouncing off a wall… It was stressing me out so bad I was getting a cold.”

Despite her comprehensive efforts, the labyrinthian system of agencies and paperwork has failed Hodges at every turn. As her back rent started to mount, Aging & Long-Term Care said they were unable to help pay it off until Hodges knew where she would be living moving forward. She asked her apartment complex if she could downsize to a smaller, more affordable unit and work out a payment plan from there, but she was refused because she owed back rent. Instead, her landlord served her a 30-day eviction notice, which included information on a local dispute resolution program she was legally entitled to. The landlord then pressured her into accepting unfavorable terms without explaining the program, and Hodges accepted, unaware of her alternatives. She applied for Section 8 housing vouchers in the meantime and was placed in multiple queues that crawled along as her back rent continued to mount.

In early January, she was informed that, even if she were to receive a voucher in time, many recipients were having trouble finding housing that would accept them. With her other options in deadlock, she worked with organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation to raise moving and motel costs via crowdfunding. She was later told her Section 8 application was at risk due to the crowdfunding’s boost to her bank account; the campaign was soon shuttered, with Hodges back to square one and an ever-nearing eviction date.

Thankfully, Hodges was able to receive housing guarantees at the last second, keeping her from becoming homeless. Her property manager, in a moment of sympathy, restarted the eviction timeline, giving her until early February to find housing. Armed with tenant rights knowledge she’d learned from PSL members, Hodges opted into the dispute resolution program rather than accept her landlord’s terms at face value. Since then, Hodges has managed to secure a new apartment at a fixed rent burden via Aging & Long Term Care. This solution emerged only after months of working through dead-end recommendations as well as contradictory rules and regulations; she now owes six months of back rent.

At time of publication, it is unclear whether there was any procedural reason for Hodges’ situation to grow out of control and become so insecure. But even with these hurdles, Hodges was lucky. Other tenants facing evictions, even disabled ones, are frequently denied aid and rarely have landlords rushing to give them any extensions or grace. The housing system barely came through for Hodges, despite her precarious position; her story should not be the standard of what it takes for someone to keep a roof over their head.

Photo of person sitting on building steps with a large backpack

The pandemic and the moratorium

Geneva Hodges’ case is only one of the countless stories of those facing eviction in the U.S. right now. Despite a predicted tidal wave of 2022 evictions having yet to fully materialize, evictions are still picking up speed after COVID moratorium lows. Early data from Eviction Lab shows a surge of filings in January 2023. This surge comes despite 44% of U.S. households experiencing job or wage loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study. Rates of job and wage loss were highest among lower-income households, where the consequences of eviction are most devastating.

A 2022 study from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance found that the number of households who had missed at least two rent or mortgage payments increased dramatically during the pandemic. Like so many economic crises, however, these impacts are unequally distributed along racial lines. Roughly 50% of all low-income Black and Hispanic households missed at least two rental payments during the pandemic, up from 12.5% of Black and 22.4% of Hispanic households before the pandemic. By contrast, the rate of white households missing at least two payments went from 10.2% to 32.1%. These statistics paint a dire picture of working-class housing security in the Evergreen State.

Geneva Hodges’ household is one of many with such missed payments. As rent hikes in her area rapidly outpaced her income, she, like so many Americans, found it difficult to make her rent payments on time. Knowing just how many are impacted in 2022 is challenging because comparable statistics for 2021 are scarce. The governmental insistence that the pandemic is finally ‘over’ has led to a widespread tracking of many of the pandemic’s impacts. Despite the increased visibility, unemployment hovers above pre-pandemic levels across the United States. The Federal Reserve signals that increased unemployment will preserve the economy — even as bosses rake in record profits. If recent mass layoffs from tech to manufacturing are anything to go by, employment and income will not return to a pre-pandemic state anytime soon. More unemployment foreshadows more evictions.

Currently, there is little in the way of state-level efforts to stop these evictions. Washington State’s eviction moratorium, active from March 2020 through June 2021, helped stem formal evictions but ultimately kicked the can down the road. The Evans School study found that formal eviction notices dropped from a pre-pandemic rate of 13.7% to 9.3% in 2021 but informal evictions increased dramatically. The incidence of illegal notices to vacate nearly doubled under the eviction moratorium, to a rate of nearly 16%. Landlords refusing to renew leases, a loophole under the moratorium which effectively allowed landlords to evict on a delay, also nearly doubled to a rate of 12.3%. Other informal eviction methods — including changing locks, shutting off utilities, or even removing all a tenant’s belongings with neither notice nor permission — also increased significantly under the eviction moratorium. Many tenants don’t know their rights, and many who do lack the financial resources to challenge these illegal evictions in court. Other times, landlords pressure tenants into accepting high-interest repayment plans, sidestepping the court system entirely.

