Shamus Roller on Housing Justice

For the past year and a half, we’ve been watching the numbers: Covid cases, ER beds, deaths, and, more recently, immunization rates. There’s another set of numbers, however, that has gotten less attention but is just as connected to this pandemic as any of these other figures: housing. The pandemic has been a huge test for our nation’s ability to house its residents, and so far we are failing miserably – experts estimate that 40 million Americans are vulnerable to losing their housing. The federal moratorium on evictions was lifted by the Supreme Court in September, and the vast majority of states have no protections in place to help people hold on to their homes. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Shamus Roller, the Executive Director of the National Housing Law Project, about housing challenges, evictions, and homelessness. We also discuss potential solutions to advance housing justice.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Shamus Roller 0:19  We’re under-funding these programs. So such a dramatic extent when you look at a lot of Western Europe where the there’s not really a problem with homelessness because they know, you know, like we do in this country that homelessness is very expensive. It’s much more expensive to leave somebody on the streets than it is to find them housing, but we just pay for it out of 10 different pockets.

Narrator 0:40  For the past year and a half, we’ve been watching the numbers, COVID cases, ER beds, deaths, and more recently, immunization rates. There’s another set of numbers. However, that’s gotten less attention, but it’s just as connected to this pandemic as any of these other figures, housing. The pandemic has been a huge test for our nation’s ability to house its residents. And so far, we’re failing miserably. Experts estimate that 40 million Americans are vulnerable to losing their housing. The Federal moratorium on evictions was lifted by the Supreme Court in September, and the vast majority of states have no protections in place to help people hold on to their homes. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Shamus Roller, the Executive Director of the National Housing Law Project about housing challenges, evictions and homelessness. We also discuss potential solutions to advance housing justice.

Alex Wise  1:47  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend and neighbor Shamus Roller. He’s the Executive Director of the National Housing Law Project. Shamus, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Shamus Roller 1:58  Great to be here with you, Alex.

Alex Wise  1:59  So explain the mission of your organization, the National Housing Law Project.

Shamus Roller 2:05  We’re a National Legal and advocacy Support Center. So we help Legal Aid attorneys and other advocates around the country, do housing law, protect tenants protect low income homeowners, and then we do a fair amount of advocacy at the federal level around housing law,

Alex Wise  2:20  What stimulated your interest in the issue of housing?

Shamus Roller 2:24  I started my career working on doing direct street outreach with homeless youth and adults. And so I was doing work on the streets helping people find access to services get basic first aid. So I really understood kind of what how do you end up being homeless? And what are the barriers to getting off the streets? What are the things that happened to people that that result in them being homeless? And so I really wanted to think about how do you? How do you deal with the upstream problems, and I went to law school, and I’ve been working on housing for my entire career.

Alex Wise  2:53  Before we dive into some of the solutions, let’s outline some of the problems that you and your colleagues at the National Housing Law Project handle on a daily basis. First let’s let’s talk about evictions, because I imagine that is, is a pretty big palette to work with right there.

Shamus Roller 3:09  Yeah, that’s been a lot of COVID. In particular, the last 18 months of my life has been thinking about how to evictions play into the COVID pandemic that we’re in right now. So there’s quite a bit of very good data at this point showing that the higher levels of evictions here community have the higher level of COVID transmission you have because the result of eviction is almost always that you move into substandard housing, or you move into double love conditions, where you’re around more people where there’s higher likelihood of transmission of COVID, and the longer term effects of evictions can be homelessness as well for a part of the population. So I’ve been working so much on how emergency rental assistance works, some of the federal funding programs that are helping people prevent evictions to pay back the rent that they owe to their landlords and to stay housed in this difficult time.

Alex Wise  4:01  I went to the Tenement Museum in New York City over the summer and saw how people lived at the turn of the 19th century in these slums and for the working poor – the immigrant population of New York generally. I didn’t realize that the rents in a lot of these very low income areas were just as high, if not higher than the than standard rental or the non-ghettoized, if you will, housing at the at the time, because of redlining. These people just had no other option. And so the business proposition for the the slumlord was just to churn through as many tenants as you could just get out of there, and then if they were behind in their rent, then the landlord didn’t have to fix stuff. So we’re in a different age now where people can’t explicitly be discriminated against in terms of their housing, but a lot of the same business practices are alive today, aren’t they?

