“I am undocumented, and I have three kids. One lives in Palmdale, two with me. They’re citizens. I’m from Nayarit, Mexico. I’ve been in California 33 years.” The speaker, a middle-aged woman I’ll call M, who used to take under-the-table cleaning jobs, has found it ever harder in recent years to find employment. These days, she makes a few dollars here and there by picking up bottles off the streets to recycle.
M lives in the San Fernando Gardens public housing complex in Pacoima, in the northern reaches of Los Angeles. Because she is undocumented, she is ineligible for public assistance, but as long as she pays the rent, she is allowed to live with her family in the public housing that her children legally qualify for. Currently, the family pays $1,131 in monthly rent to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA).
Now, however, Donald Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development is proposing rule changes that would upset decades of settled policy. Under the proposed new rules, if a single member of a family lacks legal status, the entire family can be evicted within 18 months. M is, understandably, worried that her family is at risk. “I really don’t have anyone. I’ll end up on the street,” she says. “My friends could put me up maybe for three days. But I couldn’t live with anybody.”
J, 49, is also frightened. A fellow San Fernando Gardens resident, she frets over her precarious economic position. Sitting in an elementary school classroom where a local chapter of the housing advocacy group People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER) sometimes meets in the evenings to discuss policy issues, J says she left Sinaloa, Mexico, with her husband in 1998 because there was no work. In the United States she gave birth to three boys. For the past 12 years, the family has been living in a two-bedroom public housing apartment, for which they currently pay $706 in monthly rent.
J’s husband works as a janitor, and her eldest son is in college and has a part-time job. Between them, they bring in $2,000 a month before taxes—enough to survive paycheck to paycheck but not enough to build up a rainy-day fund. J is afraid her family could become homeless. “My brother has four kids. Maybe we could cram into his house, but we couldn’t stay all the time. It would be impossible. We’d be in the street. What else is there to say?”
Preparing for the worst, she and her family have begun cutting back on everything they can. “We buy the cheapest thing there is. No luxury on the food at all. But we can still buy some meat—two times a week, if we’re lucky. We buy chicken. It’s the cheapest.”
Under the amended Section 214 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1980, mixed-status families—in which some members, usually children, have legal status and others are undocumented—can live in public housing or receive Section 8 vouchers, but only those with legal status are subsidized. Those without it have to pay market rent to the local housing authority if they are living in public housing or to the landlord if the family is covered by Section 8. The rationale for the legislation, which passed with bipartisan support, was pretty straightforward. It was intended, says Karlo Ng, a San Francisco–based supervising attorney for the National Housing Law Project (NHLP), “to ensure the integrity of the family unit and to preserve the family unit.”
After all, it’s no great mystery that children function better if their parents, whether documented or not, are part of their lives and that they succeed educationally and move up the economic ladder faster if they have a stable home to live in.
“We very much benefited from public housing,” says Francisco Rodriguez, who was born in El Salvador and came to the United States at age 3 with his mother and elder brother to escape the extreme poverty and violence of his home country. Francisco’s younger brother was born in the United States and is therefore a citizen. His stepdad, a legal resident, qualified for public housing. And so while family members worked to adjust their legal status (Francisco got his green card two years ago), they were able to live in the Mar Vista public housing complex near LA’s Culver City. “It gave us a stable home, opportunity,” Francisco continues. “I was able to get into the University of California at Santa Barbara. I’m studying economics. Having a safety net helped us move on from generation one and have more stable lives for the future.”
Francisco’s story is the quintessential upwardly mobile immigrant story, but it is one that Trump, Stephen Miller, Ken Cuccinelli, and the rest of the nativists running the show in DC want to eliminate.
HUD’s proposed regulations are entirely unconcerned about the damage done to children by rendering whole families ineligible for assistance. In addition to the imminent eviction of mixed-status families, no more such families would be processed for public housing or Section 8, in accordance with stringent new proof-of-eligibility requirements. Housing advocates fear that these requirements, in addition to barring undocumented people and their families, will have the side effect of deterring millions of low-income citizens and legal immigrants, who may lack access to documents such as passports and birth certificates, from applying for public housing or Section 8 vouchers.
According to a HUD impact analysis published in April, the changes could result in 108,000 people from mixed-status families—including more than 55,000 children who are US citizens or legal residents—being expelled from public housing or losing their Section 8 vouchers, with most of those affected living in New York, California, and Texas. New York City estimates that this would lead to 2,800 families, or 11,400 individuals, losing public housing. The Los Angeles Mayor’s Office and HACLA say a similar number would be affected there, adding thousands to the county’s existing 59,000 homeless residents.
Up and down California, a state already bedeviled by stunningly high levels of homelessness, chronic housing shortages, and devastating wildfires that have destroyed tens of thousands of residences, cities and immigrant communities will be pummeled. In the Central Valley, for example, Fresno may see more than 2,500 people face eviction under HUD’s new rules. In some of LA’s public housing tracts, local organizers say, up to 40 percent of families could lose their homes, and administrators at nearby elementary schools say hundreds of students could end up on the streets.
Quite apart from its cruelty, the policy is utterly impractical—and costly. It is almost guaranteed to have expensive health, educational, and employment consequences. In a scathing July letter to HUD, the NHLP wrote, “Studies have shown that unstable housing situations can cause individuals to experience increased hospital visits, loss of employment, and are associated with increased likelihood of mental health problems in children.”