Even if it weren’t for these loopholes and illegal angles for landlords to exploit, the eviction moratorium alone could never solve the underlying problem. “A lot of tenants we’ve worked with have stayed housed through the moratorium,” says PSL organizer Mitchell Malloy, “but pausing evictions doesn’t forgive back rent. A lot of people still had trouble finding work, and the debt was there waiting for them once the moratorium ended.”

This isn’t an accidental failure, though; it’s the system working exactly as intended. Governor Jay Inslee said as much when he announced the end of the moratorium in 2021: “You can’t have an economy, ultimately, where just nobody pays rent.” Inslee had no harsh words for the landlords who profited during this crisis and sought to illegally push people onto the streets during a global pandemic, instead shifting the blame onto those struggling tenants. Of course, it would be unfair to conflate the governor’s statement with the state’s holistic response to the eviction crisis. We’re left to ask, then, how has the state tried to address the back rent issue?

Photo of person sleeping outside with blankets and scarves

Aid and access: A system overwhelmed

Washington State’s rental assistance programs are intended to fill the chasm of pandemic-fueled back rents. Eligible households can receive up to 15 months of rental aid to address back rent accrued between March 2022 and the present; up to three of those months can cover future rents based on “discretion and need,” according to the Benton County Human Services website. At time of writing, the state’s Department of Commerce website indicates that these programs have distributed roughly 391 million dollars of aid. This is impressive, and a testament to the clear and present need in our communities, but falls far short of the 1.1 billion dollars awarded in total. Roughly two-thirds of these aid funds have gone undistributed. Is this gap because the housing insecurity crisis has been addressed, or because the aid system is unable to effectively distribute the necessary amount of relief?

Due to the U.S.’s highly atomized federalist system, federal housing aid is pushed to the states to handle. And once it’s in the states’ hands, aid is further kicked to the local level for processing and distribution. The problem is that neither the state nor local agencies tasked with this work were ever built to handle a project of this scope. They are overwhelmed.

The Benton-Franklin counties’ Housing Resource Center is one such case. Their cramped office is located within the Benton-Franklin Health District building, with whom they are expected to share resources and space. The Housing Services Department regularly has lines of forty to fifty people outside, but their office can only hold one at a time without compromising social distancing. Queued applicants have been turned away at least once to keep entrances to the health district clear. And processing just a single person in line can take over an hour in some instances. Kyle Sullivan, a Benton County Human Services Manager in the housing department, tells us that it’s been difficult to manage staffing patterns with regularly revised contracts, extended program end dates, new funding sources, and so on. “There aren’t enough staff, but also not enough places to put staff,” Sullivan says.

The office has subcontracts and partnerships with Goodwill and the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to help with outreach and application processing, but, according to Sullivan, even this coalition hasn’t been enough to stem the tide. When the office takes on a new program — like the Treasury Rent Assistance Program (T-RAP) that connects houseless community members to hotel rooms — existing staff further stretch their capacity. And, assuming the department could easily hire more staff, more programs means more time spent training new hires, even while the office is already falling behind. As it stands, Benton-Franklin Human Services does not have the infrastructure needed to handle these programs as demand for them surges.

T-RAP’s accessibility problems extend beyond inadequate office space and long wait times. All applications must be submitted in person at either the Human Services office in Kennewick on weekdays during core work hours, at local Goodwill locations, or with the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. There does not seem to be any outreach to Benton and Franklin county locations outside of the Tri-Cities. The office used to have an application dropbox tenants could use to submit applications outside of business hours, and would even send employees to high-risk neighborhoods for direct outreach, but both practices were discontinued months ago due to application processing overhead and lack of staff bandwidth.