Shamus Roller 5:40  If you look back at some of the segregation throughout the United States, what you’ll find is predominantly African American communities, the rent levels were oftentimes higher because the areas of city that they could live in were so small in comparison, and that meant that the rent levels tended to go up, you look at oftentimes that bigger houses have been segmented into apartments, not because the families couldn’t afford to rent a house, it was because the rents were so high in those in those neighborhoods. And you find this, I think, plays out to this day that a lot of the housing problems that we have segregation at their base, and which, you know, what was once racial segregation is now or we’re not going to allow apartment buildings to be built, we’re going to have requirements that you have to have a quarter acre of property around your house in order to build that are going to prevent duplexes, we’re going to do all these things to make sure that the no one who’s a working class or poor can live in the communities. And so that underlies, I think, a huge part of what we’re dealing with in the housing crisis in the United States.

Alex Wise  6:44  And one thing that I don’t think a lot of people think of is the trickle-down effect of an eviction in a community, maybe speak to the exponential effect, that kicking one family out of one unit has on many, many people around that same neighborhood, we think of it as just, oh, that person couldn’t afford it. So they’re gone. But it’s not so simple, is it?

Shamus Roller 7:07  It’s not so simple. I think first, it’s important to think about, you know, that also that people are getting kicked out for not that much money, right, which is that oftentimes an eviction is over less than $1,000. across the country. In many cases. That’s the majority of evictions in many jurisdictions. So it’s a small amount of money, but that eviction, if you do the most, the demographic factor that most likely predicts that you’re going to be evicted is that you have small children. And so that means that your kids are going to have to find a new school system, often, it means that you’re going to live in overcrowded condition, you’re gonna move in with family or friends, their higher rates of suicide, higher mental health related issues, after evictions, COVID is so clearly demonstrated that link between between eviction and poor health outcomes. And so what we’re doing is spinning a family kind of into this time of uncertainty of instability, for that eviction. And I guess my public policy urge is that, that fixing that problem is pretty inexpensive in comparison to other public policy interventions that we do that we can protect the stability of families and of individuals by stopping evictions, which is this moment that that creates huge instability in their lives.

Alex Wise  8:24  Maybe you can speak to some of the some of the work that your organization does, and how state local and national policies inform your work in terms of the eviction issue alone.

Shamus Roller 8:38  Yeah. So one that we work on is that so many tenants are unrepresented in eviction court, oftentimes an eviction court hearing will be seconds long people will get evicted in such a short period of time. So we really push for access to a lawyer during that proceeding is really important, and you have access to counsel in San Francisco. But overall, the estimation is about 3% of tenants facing an eviction are represented by an attorney. Well over 80% of all landlords are represented, but also that the eviction process is this is the fastest civil procedure, it happens so quickly. It’s not how you imagine if you watch law and order how it proceeds. You know, when you probably don’t have a lawyer, you don’t get to present evidence, you oftentimes don’t really get to question the landlord over what you’re getting evicted around. It’s just a very fast process. It’s designed really to evict people not to adjudicate the differences between two parties. And so we think about, like, how do you you know, how do you change that dynamic a little bit? How do you make sure that you have a basic level of due process and some of that is, well, you know, how quickly can a landlord start an eviction proceeding around you? How quickly does that process happen? But also then how do we make sure that tenants get access to rental assistance money if they hit a bump in the road, how do we ensure that there’s affordable housing overall.

Alex Wise  10:05  So if you can kind of cut a swath through a few different states that you do work in go from the deep south, very red state where there may not have a lot of tenant protections built in on a state level, and how those tenants might fare versus somebody who lives in, let’s say, San Francisco with more progressive state and local government. And then is there anything that the federal government can do on these in terms of protecting people from evictions.

