Empty Churches And the Looming Eviction Crisis

Empty Churches And the Looming Eviction Crisis August 18, 2020

On July 31st, the federal moratorium on evictions ended. The following two weeks, landlords across the country got busy evicting tenants who, for many reasons, most of them pandemic-related, had been unable to keep up with their rent.

I happen to live in Arkansas, a state with the distinction of having the worst protections for renters of anywhere in the nation. Not only does our state allow landlords to evict with just three days notice: we also provide free prosecutor services for the landlords.

Our state actually subsidizes evictions.

Last week, I held a protest in front of Lindsey Management, our region’s largest landlord. This massive management company has hundreds of rental facilities in states across the mid-south.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t heard back from the lawyers and staff I’ve contacted at Lindsey, seeing if they might find creative solutions to slow evictions or seek alternatives to evictions. Instead, their evictions proceed at a steady pace.

As just one example, my friend who I partner with to provide relief in the Marshallese community is receiving updates of anywhere from 10-20 households PER DAY who are receiving eviction notices in that community, based largely in Springdale.

The issue here is immense. Right now I believe we are only seeing the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Many people in August will find ways to pay their rent: they’ll get a loan from the in-laws, or access grants and other resources in their municipality, or tap into their savings, or sell their belongings.

Next month, they’ll have less of those resources, they’ll have taxed their networks, and the evictions will ramp up. By October, if I’m not mistaken, we will be seeing a pandemic of evictions. Some estimates indicate we could see as many as 24 million evictions over the next four months.

There is no good moral reason why renters should bear such a large percentage of the financial burden of this moment. Most renters I know who are behind on their rent are behind because their poultry employer isn’t paying them when they are quarantined, or their work has slowed because of COVID-19 restrictions.

We need landlords to exercise much greater leniency, stop evictions, and recognize these are unprecedented times.

We need banks, who lend to landlords, to not force landlords’ hands.

We need our federal government to establish another moratorium on evictions, and not the half-assed and likely illegal executive order Donald Trump signed last week.

As Bernie Sanders pointed out in his DNC speech last night: “Instead of maintaining the $600 a week unemployment supplement that workers were receiving, and the $1,200 emergency checks that many of you received, instead of helping small businesses — Trump concocted fraudulent executive orders that do virtually nothing to address the crisis while threatening the very future of Social Security and Medicare.”

Specifically, his executive order gave the illusion he had actually done something about evictions. But his EO was simply a recommendation to his cabinet to find a solution on evictions. No protections are in place. Landlords are free to evict willy-nilly. And they are.

What should churches do?

In times like these, it’s ideal for churches to make a lot of noise. They should be clamoring from the street corners and the mountain tops and in Facebook posts and in media outlets that habitable living and shelter is a human right.

It’s also very good for churches to be providing as much relief as they can. As the church, we make a more compelling case when we are helping as well as advocating.

Our congregation is actively providing financial support for dozens of households facing eviction. We are doing so because we are receiving generous donations from our members and community.

This is essential. The church helps.

But then it must be combined with effective political and economic strategizing, because there’s simply no way the church, even if every single church in the United States got involved, could protect 24 million households from eviction, or provide them alternative shelter.

I do think we may be facing a moment when churches, especially churches not in use for worship because of their wise and safe response to COVID-19, might open their church building to house those unjustly evicted.

If many churches across the country began housing evicted families, it would send a message to those in power. Look, you kicked this single mother and children out onto the street, and they’re now living at Good Shepherd.

At the very least, our empty sanctuaries should serve as a reminder to us that we are to be living sanctuaries. The gospel of Jesus Christ is book-ended with the Sermon on the Mount, and the Matthew 25 text reminding us that Jesus commends those, who when they see a stranger invite them in, provide food and water, and clothe those in need.

That’s the work of the church.

In the 21st century, we also know this is the work of corporations, and government. The invitation to care for our neighbor in their humanity and meet their needs is not a hyper-individual religious sentiment, something you personally are supposed to do because you are a Christian.

It’s best when the corporations pay their workers well (and shift the evil wage gap currently in place between executives and laborers), when the police refuse to follow orders to evict, when the government passes laws that protect habitability and provide resources for renters, when lawyers help file briefs resisting the evictions, when renters refuse to leave their shelter because of unjust evictions, AND the church helps as there is need.

We’re in this together, right?


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