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The fight for Black lives is not a monolith. In fact, the past few months have made it abundantly clear that strategizing a sustainable movement for defending Black lives means that allies must remain cognizant of other systems that are inextricably tied to the mission of Black Lives Matter.
We have seen that COVID-19 has disproportionately claimed Black lives. As of July 1st, Boston has reported that Black residents comprise 37% of known COVID cases, and 35% of known deaths. However, about 52% of Boston residents are white, in comparison to 25% of its residents being Black. How is it that Black residents comprise less than 30% of the population, but comprise the highest COVID-19-related fatalities out of all ethnic/racial minority groups? The egregiously high percentages are the direct result of a poor national response to addressing the pandemic’s spread. Even for those who have been able to seek medical treatment in response to COVID-19 symptoms, time and time again has it been proven that Black pain has been denied by the medical field. Multitudes of reports of Black patients being told their symptoms are benign or not severe enough to constitute hospital admittance, only to later lose their lives, have shown that health justice must inevitably be tied to racial justice.
This assertion is not unknown to those in position of power. The call for public health as a racial justice issue has been cried out for years across the nation, to such a point that states like Massachusetts have released advisory recommendations on how to address the clear impact of COVID-19 on Black communities. Yet, even if it is acknowledged that public health is a racial justice issue, why is it that those in positions of power do not factor in housing as both a public health and racial justice issue?
The clear economic downturn associated with COVID-19 has led to countless filings for unemployment, many of those terms set to expire on July 31st. As individuals without jobs were subsequently unable to pay their rent or mortgages at the early onset of the pandemic, City Life/Vida Urbana and MIT reported that already about 243 evictions were filed in Boston alone between the February outbreak and the state’s eviction moratorium, 78% of these filings occurring in communities of color. This is to already add to ongoing data in Boston of historically disproportionate effects of eviction filings on neighborhoods with predominantly Black renters.
At the national level, the CARES Act and its congressionally-mandated eviction plan only scratched the surface by protecting tenants in buildings with federally backed mortgages, a number that would cover 12 million out of almost 44 million rental units in the United States. Steps to impose eviction moratoria in states like Massachusetts provided a temporary stall to the onslaught of eviction filings that would have been expected throughout the past few months of the pandemic’s waves. Unfortunately, the eviction moratoria have not been uniform throughout the United States. Eviction Lab has ranked states by the strength of their respective moratorium, showing that some states had not even instituted a formal eviction moratorium during the pandemic. Close to half of the country has ranked below a 1.0 out of 5.0 on this scale, with 1.0 indicating poorest tenant protections. Furthermore, the moratoria have not stopped some landlords from resorting to harassing tenants or attempting to illegally evict them.
Eviction moratoria are set to expire. With the calamitous effects of COVID-19, and the ongoing movements to hold law enforcement/the surveillance state accountable for the systemic murders of Black folks, the Black community has yet another systemic hurdle to overcome: the “flood” of evictions set to begin, if they had not begun already.
Experts have already set a clear warning on the mass displacement poised to harm countless Black communities across the nation. A Pew Research Center survey found that approximately 73% of Black folks said that they had no emergency funds to cover three months of expenses; 48% also stated that they “cannot pay some bills or can only make partial payments on some of them” during the month of the survey. A Pulse survey revealed that a quarter of Black and Latinx renters did not pay or deferred rent in May, and nearly half of the same demographics expressed concern in being unable to pay rent in June. With the pandemic’s momentum, there has been a general 92% increase across the board in daily rental assistance requests, and an increased rate of rent payments made on credit cards. For homeowners, 28% of Black homeowners did not pay or deferred their mortgage in May, with 27% expressing concern with paying mortgages in June.
The pandemic is only reflective of another iteration of an already pervasive racial wealth gap institutionalized by the nation’s infrastructure of racial capitalism: the average wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for Black families, and median white wealth is twelve times higher than median Black wealth. The mass displacement, capitalist/neoliberal devaluation, and breaking apart of Black households is not a recent development. As COVID-19 has demonstrated, this is a new crisis, but the same story.