Even if a tenant is able to make the trip to the Housing Resource Center office in Kennewick during working hours, it is not always certain that the trip will produce results. Organizers with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who have been helping tenants prepare and submit their applications to the county office, have had multiple experiences where the forms available on the county’s website were out of date with the office’s own requirements. In these cases, the applications were declared invalid, always necessitating another round of paperwork and a separate trip to the Kennewick office. Out-of-town tenants face a particularly high hurdle to even submit an application, since they are also expected to come in to the Kennewick office from anywhere in Benton and Franklin Counties where they might live, and there’s no transparency around whether an application printed and completed on a given day will even be accepted.

Tenants also need to submit full printouts of their lease agreements, rental ledgers showing that they are currently behind on rent (and thus already at risk of eviction), along with other supporting documentation with their application. Landlords have central stores for both pieces of information, and typically have better access to both digital and printed supplies of each. According to Sullivan, this additional documentation isn’t even a required part of the program. Why does this burden fall on tenants to act as an unnecessary go-between for Human Services and their landlord? Sullivan says it’s a matter of verifying applications; without being able to review the lease terms and rental balance up front, it’s simply too inefficient to judge whether an application is valid or not.

This might be a necessary step for Sullivan’s office to take, but the issue shouldn't be left at that. If the relief system is overburdened, why is the default solution to outsource labor onto tenants who are already financially struggling and who lack the relevant training of property managers or Human Services workers? If centralizing landlords’ tenant data would be too burdensome, why is the relief means-tested, and reliant on so many independent lines of communication? If aid offices are drowning under a mountain of applications, why not at least freeze evictions for tenants whose applications are being processed, and use the backlog to campaign for better investment in the program?

These are all policy decisions that are within reach, though enacting them would require a state or municipality willing to make political choices in favor of tenants’ interests at the expense of landlords’. Without the political will, the end result is a system that holds back as much aid as possible and disincentivizes itself from helping as many tenants as possible. Sullivan told organizers as much; improved outreach would mean more applications, and his office needs to keep the backlog low. More damningly, he told organizers the focus from above has explicitly gone from “Get the money out; help the people out; keep the people off the streets; make sure everybody’s okay” early in the pandemic, to fixating on fraud prevention — at the expense of being able to process applications efficiently.

Despite all of this, the Benton-Franklin county rental aid system is still the best that PSL organizers have encountered in southeastern Washington. In many counties, including nearby Yakima county, aid applications can only be received from, and submitted to, select third-party nonprofits. When organizers contacted these designated charities in Yakima, they were rebuffed and unable to so much as get access to printable applications to replicate their Tri-Cities outreach efforts. In Walla Walla County, which has a single designated nonprofit, organizers never received a reply in their attempts to get applications for distribution. The best example of rental aid that organizers encountered was utterly overwhelming; the others were even more opaque, dysfunctional, and explicitly structured to stifle assistance for the community.

From local organizers’ vantage point, the T-RAP aid system is imploding. Benton-Franklin Human Services did not accept any new applications for most of December 2022, pausing until the start of the new year to address a nearly 500-application backlog and a 10-week processing time. During most of the organizers' time submitting applications, the processing time has been roughly 8 weeks long. It is worth remembering that the state does not shield tenants from evictions during that turnaround — a delay that is no fault of their own. It is entirely up to the landlord whether they feel it is in their best interest to wait until the tenant’s application is processed or not.

Indeed, landlords seem to hold nearly all the cards while tenants dangle by a thread and aid offices starve for capacity. According to Sullivan, landlords are regularly difficult to reach and sluggish in their correspondence. Many will try, unsuccessfully, to unilaterally reject certain stipulations of the T-RAP aid, most frequently a paltry half year of rent stabilization. This practice, according to Sullivan, saw a significant uptick in regularity in the latter months of 2022. Of the 500 applications backlogged during December, roughly 100 of them were stalled due to landlord communication alone. If landlords deem it favorable, they can also opt to push through third-party mediation and reach a settlement to let them evict a tenant more quickly than would be possible using the court system.

Overhead photo of the tops of houses
Photo by Blake Wheeler on Unsplash

Housing for profit vs. housing for all

Despite the U.S. government’s insistence that the pandemic is over and that the economy is swelling, there is little evidence that this housing crisis will do anything but worsen. According to Sullivan, his office expected spikes in applications when additional aid funding was allocated and when the eviction moratorium was lifted, but the situation on the ground has been more dire. In his words, “There has been no downward trend.” The state’s hyperfixation on fraud prevention, coupled with broader narratives about the so-called end of the pandemic, seem to indicate that Washington State’s trajectory is towards a shrinking — not a broadening — of aid. “We are going to have another housing crisis,” says Sullivan regarding the expiration of aid funds in late 2023. “Like 2008… people don’t realize how bad it’s going to get.”

