Reflections from a housing legal aid attorney on how critical the housing investments are in the recovery package

October 20, 2021
by Michael Santos, U.S. Poverty Senior Policy Associate

This morning, starting around 9am ET, as part of a vigil on Capitol Hill for the Build Back Better Act, I had the privilege and honor of speaking alongside faith groups and Representatives Maxine Waters and Ritchie Torres on the importance of housing investments in the final recovery package. I was able to reflect on my time as a housing attorney representing low-income renters in eviction court in San Francisco, and how the housing investments in the Build Back Better Act would help those who are struggling to access and afford a safe, stable, and secure home. Below is an excerpt of my remarks, edited for brevity and clarity. 

My name is Michael Santos and I’m a Senior Policy Associate, an advocate with RESULTS, a grassroots-led organization that advances domestic and global anti-poverty policies in Congress. I have lived in DC since 2014, but left in 2018 to move to California to become a housing legal aid attorney. For nearly 2 years, I worked with low-income tenants with private landlords, who are Section 8 housing choice voucher holders, and who lived in public housing. I was proud to be part of a group of dedicated attorneys providing free legal representation and services to tenants getting evicted in San Francisco housing court, which was part of the City’s Tenant-Right-to-Counsel (TRC) program. California is lucky to have this program alongside other strong tenant protections. I understand that this is not the case for many communities across the country. 

I want to talk briefly about my experience as a TRC attorney. I saw firsthand how disruptive and traumatizing evictions are to families struggling to make ends meet. In jurisdictions without protections, without eviction moratoria, evictions can have devastating consequences on people’s credit, on their ability to secure future housing or their ability to stay stably housed. Through my work, I learned how important and critical housing is, how central housing is to many families who often have to choose paying rent over physical safety, food security, health security, the education of their children, and over other necessities. Stable housing leads to positive health, education, and life outcomes. Access to safe, secure, and stable housing is central and foundational for people to thrive and succeed. Without housing, everything else can easily unravel.  

The housing investments in the Build Back Better Act will address the housing affordability, eviction, and homelessness crises that have been ongoing and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Let me be clear – I saw firsthand how these crises have devastated and disproportionately impacted people of color, people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and LGBTQ people.

We cannot build back better without housing investments, without long-term rental assistance, without investments in public housing. We cannot build back better if we only increase the supply of affordable housing without making this supply truly affordable and accessible to those who need them the most. Housing justice is racial justice, disability justice, education justice, gender justice, and health justice. 

It is nice to be back in Washington, DC and great to be here with you today. But if you look around, within a 5-minute walk from the steps of the Capitol, you can see people living on the streets, in tents, in encampments. You can see how visible the housing affordability and homelessness crises are, not just in DC, but across the country. We need the housing investments in Build Back Better. Congress needs to pass a recovery package that does not leave out these investments in order for the country to effectively address its housing affordability, eviction, and homelessness crises.

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