The real estate market and the history of the affordable housing crisis have demonstrated a veiled and/or overt attempt to render the housing market inaccessible to Black folks: from the history of redlining and the mortgage lending crisis, to the use of credit scores and tenant blacklists to prevent Black tenants from new housing opportunities, the conversation on organizing for housing justice must adjust to the current movement for Black Lives.
When we say defend Black lives, we mean defend Black homes too. On-the-ground movements have already done the work of highlighting the harms of the affordable housing crisis on the Black community. During the time of COVID-19, grassroots organizations like the Right to Counsel NYC, Housing Justice for All and City Life-Vida Urbana have teamed up with other tenant coalitions to demand rent control, to demand rent relief, to demand rent cancellation, and to keep housing courts closed.
In the call to defund and abolish police, we must drive our nation to divest from the prison industrial complex in order to fund Black communities, to fund rent relief, and to fund plans for affordable housing that are built directly from the demands of local movements.
Black tenant coalitions have continually faced backlash from landlords simply for demanding necessary repairs in neglected buildings, even though being a member of a tenant association is a legally protected right. Retaliation by landlords is a constant threat, even though calling services like 311 to report poor conditions is a legally protected right, and should not be met with threats of eviction or an actual serving of a Notice to Quit.
What can allies to the movement to defend Black lives do in infusing a more robust consciousness of the link between racial justice and housing justice?
Support your local Black tenant coalitions and your own building’s tenants’ association. This means extending the Black Lives Matter movement into intentional care for Black households – and this support differs in context. Check in with your building’s tenants’ association to see what you can do to support the work that tenants are already doing to combat illegal rent raises and hazardous conditions. Recognize the possible hurdles that your own actions may do to impede the movements in both your building and neighborhood, and act accordingly based on the strategic benefits and limitations of your actions.
Attend events organized by your local tenants’ coalition, specifically if local organizers call for a need to have as many bodies present in order to stave off police intervention. Call your local representatives to highlight systemic issues that have manifested in systematic mechanisms within your community. The organized cause for cancelling rent in New York City, as well as the call for rent control in Massachusetts, are examples of allies pressuring legislators and local decision-makers to establish necessary protocols for protecting tenants and homeowners among constituent bases.
Many states and municipalities have attempted to create rent relief funds as a way to provide temporary financial assistance for families. Programs like RAFT have been inundated with a high-volume of applications for families seeking rent assistance. Being in touch with mutual aid funds for Black grassroots organizations supplying pool funds for Black residents is another way to support local organizing.
For those who are in the legal field, becoming aware of your rights as a tenant, as well as hosting Know Your Rights trainings in your respective communities, are essential means of leveraging privileged access to legal resources to ensure that Black tenants are protected from abuses of landlord power and police surveillance. For cities that have passed Right to Counsel, assuring tenants that they have the right to free legal representation in the midst of pending eviction proceedings can prevent tenants from appearing alone and pro se in housing court. For those jurisdictions that do not yet have a Right to Counsel program, working with on-the-ground movements that desire a Right to Counsel is a method of contributing your own legal expertise to the fight for a “civil Gideon”—a reference to the case establishing a right to counsel for defendants in criminal cases—in the midst of systematic hierarchies of housing court.
To be in line and in solidarity with on-the-ground movements as a legal practitioner, become acquainted with literature and pedagogy on movement lawyering. It is an ongoing process to become more self-aware of the role of the lawyer (and what the role of the lawyer is not) when providing resources and capacity to grassroots organizers. City Life’s sword-and-shield model is a powerful model of lawyers working with organizers, advocates, and tenants to defend tenants from landlord abuse while also actively organizing against the structures that allow landlord abuse to exist.
These strategies for meaningful allyship with Black households are not exhaustive, and certainly are not a monolithic image. Larger, community-based strategies to create a more holistic effort to show up for Black communities do not replace the necessary interpersonal, internal self-reflections that allies must contextualize when understanding their own relative position in the communities they occupy.
