This is the first in a two-part report from Scalawag's recent webinar, "Housing Security in the South during COVID-19." Part two goes into solutions that work in the South.

With the highest eviction rates in the country, a shortage of affordable housing, and draconian landlord laws, the South was already facing an affordable housing crisis well before COVID-19 began threatening folks' livelihoods. 

Last Wednesday, in the second webinar of Scalawag's digital series "Solidarity Over Distance," our race and place editor, Danielle Purifoy, sat down with attorneys and housing organizers from four Southern states to contextualize the state-specific realities affecting renters and home-owners in Southern states, and to explain individual protections and collective strategies designed in light of the particular challenges to housing security that COVID-19 creates.

Gentrification and dedensification

"Most of our communities are already starting from a point of a housing crisis before this COVID pandemic even started," Peter Gilbert, an attorney with Legal Aid North Carolina who supervises an eviction diversion program in Durham, lamented on Wednesday's call. All of the panelists were quick to agree.

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Wake County, North Carolina, which is home to the Raleigh metro-area, welcomed 56  new residents per day in 2018; between 2000 and 2010 the population grew by 43.5 percent. In 2018, Atlanta-Metro was fourth in line for the nation's metropolitan area that received the most new residents, with some 75,000 people moving into the city limits.

Gentrification hinges on displacing existing populations: from the rampant displacement of 100,000 (mostly Black) people from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to the building of the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta's historically Black Vine City, to dedensification efforts in Birmingham. Though the conditions may differ, the end result is the same. 

"On a national level, there's a policy to invoke dedensification, where we're breaking up these traditional public housing communities—that's causing a lot of people in Birmingham to be displaced outside of the city limits, in which they don't have access to the same type of resources and amenities and things of that nature," said Richard Rice who is a cooperating attorney with the Fair Housing Center of Northern Alabama

Underinvestment and negligence concerning maintenance and safety standards were also cited as a big problem facing both Durham and Birmingham renters: "We have hundreds of families displaced to a motel since the first of January due to monoxide leaks, gas leaks, mold, and other conditions that make the housing completely uninhabitable, and just an example of neglect and environmental racism,"  Gilbert said of the situation in North Carolina.  

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Gentrification, dedensification, inflated AMI's, and poor maintenance of public and housing options all collaborate together against organizers' efforts to provide Southern cities with quality affordable housing. 

This rapid transition of many urban communities in the South is further facilitated by the use of eviction as a tactic of gentrification. Strict landlord-tenant laws across the South make it easy for city developers to displace whole working class communities with new residents who meet desired income levels.

Karimah Dillard, an organizer with Housing Justice League and a victims' services advocate, remarked on wealth disparities, which only feed the housing problem: "A lot of people toss out the term AMI, which stands for the area median income. Well in Atlanta that's like $70,000. So if you are building affordable housing at 60 percent of $70,000, you are leaving a huge swath of people out." 

This is why six out of the top 10 fastest-gentrifying cities in America are located in the South (more than any other region) including Atlanta, Raleigh, and Charlotte. 

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Eviction rates and landlord laws

While homeowners are afforded a few more protections—for instance, the process of foreclosure happens over the course of months rather than in a matter of weeks or days  in the case of eviction—the COVID-19 crisis illuminates the more precarious housing realities facing many renters. 

"The cities in the country with the highest eviction filings are all in the Southeast. They're clustered in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee," Gilbert said. 

Cities across the country have allocated funding to help those facing eviction with legal fees. However Gilbert remarked that even with this funding and legal aid services, cities like Durham are only able to assist with 10 percent of the 10,000 eviction cases filed every year. 

In Atlanta's Fulton County, those numbers are closer to 800 evictions filed every week, according to Dillard.  

Speaking of the South more broadly, Breonne DeDecker of New Orlean's Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative said, "We have some of the harshest conditions facing our marginalized communities, facing our poor people, and we have some of the worst laws. And it's really hard to organize when you have bad laws."

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What about rent strikes?

There has been a lot of buzz around organizing national and local rent strikes. Even Teen Vogue published an interview with Washington Congressional Candidate Joshua Collins about the viability of organized rent strikes. However, Wednesday's speakers weren't sure that rent strikes were the best way forward in the South—in fact it's flat out illegal in Georgia. 