Shamus Roller 10:39  In most states in this country, you could be sexually harassed by your landlord, they could evict you for no reason. And then they could steal your security deposit, and there’s almost nothing you can do about it. That’s the state of how landlord tenant law works. In most of the contrary, you know, where we were working on a case in Virginia, where we had a landlord that was renting predominantly African American women and racially and sexually harassing them, and we just really dug through the law to try and figure out how do we, you know, how do we hold this guy accountable? And there was nothing that we could find that we felt like we could bring a case together on? I mean, that’s the sort of state of things for many renters around this country.

Alex Wise  11:19  Was that problem with Virginia State law in particular? Or was that more endemic of just the overarching policy in this country?

Shamus Roller 11:28  No, it’s really endemic of overarching policy in the United States about how we handle things in eviction court and housing court is just that, you know, it’s really tilted in favor of the landlords and this idea that, you know, the good, they get to do what they want within that property. And I just don’t think that that, that balance is, is really skewed in favor of landlords and doesn’t serve us as a country anymore, in thinking about how to do housing policy. And you find places like Oregon, which have really reformed their laws, and have much stronger protections for tenants. And I think that’s where the rest of the country needs to go.

Alex Wise  12:06  You had another example before I interrupted you was that Oregon?

Shamus Roller 12:10  Or is it you know, in San Francisco as well, San Francisco has rent control, it has just cause just cause means that the landlord has to have a reason to evict you. And I think you’d find some people that were frustrated certainly landlords who are frustrated on the way San Francisco works, but the idea that tenants might have some level of security and some idea about what their rent is going to be and they know they’re not going to be evicted for no reason i think that that is a that’s a place we need to be as a country for renters and for the economy to function in the way that it should given the challenges that we face.

Music Break  12:56

Alex Wise  13:46  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to the Executive Director of the National Housing Law Project, Shamus Roller. So Shamus, give us a snapshot of some of the more popular policies that you and your colleagues see going through state by state to protect tenants from eviction. And some of the flaws in these so called solutions, where are we falling short, there could be some very well meaning policymakers who are out there getting behind policy that clearly is not putting us on the path forward.

Shamus Roller 14:22  One of the areas that we work on quite a bit is nuisance and crime free ordinances. And what those are is, you might have a small city and you see this in rural areas quite a bit, where the where they require landlords to evict people or they will find them if there are too many 911 calls, or if there are reports of criminal activity on the property. And what that results in in practice is often that you have domestic violence survivors who are calling 911 for help who get evicted from their apartments. You see people who are victims of crimes, being evicted because They are being targeted by somebody. And you see real discrimination in some of the crime free ordinances where they prevent landlords from renting to people who have criminal histories of any kind, that then has huge sort of racial implications. And there’s not a lot of data that says that somebody with a criminal record is in any worse than it than I am, for that matter. And so those I think, are some of the ways and often those those ordinances are really used in in communities that have other racist policies as well. And they’re used as a way to keep African Americans in particular out of those communities. And so there’s a huge amount of sort of those, those crime free and nuisance ordinances around the country that are having this effect of, of really undermining stability of families.

Alex Wise  15:48  What are some of the solutions that your organization is advocating for? And maybe if you can point to some of the countries that are doing it better than the United States and housing their citizens in a safe, humane fashion?

Shamus Roller 16:04  Well, you’ve I think that there’s interesting stuff going on at the federal government right now you’ve got this reconciliation infrastructure package, and that has close to, you know, the $300 billion, perhaps in for housing. And so the federal government has stepped out of the housing market in many ways compared to the 1970s. And that’s part of the reason why we have homelessness in this country. You know, we sort of imagined that homelessness is a not not a solvable problem. But it really only existed in the form of modern homelessness since the 70s, since we disinvested in federal housing programs, and we kind of failed that our effort to do community based treatment for people with mental health issues. And those are the two things combined created the problem that we’re dealing with across the country. So we need the federal government to step back in. But we also need to pay attention to the legal conditions in which people are tenants and people are homeowners. And I think that that requires that’s a lot of what we work on it as an organization. So rental assistance, investments in federal housing. But also we need to reform eviction courts, which are in the underlying law, which are really I think anybody who looked at them would be surprised that something like that exists still in the United States.