How do you as an ally occupy space in your respective community? Are you in a predominantly Black community as a non-Black person, and have you occupied space as a transplant complicit in gentrification? If so, how are you channeling your capital and resources to account for the acts of racial capitalism taking place in these communities? Do you invest in local Black businesses in your neighborhood, or do you resort to larger non-Black conglomerates? Have you ever called the police on your neighbors, or have you ever thought of doing so? How do you engage with your Black neighbors—if you even engage with your Black neighbors at all? All of these questions are starting points for a deeper process of understanding the gaps present between the space you occupy and the spaces you desire to be in solidarity with—for movements rooted in Black lives, allies must first recognize how they treat Black lives.
Housing should be a right, and not just a privilege. As COVID-19 has spurred necessary discourse on health justice, let us not leave out the roles that racial justice and housing justice play together in this larger paradigm of systemic exclusion/exploitation of Black communities. This moment in our nation, immensely painful and tragic, is an urgent call to action to preserve Black households, to preserve Black lives, and to galvanize ourselves into a sustainable momentum of movement-building solidarity. Black Lives Matter.
 See “Racial Data on Boston Resident COVID-19 Cases,” City of Boston (as of July 1, 2020), https://www.boston.gov/departments/mayors-office/racial-data-boston-resident-covid-19-cases; see also Bob Oakes, “COVID-19 Hits Boston’s Black Community Especially Hard,” WBUR (April 16, 2020), https://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2020/04/16/covid-19-coronavirus-african-american-boston-black.
 See generally “QuickFacts Boston city, Massachusetts,” United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/bostoncitymassachusetts/RHI225218#RHI225218.
 See Marya T. Mtshali, “How medical bias against Black people is shaping COVID-19 treatment and care,” Vox (June 2, 2020), https://www.vox.com/2020/6/2/21277987/coronavirus-in-black-people-covid-19-testing-treatment-medical-racism.; see also Rashad Robinson, “The racism that’s pervaded the US health system for years is even deadlier now,” The Guardian (May 4, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/04/racism-us-healthcare-coronavirus-african-americans.
 See Arielle Mitropoulos and Mariya Moseley, “Beloved Brooklyn teacher, 30, dies of coronavirus after she was twice denied COVID-19 test,” ABC News (Apr. 28, 2020), https://abcnews.go.com/Health/beloved-brooklyn-teacher-30-dies-coronavirus-denied-covid/story?id=70376445.; see also Jossie Carreras Tartak and Hazar Khidir, “Opinion: U.S. Must Avoid Building Racial Bias into COVID-19 Emergency Guidance,” NPR (Apr. 21, 2020), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/04/21/838763690/opinion-u-s-must-avoid-building-racial-bias-into-covid-19-emergency-guidance.; John Eligon and Audra D.S. Burch, “Questions of Bias in COVID-19 Treatment Add to the Mourning for Black Families,” The New York Times (May 10, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/us/coronavirus-african-americans-bias.html.
 See “Department of Public Health releases recommendations of COVID-19 Health Advisory Group to address pandemic’s impact on communities of color” (June 19, 2020), https://www.mass.gov/news/department-of-public-health-releases-recommendations-of-covid-19-health-equity-advisory-group.
 See Katy O’Donnell, “Black community braces for next threat: mass evictions,” Politico (June 12, 2020), https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/12/mass-evictions-314699.
 See Crystal Haynes, “Report shows 200+ evictions filed in Boston during state of emergency, 78% in communities of color,” Boston 25 News (May 20, 2020), https://www.boston25news.com/news/health/report-shows-200-evictions-filed-boston-during-state-emergency-78-communities-color/SZG5NPM7XZCJZANL56SZW62QCY/.
 This report was made possible by City Life Vida Urbana and MIT. See David Robinson and Justin Steil, “Evictions in Boston: The Disproportionate Effects of Forced Moves on Communities of Color,” Evictions in Boston Report, available at https://www.bostonevictions.org/.
 Supra note 4.
 An Act Providing for a Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID-19 Emergency, H.4647 (2020), available at https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/H4647/BillHistory.
