From the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic’s spread across the United States, the Trump administration took action to help keep Americans in their homes, in part as a public health measure to stop the spread of the disease. March 2020 marked the beginning of an 18-month experiment in housing policy, as the phrase “eviction moratorium” became part of the vocabulary of COVID-19.
Retro Report embarked on a multi-part series, “Hitting Home,” reporting on housing and the pandemic. We covered apartment buy-back programs, where tenants banded together against landlords they claimed were negligent, to purchase the building with community loans and grants. We covered the #CancelRent movement that was gaining traction across the nation in the summer of 2020, and compared it to tenant activism around the Great Depression. We reported on redlining and discriminatory housing policy in Fresno, Calif., where many immigrants live, and on rising eviction rates as a reflection of decades-old racist housing policies in Richmond, Va.
After 18 months of covering housing, here are some of the surprising things we learned:
- Whether or not tenants were able to stay in their homes often came down to where they lived, even depending on their zip code, which judge was assigned to their case, how the local police department treated enforcement of evictions, and whether or not legal or rental assistance was available.
- People tend to think of the landlord-tenant relationship as adversarial. While it can become so, the landlords are often not who you expect. Nearly half of this country’s affordable housing is owned by small family businesses, and when those people started to lose money, it became clear that any housing policy solution was going to have to address the needs of both groups.
- Trying to navigate the country’s patchwork of changing rules and regulations during the pandemic required significant resources and time. People on the verge of losing their homes were already stressed out, often working overnight shifts or two jobs.
I remember one day when we filmed a California tenant making gingerbread houses with her family. It was a reminder to all of us working on the film to not take for granted our ability to gather at home with our families for the holidays, and to be thankful to have a front door key.
About “Hitting Home”
These short videos are a window into issues that shape America’s housing crisis. With support from a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, these reports will be combined into a feature-length documentary film. This project was developed with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Pulitzer Center, the James Irvine Foundation and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.