Alex Wise  17:21  And maybe you can speak to some of the issues of the intersection between climate change and homelessness that come across your desk on a daily basis, I imagine.

Shamus Roller 17:35  I think most of your listeners would tend to think about eviction is primarily an issue that affects poor people. But I want to think of evictions and the landlord tenant law underlying it is a is something that affects all of us. And that at different points in our lives, we’re many of us, almost all of us are renters, and some of us will be homeowners. But if we really want people to move into cities, many of those people have got to be renters. But that’s got to be being a renter has got to be a better thing, it’s got to be something more desirable, in order for cities to grow in which the way we need them to, to and part of that is reforming landlord tenant law. The thing that is a bummer about being a renter is, is that you you don’t know when your rents gonna go up. And you know that you can be displaced by their landlord for basically any reason. And we need to change that. So that renting has more stability to it. And that benefits all of us it benefits the economy. But it’s really crucial, I think, to meet our sustainability goals, and to make cities more livable places to be.

Alex Wise  18:36  And just from a utility standpoint, I imagine there’s a lot of opportunity in terms of infrastructure and getting more cooperative solar installations so that multi dwelling units have clean, affordable energy. utility bills are not an insignificant issue for a lot of these people facing eviction, I imagine.

Shamus Roller 18:59  Yeah, people get evicted all the time. For you know, they’re always balancing that rent payment. And the utility payment is less of a problem here in in San Francisco where the weather’s nice all the time. But if you’re in a very hot place, you’re in a very cold place, your utility bills can be you know, 50% of what your rent is. And so the that combination is is a difficult one and doing solar, doing energy efficiency is much easier to do in a multifamily development, right? If you’ve got 20 units, or 60 units or 100 units, it’s much easier to do solar and to manage those improvements. You’re also just using so much less energy. You know, if you’re not, you know, if you’re sharing those walls with somebody else, the efficiency level and sort of climate change reduction that you get from moving into a city is pretty high overall. It’s not just one thing, but to help make cities more desirable as a crucial piece to all of us.

Alex Wise  20:42  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Shamus Roller is the executive director of the National Housing Law Project. So Shamus, we’re talking about evictions earlier, we haven’t really addressed the landlords and they’re not only predatory, there are a lot of good landlords out there. And they also hold a lot of important lobbying power in this country. What are some of the problems that landlords face in the current environment? And what are some of the solutions that you see in helping them along with the tenants?

Shamus Roller 21:19  COVID is really revealed how many good landlords are out there. I mean, the reason we’re not facing so many evictions is certainly in part to the fact that there are many, especially small landlords that have been working with their tenants that have been forgiving rent that have been working out repayment plans. And that’s been crucial to protecting all of us in the midst of the pandemic. One of the challenges that we see moving forward, it’s just the corporatization of the real estate market. You have real estate investment trusts, you have, you know, huge groups like BlackRock who’ve been moving into the residential real estate market. And what they have tried to do in many cases is squeeze whatever extra dollars there are out of that process. And so part of that is lower staffing levels. Sometimes that is trying to, you know, simplify the property management, one of the ways that they simplify property management is they just have a thing we, we file an eviction lawsuit every time somebody five days late on rent, or whatever their process is that resulting in really bad outcomes around evictions, and just bad outcomes for tenants as a whole in many of those properties. And the other thing you see across the country is the D eviction courts are oftentimes filled with evictions from a handful landlords that most landlords don’t file very many evictions. And then there is a small percentage of the landlord community which files evictions all the time. And sometimes they file what are called serial evictions in which they are essentially using the eviction court as a way to get tenants to pay the money that they owe. So they’re just filing eviction after eviction against a single tenant.

Alex Wise  22:59  And then what’s the best way to combat these abusive landlords and their practices in terms of policy?