 See RJ Vogt, “Emily Benfer on the Incoming Wave of COVID-19 Evictions,” Law360 (June 21, 2020), https://www.law360.com/access-to-justice/articles/1284556/emily-benfer-on-the-incoming-wave-of-covid-19-evictions.
 See Safia Samee Ali, “Some landlords are using harassment, threats to force out tenants during COVID-19 crisis,” NBC News (June 14, 2020), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/some-landlords-are-using-harassment-threats-force-out-tenants-during-n1218216.; see also Connor Perett, “Landlords are sexually harassing tenants and using housing insecurity fears created by the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports,” Insider (Apr. 18, 2020), https://www.insider.com/landlords-are-using-covid-19-fear-to-sexually-harass-tenants-2020-4. States have taken measures to prevent the use of illegal evictions or harassment tactics by landlords by issuing advisories through the Attorney General’s office – these advisories remind both landlords and tenants of anti-harassment laws in their respective jurisdiction. See “AG Healey Issues Advisory for Tenants on Unlawful Evictions During COVID-19 Pandemic,” Office of Attorney General Maura Healey (May 8, 2020), https://www.mass.gov/news/ag-healey-issues-advisory-for-landlords-and-tenants-on-unlawful-evictions-during-covid-19.
 See Chris Conte, “‘Flood’ of evictions likely as moratoriums end; protection for homeowners,” WPTV (June 11, 2020), https://www.wptv.com/news/national/flood-of-evictions-likely-as-moratoriums-end-protection-for-homeowners.
 See Emily A. Benfer, Seema Mohapatra, Lindsay Wiley, Ruqaiijah Yearby , Health Justice Strategies to Combat the Pandemic: Eliminating Discrimination, Poverty, and Health Inequity During and After COVID-19, 23 (forthcoming 2020); see also Mark Hugo Lopez, Lee Rainie, and Abby Budiman, “Financial and health impacts of COVID-19 vary widely by race and ethnicity,” Pew Research Center (May 5, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/05/05/financial-and-health-impacts-of-covid-19-vary-widely-by-race-and-ethnicity/.
 See Solomon Greene and Alanna McCargo, “New Data Suggest COVID-19 is Widening Housing Disparities by Race and Income,” The Urban Institute (May 29, 2020), https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/new-data-suggest-covid-19-widening-housing-disparities-race-and-income?cm_ven=ExactTarget&cm_cat=HFPC+-+06.02.2020&cm_pla=All+Subscribers&cm_ite=https%3a%2f%2fwww.urban.org%2furban-wire%2fnew-data-suggest-covid-19-widening-housing-disparities-race-and-income&cm_ainfo=&&utm_source=%20urban_newsletters&&utm_medium=news-HFPC&&utm_term=HFPC&&&mod=article_inline; see generally Michal Grinstein-Weiss, Brinda Gupta, Yung Chun, Hedwig Lee, and Mathieu Despard, “Housing hardships reach unprecedent heights during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brookings (June 1, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/06/01/housing-hardships-reach-unprecedented-heights-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/.
 Supra note 15 at 14—15. See also Rachel Garg, Balaji Golla, Irum Javed, and Matthew Kreuter, “Rent requests higher in states with few protections for renters,” Washington University in St. Louis Health Communication Research Laboratory (Apr. 30, 2020), https://hcrl.wustl.edu/items/rent-requests-higher-in-states-with-few-protections-for-renters/. The 92% increase in requests for rent assistance is not specifically for Black tenants, but a percentage of all tenants across the nation. See Will Parker, “Out-of-Work Apartment Tenants Putting Monthly Rent on Plastic,” The Wall Street Journal (Apr. 15, 2020), https://www.wsj.com/articles/out-of-work-apartment-tenants-putting-monthly-rent-on-plastic-11586966251.
 Supra note 16.
 See Janelle Jones, “The racial wealth gap: How African-Americans have been shortchanged out of the materials to build wealth,” Economic Policy Institute (Feb. 13, 2017), https://www.epi.org/blog/the-racial-wealth-gap-how-african-americans-have-been-shortchanged-out-of-the-materials-to-build-wealth/.