The flimsy reasoning that HUD’s political appointees have used to justify the change doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In a crude race-baiting attempt to pit poor African American and white families against undocumented Latino ones, HUD has marketed the change as a way to free up housing space for US citizens on wait lists, but the rule change could, according to HUD’s own nonpartisan analysis, ultimately lead to fewer people in public and Section 8 housing. That’s because undocumented residents pay higher rent, thus easing pressure on the country’s overstretched and underfunded public and subsidized housing systems. Remove the hundreds of millions of dollars in rent paid by those residents without adding tax dollars, and these systems suddenly have to make do with less revenue.
This is, quite simply, government-sponsored vandalism in furtherance of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. “We don’t know how many of those folks have family or what everyone will do,” says Bill Przylucki, the executive director of POWER. “But a lot of people don’t have a plan. And we don’t have low-income housing stock to absorb these folks.”
In the late spring and early summer, groups like Przylucki’s coordinated a large-scale response during the public comment period that’s required before any proposed rule change may be published in the Federal Register. More than 30,000 comments were filed by individuals, community groups, public health and housing experts, educators, and so on. And of the comments the NHLP has analyzed so far, the overwhelming majority were firmly opposed to the changes.
Despite the well-organized opposition, and notwithstanding that implementation of such sweeping regulatory changes despite overwhelming opposition would likely contravene the Administrative Procedures Act, the Trump administration is almost certain to push them through by year’s end as part of its strategy of flogging immigration as a wedge issue in the 2020 election season. After all, this summer, in the face of more than a quarter-million comments filed in opposition, the Department of Homeland Security published its new “public charge” rules, designed to scare most legal immigrants away from using public benefits by declaring that enrolling in such programs would hurt their chances of gaining permanent residency or citizenship.
Housing advocates, anticipating the same trajectory regarding the new HUD rules, are girding for a legal fight. If and when the rule change is made, the Legal Aid Society in New York “intends to bring litigation to stop it on behalf of our clients in New York City,” says Lucy Newman, a staff attorney with the group’s law reform unit. “We’re hopeful a judge would issue a preliminary injunction. We’ll be seeking it on a nationwide basis.”
On the other side of the country, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is likely to sue the Trump administration, as are various housing advocacy groups. The result will almost certainly be a legal limbo, with some courts ordering injunctive relief to prevent the new rules from kicking in while the administration appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court.
At the same time, at the urging of groups like POWER, California legislators are starting to talk about how to set up parallel safety net systems to protect immigrant families expelled from federal housing. “We need to be ready with legal responses, public outreach and education, and coordination with local and state government in case people get displaced,” Przylucki argues.
POWER has approached politicians like Luz Rivas, a California State Assembly member representing the northeastern San Fernando Valley, to start working on backstops to protect such families. Sitting in her second-floor office in the Capitol in Sacramento, Rivas—who grew up in LA as the daughter of an undocumented woman—discusses the looming crisis. “California would have to redirect resources or work at the local level to see if there’s a way we can block it,” she says. But as she and other politicians acknowledge, it would be a huge financial gamble on the part of the states, and there’s no guarantee that immigrant families would trust state agencies to protect their data from a predatory federal government. “If we do establish a parallel system, how do we get people to trust us and to use the services?” she asks. “The fear Trump inspires is so great, it would take a lot to convince them to trust us.”
Joanne is a teacher’s assistant in Los Angeles and a community garden volunteer who emigrated from Morelos, Mexico, in the mid-1990s. She and her husband, a janitor with diabetes, are undocumented. Joanne, who requested a pseudonym because she is increasingly nervous about drawing attention to her status, says, “This is where our stress and tension are now. We are a mixed-status family. My kids are really worried. There’s always been the risk they could snatch me. Now there’s the risk of displacement.”
The couple and their four US-citizen children live in a four-bedroom public housing unit, paying $1,215 a month in rent to HACLA. Now Joanne is contemplating the unthinkable: homelessness or a return to overpriced, overcrowded, and dilapidated slum housing.
Last year Joanne’s two youngest daughters, ages 7 and 9, needed surgeries to correct their breathing problems, and her 11-year-old son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They desperately need stability; instead, they face the prospect of chaos. “Where would my kids go?” Joanne asks. “Especially the younger one? It hurts me, and it makes me sad. It’s really hard.”
Like so much else in Trump’s theater of cruelty, the fight over HUD’s rule change could reach a legal crescendo next spring—allowing Trump to dangle his tough-on-immigrants credentials to his electoral base.
Meanwhile, mixed-status families in public housing wait and worry about the pending bureaucratic pogrom being unleashed against them by the feds. It will not be bloody in the way that pogroms usually are. But it could nevertheless result in a humanitarian catastrophe, with tens of thousands of homeless kids on America’s streets, even as it stirs up racial and ethnic animosities by pitting poor Latino families against poor African American and white families over access to the country’s shrinking pool of public housing.
For 11-year-old Kimberley (a pseudonym she requested), the prospect of losing the only home she has ever known is terrifying. So terrifying that, in her own poignant way, she has been thinking of ways to help her family survive. The girl explains her plan, wide-eyed and talking fast while sitting on a wall outside her family’s apartment. “I’ll help my mom,” she says with an air of bravado. “Maybe for a few days she could live with my sister. Then we could help her find a way to live. We could save up so we could have a house. My mom gives me money—five dollars. I could put it in a piggy bank. We could all save money, and we’d live somewhere again.”
Kimberley would like to talk to Trump about this. “I’d say, ‘It’s not fair. We should all have a house to sleep in, a place we can stay warm and not stay cold,’” she says. “I think he’d say, ‘You’re just a little kid. I don’t believe what you’re saying.’” But, she continues, “I’d show him my house and say, ‘I’m happy I have a house, because if I live outside, I wouldn’t like it.’”