When this is over, it will just be beginning. The global pandemic already is shaking the foundations of class, capitalism and nationhood all over the world. Some people see it. Some don’t. Here in Dallas, our mayor is an unfortunate example of don’t.
According to the most recent population estimates of the Census Bureau, 790,887 people in this city live in rental housing — 58.8% of the city’s population. According to the news, a quarter to a third of employed persons in the city are soon to be unemployed. It’s reasonable to assume that hundreds of thousands of Dallas residents are looking at eviction already or will be soon.
And yet last week Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, in a fit of pique over what he took as a challenge to his authority, buried an attempt by southern Dallas council member Adam Bazaldua to provide tenants with longer notice before eviction and more information about their rights under Texas law.
Bazaldua wasn’t trying to stop evictions or change basic Texas property law. He was really just trying to soften the blow and take some of the brutality out of Texas law. Otherwise state law allows a landlord to toss out a tenant in three days when rent goes unpaid.
The Texas Supreme Court has ordered a halt to evictions until April 20, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has ordered a halt through May 18. Collin County, which encompasses the northernmost reaches of the city, has enacted eviction protection until May 8. But when those suspensions lapse, the toss-outs may begin again with a vengeance.
Some tenants are reporting they are receiving get-out letters already from their landlords, in spite of the moratoriums. There is some indication landlords may be rushing to initiate evictions in order to secure a good place in line for what is anticipated to be a crush on the court system when the eviction protections expire.
Bazaldua’s proposal would have required a landlord to notify tenants 60 days ahead of time before sending the get-out letter. It was more about extending temporary mercy to people and giving them time to learn their rights than about overturning the underlying law.
The mayor’s objection, at least as he expressed it publicly, was based mainly on protecting his prerogatives as mayor. After fighting off an attempted rule change that would have allowed the full City Council to consider the Bazaldua idea, the mayor stuffed it into a committee, effectively delaying consideration until after the crisis peaks.
I saw a lot of back and forth online questioning Johnson’s motivation, most of it suggesting he was carrying water for the small, well-heeled coterie of business interests and landholders who financed his campaign for office. And who knows?
But I doubt it. My own take on what I heard him say last week to the City Council was that it was all about him, Eric Johnson. So thin-skinned is he, so jealous of rank that I don’t believe he can even see the people out there faced with losing their homes.
His inner motivation and personality issues are sort of beside the point, anyway. The much bigger takeaway from the mayor’s remarks last week was that he has no grasp, no inkling, no concept of the sheer Richter scale of the coming social-economic earthquake.
For Johnson, the crisis facing the Dallas City Council last week had nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands of people who may soon be turned out onto the city’s streets. The big issue for him was that Bazaldua wanted to change the rules about who can place a proposition on the council's agenda:
“I cannot think of a worse time,” Johnson said, “I cannot think, literally, I cannot think of a worse time to introduce something like this into our discussion, when we have literally reduced for the most part the work of city government to dealing with a global pandemic, and I cannot for the life of me understand the urgent need for it. At best I would say the timing of this is suspicious.”
Here’s the thing. Calls for a national rent strike are all over social media, accompanied by labor unrest and spontaneous walk-outs in places like the automobile industry, where wildcat strikes are supposed to be next to impossible.
A New York Times story at the end of last week speculated that the pandemic may be the death knell for the European Union. Gaping social rifts exposed by the pandemic within our own society have inspired speculation about the end of capitalism as we know it.
In this country we are already challenging long-held assumptions about economic justice without even knowing we are doing it. Belgian philosopher and political economist Philippe Van Parijs last week hailed, if grudgingly, the $1,200 per capita payment and other government grants passed by the U.S. Congress, which he took as a grand American experiment in universal income, something he has long advocated.
“Over more than the short term, they are unsustainable,” he said of the American economic subsidies handed out to prop up the economy and Wall Street. “However, they all share a most welcome virtue.
“They all boost our awareness of how much better equipped our societies and our economies would be to face challenges such as this one if a permanent unconditional basic income were in place.”
Did you know that’s what we were talking about? Is it? If the subsidies work, will we be talking about universal basic income as a better way to build a strong society and economy?
Canadian philosopher Shelley Tremain, who writes about bioethics and disability, pointed out last week that the pandemic is peeling back the onion in profound ways on issues of medicine and social justice. For example, the crisis poses a terrible but inescapable question about the special vulnerability of people in nursing homes.
Why are they especially vulnerable? Is it because they are especially old or disabled? Or is it because they are especially found in nursing homes?
Tremain wrote last week that we can’t assign the high death rates in nursing homes to age and infirmity without also looking at institutional conditions: “These often appalling arrangements include facilities that are understaffed and underfunded, skeleton staffs that are poorly trained and under-trained, limited attention to the hygiene of residents, lack of socialization and activity for residents, nutritionally inadequate and bland food, rigidly scheduled meals, restrictive bed and bath routines, and so on.
“Indeed, this institutionalization of seniors and younger disabled people is a grievous social injustice designed to remove these inconvenient and inconveniencing subjects from the daily lives of nondisabled, younger people.”
I’m not saying we all have to put an automatic check mark next to everything Tremain says about nursing homes and agree with her on all of it. But I must say that her words struck a particular bell in terms of what we have been seeing here in the news in our own county.
Dallas County’s elected chief executive, County Judge Clay Jenkins, has been urging families to remove relatives and loved ones from nursing homes if possible to protect them from danger. All week I have been turning that over, trying to work some half-formed question in the back of my head.
When I read Tremain’s words, it came to me. My own parents are gone, but when they were still living I approved of their move to a nursing home because I wanted them to be safe. So, if they were still alive and supposedly safe in the nursing home, why would the county judge now tell me to get them out of there?
Tremain’s answer to that question is fairly emphatic. Her answer is that they were never safe in the nursing home. They were just out of my way, off my plate, no longer a source of personal pressure or part of my daily concerns.
The pandemic is scraping raw some of our most basic assumptions about normal life, acceptable arrangements and the kinds of social injustice we will tolerate. And that’s just about a virus.
Eviction, unemployment, hunger, fear: These problems don’t look like that weird little space-ball they’ve been showing us for weeks now with all the little funnels sticking out of it. Eviction and hunger have human faces. A human being sends you your get-out letter, not a virus.
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When the larger social and economic aftermath begins to grind down on us, it will no longer be clad in a mask and lab coat. Then it’s going to look more like a mayor, a landlord, a governor or a president.
By moving urgently to extend mercy, Bazaldua simply is seeing the dilemma ahead for what it is. Some people can see it, whether with their hearts or with their heads. They get that the pandemic is only the beginning of a profound churning of human society and the natural world.
In our understandable obsession with the virus, did we already forget the grim crescendo of weather-driven urban infrastructure catastrophes preceding the pandemic, sure to take up again when the virus is gone? Those of us not clutching the curtain of denial can see what’s still out there ahead, coming. Right?
So the problem with a guy like our mayor is not so much that he’s a puppet of some wealthy interests. The real problem is that he and his wealthy backers don’t get what’s going on or what lies ahead.