DeDecker elucidated the key factors in distinguishing a rent strike from the issuance of limited eviction moratoriums. First of all, a strike implies workers or tenants using their power to withhold labor or payment, but DeDecker noted that the COVID-19 situation is unique in that strikes have arisen as a solution for those who don't have the ability to pay—they have nothing to withhold. Thus, folks are not negotiating from a position of strength, but rather from one of collective need. 

There is no law that will protect tenants who do not pay their rent. Though an eviction moratorium provides a continuance for filing evictions, this is not equivalent to rent forgiveness or suspension.

Months of planning and tenant coalition-strengthening take place before a rent strike occurs. Housing organizers typically work to collect a financial aid fund in advance of a strike to provide legal support for those participating. Given the unexpectedness of the COVID-19 crisis and the incredibly volatile social and policy conditions, organizers are rushing to create some sense of stability to support those who would participate in a rent strike. Additional lawyers and legal aid workers would also need to be trained to handle the sheer volume of eviction proceedings that would ensue as a result of any coordinated effort. 

Second, there is no law that will protect tenants who do not pay their rent. Though an eviction moratorium provides a stay or continuance for filing evictions for a set period of time, this is not equivalent to rent forgiveness or suspension.The only difference now is that it is up to the discretion of the county sheriff whether or not to evict tenants.  Karimah Dillard encouraged tenants to directly negotiate with their landlords, as they are still on the hook for the full cost of the rent.  

It is not that a rent strike is impossible, cautioned Rice, "but when we are organizing and advising folks we want to make people aware of what those risks are…"

"We're calling on them to keep the courts closed until after the service industry opens back up for at least a month so people can actually start to get their jobs back, start to actually feel some economic security in this moment."

So far none of these state's four governors have officially instituted eviction moratoriums, leaving it up to individual municipalities to decide whether to enforce eviction notices. In Jefferson County, Alabama, where Birmingham is located, the sheriffs have gone on record to say that they will not be evicting people during stay-at-home-orders. 

Organizers in New Orleans are upping the ante, calling on their governor to cancel rent and mortgages completely since so many folks in the city work in the service industry and will struggle to make rent. 

"We're sending letters to the judges because—at least in Louisiana—it's the judges' decision to keep the courts closed. So we're calling on them to keep the courts closed until after the service industry opens back up for at least a month so people can actually start to get their jobs back, start to actually feel some economic security in this moment," said DeDecker. 

What of President Trump's triumphant remark about a national eviction moratorium? Gilbert confirmed that this moratorium, beginning March 27 and lasting 120 days, only applies to federal subsidized housing (public housing, housing projects, section 8, USDA rural housing, low income housing tax credits, vouchers and maybe those who are renting out of units in a house with a FHA mortgage). This continuance holds for filing evictions, but it does not mean that the owed rent has been forgiven.

This "perfect storm" is scheduled to make landfall in late July.

The dangerous element about an eviction continuance rather than rent suspension/forgiveness is that Gilbert and other legal and housing experts suspect that this will only result in a "tsunami of evictions" once the stays are over. This "perfect storm" is scheduled to make landfall in late July, when evictions are at their yearly peak, several months after many others in more financially secure positions have gone back to work and moved on from the initial shock of the pandemic.  

"It's also true that in some states the landlords can still sue you for the money even if they can't file an eviction. So if you don't pay your rent, they can still sue you for the money which will impact tenants' credit and influence your ability to find another home because landlord's will see that on your credit," said Legal Aid NC's Gilbert.

[The National Housing Law Project has on its website a break down for every state the status of eviction moratorium, stays or continuums. But check with a local attorney in your state as these may not be up to date.]

Although the situation seems dire, the South is not without options. 

Read part two of Rent Strikes & Beyond: housing strategies that work for the South.

See our other COVID-19 coverage:
– 'We don't want to die here.' Detained immigrants protest amid pandemic
– COVID-19: An extensive—and growing—list of political demands in the South
– 'Solidarity over charity'— mutual aid across foreign borders– In pandemic times, radical imagination matters more than ever.
– COVID-19: Context, tools, and strategies for workers from organizers and experts.
– Neighbors helping neighbors: a list of coronavirus mutual aid efforts in the South.
– Detainment centers are not equipped to handle the coronavirus, experts say.

Alysia Nicole Harris, Ph.D. is a poet, performer, linguist, and charismatic Christian. She lives in Corsicana, Texas, and serves as Scalawag's Editor-at-Large.