Shamus Roller 23:05  One, you need to slow down the process a little bit, and you need to make it more expensive for landlords to file evictions. But you also need what we have now is an emergency Rental Assistance Program at the national level. That is had some real challenges in getting up and started during COVID. But ideally, the way that works is it’s there to help tenants who, you know, can’t make that half a month’s rent that they’re behind on. And that’s going to help landlords as well emergency rental assistance because evicting a tenant, having a an apartment that sits empty is an expensive proposition for landlords, I think that there’s a way to reduce evictions to give tenants better due process in that system. But also, that’s going to make more money for landlords over the long term. And I think that’s the grand bargain that we’ve got to strike in this country around this, which is that, you know, renting needs to be a better proposition per tenants. And we can make sure that landlords do just fine as part of it.

Alex Wise 24:03  Speaking towards the emergency efforts that the government is taking both state and federal level during a pandemic, how can federal lawmakers or people in charge of government assistance programs on a state level as well how can they work with the most needy and vulnerable populations better to try to communicate and allow them to kind of budget some of these potential credits and assistance programs, it must be hard to access them, especially when a lot of them don’t have access to the internet.

Shamus Roller 24:37  So the biggest housing program at the national level is the Housing Choice Voucher Program previously called the section eight voucher program. And that program serves about one quarter of the people nationally who are eligible for it. And in big cities in particular, the waiting list to get a voucher can be 10 years.

Alex Wise 24:58  What does the voucher entail and why would it take longer to get this voucher than to become a US citizen?

Shamus Roller 25:04  So what the voucher is, you know, it essentially, when you have a Housing Choice Voucher, you can go to any landlord, they’ll take it and you’re gonna pay 1/3 of what your income is in rent. And the federal government’s gonna make up the rest of it, you know, vouchers are a great solution for people who are, who are really on that edge, right? Who are really struggling and struggling on a regular basis, right to help them make sure that they can, that they can make their rent every month. And it’s a great it’s a great program, but it’s so oversubscribed that, you know, it can take a year is 10 years to get a voucher. And in some places because of preferences. If you don’t fit in one of the preferences, you’re probably never going to get off that waiting list.

Alex Wise 25:44  So obviously, the idea for renter vouchers is a popular one – too popular, but should we just subsidize it more? Or is there a different way to skin this cat?

Shamus Roller 25:56  I mean, if I were to offer you up, like how are we gonna solve the housing problem the United States I mean, one is the federal government, it’s got to be a bigger player, the vouchers is one way or other federal subsidies around housing programs, you have to you got to undermine the challenge around getting housing bill at the local level, and the sort of racist sounding practices that we have across the country is got to be part of this. Three, you’ve got to reform landlord tenant law, so it protects renters a little bit better than it does right now. is got to be a piece of of how that works in practice. But I think really, it’s from the federal government standpoint, money is a huge piece, because the budget of HUD was so much higher in the 70s, you know, accounting for inflation. And, you know, we’re under funding these programs. So such a dramatic extent, when you look at a lot of Western Europe, where there’s not really a problem with homelessness, because they know, you know, like we do in this country that homelessness is very expensive, it’s much more expensive to leave somebody on the streets than it is to find them housing, but we just pay for it on our 10 different pockets with a little bit from health care a little bit from social services, you know, a little bit from the state a little bit from local government a little bit in policing, that we don’t really take into consideration how expensive that that end outcome really is for us.

Alex Wise 27:11  And how can listeners help the National Housing Law Project and its efforts?

Shamus Roller 27:16  Well, one, I mean, I think reaching out to Congress right now and talking about the importance of investing in housing is the first thing I’d love for you all to do. We’ll happily take your donations, but I’d love for you to get more involved in local advocacy around around housing policy around supporting low income renters and also to make sure that we we challenge some of the, you know, those policies that are creating more segregation in our country because that’s also underneath so much of this is a history of racism, and segregation that’s underlying the policies that are that are really now hurting all of us. And creating the high housing costs that we’re dealing with.

Alex Wise 27:55  Shamus Roller is the executive director of the National Housing Law Project. Shamus, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Shamus Roller Thanks, Alex.

Narrator  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex wise. Additional music by Larry Coryell Paul Simon and Greg Allman, check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to see Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.