 See generally Lillian Singh, Ebony White, Cat Goughnour, Sharice Davis, Madelaine Santana, COVID-19: New Crisis, Same Story! Highlighting the Innovations to Racial Economic Inequality from Leaders of Color, Prosperity Now (May 2020), https://prosperitynow.org/sites/default/files/resources/COVID-19-New-Crisis-Same-Story.pdf.
 See Nikitra S. Bailer, “Predatory Lending: The New Face of Economic Injustice,” The American Bar Association (July 2005), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/human_rights_vol32_2005/summer2005/hr_summer05_predator/.
 See generally Lisa Rice & Deidre Swesnik, Discriminatory Effects of Credit Scoring on Communities of Color, 46 Suffolk U. L. Rev. (2013). See also Sarah Ludwig, “Credit scores in America perpetuate racial injustice. Here’s how.” The Guardian (October 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/13/your-credit-score-is-racist-heres-why.
 See generally Rudy Kleysteuber, Tenant Screening Thirty Years Later: A Statutory Proposal to Protect Public Records, 116 Yale L.J., 1170–1399 (2007); see also Esme Caramello and Annette Duke, “The Misuse of MassCourts as a Free Tenant Screening Device,” Boston Bar Journal (2015), https://bostonbarjournal.com/2015/10/21/the-misuse-of-masscourts-as-a-free-tenant-screening-device/.
 See “Housing committee votes big for rent control bills,” Worcester Business Journal (June 1, 2020), https://www.wbjournal.com/article/housing-committee-votes-big-for-rent-control-bills.
 See Matthew Haag, “A Moratorium on Evictions Ends, Leaving Thousands of Tenants Fearful,” The New York Times (June 22, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/22/nyregion/nyc-evictions-moratorium-coronavirus.html.
 See generally “Forming A Tenants’ Association,” Met Council on Housing, https://www.metcouncilonhousing.org/help-answers/forming-a-tenants-association/.
 See generally “Getting Repairs,” Met Council on Housing, https://www.metcouncilonhousing.org/help-answers/getting-repairs/.
 See generally Housing and Community Development, “Learn about Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT),” https://www.mass.gov/service-details/learn-about-residential-assistance-for-families-in-transition-raft.
 See generally Andrew Scherer, “WHY A RIGHT: The Right to Counsel and the Ecology of Housing Justice,” Impact Center for Public Interest Law. Book 17 (2016); Andrew Scherer, Why People Who Face Losing Their Homes in Legal Proceedings Must Have a Right to Counsel, 3 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol’y & Ethics J. 699 (2006); John Whitlow, Gentrification and Countermovement: The Right to Counsel and New York City’s Affordable Housing Crisis, 46 Fordham Urb. L.J. 1081 (2019).
 The work of Law For Black Lives, Movement For Black Lives, Movement Law Lab, and the Community Justice Project (Miami) all utilize a framework of movement lawyering. Referring to their mission and values is a useful starting point for those unacquainted with what movement lawyering looks like. For other introductory works, see generally Alexi Nunn Freeman & Jim Freeman, It’s About Power, Not Policy: Movement Lawyering For Large-Scale Social Change, 23 Clinical L. Rev. 147 (2016); Scott L. Cummings, Movement Lawyering, Univ. of Illinois L. Rev. (2017); Betty Hung, Movement Lawyering as Rebellious Lawyering: Advocating with Humility, Love and Courage, 23 Clinical L. Rev. 663 (2017); Susan D. Carle, Ethics and the History of Social Movement Lawyering, 2018 Wis. L. Rev. Forward 12 (2018).
 See Melvyn Colon, “The Sword and the Shield,” ShelterForce (Dec. 14, 2011), https://shelterforce.org/2011/12/14/the_sword_and_the_shield/.
Jocelyn Hassel is a 3L at Harvard Law School. She advocates for tenants of and applicants to public/subsidized housing through the Tenant Advocacy Project. She is currently a research assistant and policy analyst for Eviction Lab. Jocelyn is a first-generation Dominican-American, and is a member of the Harvard Black Law Students Association and La Alianza.