Given the governor’s framing around the end of the eviction moratorium, oft-parroted narratives around ‘no one wanting to work anymore,’ and the repeated centering of landlords’ interests above all else, we can expect blame for the housing crisis will continue to shift from pandemic economic slowdowns onto tenants who ‘refuse’ to pay rent. These narratives, and the anti-worker policies they give cover to, will need to be opposed from below by tenants’ organizations, a militant working-class press, and other mass organizations.

Ultimately, housing in the United States does not exist to keep people housed, but rather as a commodity to extract maximal profit for its owners. When landlords or real estate developers are confronted over the affordable housing shortage in this country, they are quick to blame zoning regulations as one of the chief culprits. There is a kernel of truth to this; plenty of zoning prohibits the construction of dense housing in favor of inefficient single-family properties, policies that have long histories of racist redlining and keeping ‘undesirable’ people out of affluent neighborhoods. This argument shifts blame away from developers and landlords and obscures an obvious problem: precarious tenants are usually not affluent. The best ways to profit from them are either to cut corners and house them on the cheap — build slums — or to find ways to replace them with higher-income tenants who will pay higher rents — gentrify. If one accepts that housing must be a profitable commodity, then landlords and developers appear to be acting rationally; they’re in it to turn a profit. But maximally profitable housing is incompatible with human well-being.

One doesn’t need to use a crystal ball or conjure a hypothetical utopia to see that solutions are possible — there are examples of countries doing better right now. A prime example of a more just housing system lies in Vienna, the capital of Austria, where roughly 60% of the population lives in what is called social housing — high-quality, subsidized units where rent is controlled and tenants’ rights are strictly enforced. Roughly half of these units are directly administered by the city, with the other half run by private landlords in city-regulated programs. These units are famously high-quality for their price without the level of means-testing we see in the United States: one can make twice the average salary in Vienna and still qualify for social housing. The first of these units was built in the 1920s by the city’s then-socialist government, which understood that housing was a public good that would benefit society if freed from profiteering.

The program paid off. Vienna is in a conservative area in a capitalist country today, but efforts to water down or dismantle the social housing program have been staunchly opposed for decades. Tenants have seen for themselves just how beneficial the system is, both in terms of their own quality of living and the pressure it puts on the city’s non-social housing to be competitive in both quality and price. The United States has the material resources and know-how to do the same; the housing crisis is ultimately a social problem with social solutions, such as seizing the decision-making power from landlords and developers in favor of workers and tenants.

“That’s the whole thing,” says Hodges about the crisis. “They don’t care about anyone, just making money… but [organizers with PSL] actually take time to sort things out and help people. There’s a lot of people out there that don’t, and it’s property owners, basically. They only think of themselves.” Hodges has narrowly avoided homelessness due to exceptions in the system — exceptions that many similarly precarious tenants won’t get when they fall behind on rent. She sees light at the end of the tunnel, but her story would end radically differently if her property manager had not reset her eviction timeline, or if Aging and Long-Term Care hadn’t provided her housing guarantees at the eleventh hour. For most households local PSL organizers have worked with, rental aid is enough to temporarily stave off eviction, but cannot address skyrocketing rents and stagnant wages. The Federal Reserve’s claims that increased unemployment is ‘necessary’ to stabilize the economy bodes ill for tenants across the country. Recent mass layoffs across a variety of sectors, many at highly profitable companies, will only exacerbate the crisis.

As Sullivan said, “We are going to have another housing crisis” — at least under our current system. There is no excuse for homelessness in the United States; countries across the world have done far better with far less. But to make the changes necessary, we need a system that prioritizes human needs and flourishing above the profits of landlords and property developers. “Building a better system, it’s going to take a lot of hard work from all of us,” says Malloy. “It’s going to take tenants fighting side by side. But we can win. We have to.”

​​Alice Martel is a community organizer and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation's Eastern Washington branch, a national political party fighting for the empowerment of working and oppressed peoples everywhere. You can find the Eastern Washington branch on Facebook and Instagram, or learn more at: About the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Edited by Asher Bruce.