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Rep. Ilhan Omar: We Need to Cancel the Rent, Not Just Postpone Evictions

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Image Credit: Twitter: @CoriBush

Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar was among the progressive Democrats who camped outside the U.S. Capitol to pressure the Biden administration into passing a new eviction moratorium after the previous moratorium lapsed July 31. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new two-month moratorium earlier in the week that covers areas of the country where there is “substantial” or “high” spread of the coronavirus. “As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect those that sent us to legislate on their behalf,” says Omar, adding that she has personal familiarity with housing precarity. “I certainly have experienced severe aspects of that as someone who not only slept on the side of roads, on beaches … but also spent a lot of time in a refugee camp.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the fight over housing. Landlords in Georgia and Alabama have asked a federal judge to block the Biden administration’s new two-month moratorium on evictions. The new CDC moratorium covers areas of the United States where there’s “substantial” or “high” spread of the coronavirus — about 90% of the country. The Alabama and Georgia chapters of the National Association of Realtors filed its motion with U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee who ruled in favor of landlords in May.

A nationwide moratorium on evictions expired Saturday after Democratic lawmakers failed to pass a bill to protect millions of people who could be forced from their homes. The White House initially said the moratorium could only be extended by Congress due to a recent Supreme Court ruling, but the Biden administration reversed course following intense pressure from progressive lawmakers.

On Friday night, three members of Congress — Cori Bush of Missouri, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — camped outside the U.S. Capitol with others to demand action.

Congressmember Ilhan Omar joins us now. She has just published the paperback version of her memoir. It’s titled This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. It tells the story of how she became the first Somali American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

Representative Ilhan Omar, welcome back to Democracy Now! Your book is called This Is What America Looks Like, and I think of that picture of you on the steps of the Capitol sleeping out with Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley, two other congresswomen of color, demanding that millions of people not be thrown out of their homes, demanding of your own colleagues and the Biden administration. Congratulations on the release of your paperback. Talk about why you stayed out overnight.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, Amy, it’s really great to be with you this morning.

I remember seeing Cori put out a message to us to join her. And I, you know, thought it was really important for us to express just how important it was for people to realize, as lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect those that sent us to legislate on their behalf.

And, you know, as Cori has her own personal experience with being unhoused, I certainly have experienced severe aspects of that as someone who not only slept on the side of roads, on beaches, as you have read, probably, in my book, but also spent a lot of time in a refugee camp, destitute. And so, my own experiences, her own experiences, Ayanna’s own experiences with dealing with homelessness has pushed us to take that drastic measure. And we knew that it would ultimately, you know, motivate our colleagues and the White House to take action. They could no longer ignore the kind of devastation that inaction would have caused in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re taking on your own party, along with taking on the opposing party, the Republican Party. Just inside, your colleagues had just gone on recess. Now, while the Biden administration, responding to your pressure — enormous pressure — just not exactly reinstated the moratorium, but did a slightly modified one, where it will cover 90% of the country, and cited the CDC — you know, the CDC imposed it — but they had said — Biden had said it’s really up to Congress, because the Supreme Court struck this down already. Why — how is it possible that the House, that’s Democrat-led, could not pass an extension of the moratorium?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: This is what has been the most frustrating part of this whole conversation. You know, we obviously didn’t have a lot of time. That’s understood. We got the notification on Thursday, and we rushed to produce legislation, with the leadership of Chairwoman Waters. And we believed it was important to stay over the weekend, negotiate and have the ability to vote on the bill. We believed that people should be on the record voting on a yes or no on whether 11 million people, possibly, should be facing eviction, and then they should be forced to go to their constituents and explain why they made their decisions. And the fact that leadership decided to not do that, to not take that route, was frustrating not just for me, but even for Chairwoman Waters, who certainly thought it was really important for us to take a vote on the bill that she produced.

The thing that most people find really confusing about this whole thing is that we would choose to go on recess and prioritize our time, when the people who sent us desperately needed us to act. And, you know, I always said it’s really important for us to send people who have fluency in the day-to-day struggles of their constituents. And this was very evident on how important that is.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to understand, when you’re saying you only got notice on Thursday, explain what you mean by that, for people who can’t understand how this went down at the last minute. You got notice from the Biden administration that they weren’t going to extend it?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yes. We’ve been communicating since May, even earlier than that, with the administration and saying, you know, “We need you all to expand the eviction moratorium. People are going to be at risk. The money that we appropriated to help renters and landlords isn’t going out as fast as it should be. Municipalities and states need more time. And we need you all to take action.” And it wasn’t until Thursday that they affirmatively told us that it was going to be up to Congress to create that expansion; they weren’t going to do it themselves.

And then, you know, it was a rush in the House to try to figure out what we could do and how fast that legislation could be put together. I remember being pulled aside by Chairwoman Waters in the middle of one of those votes and saying, you know, “We’re going to put this bill on the floor. Talk to your colleagues.” Chairwoman Jayapal from the Progressive Caucus asked if we can pull together an emergency meeting. As you know, I serve as the whip of the Progressive Caucus to gauge where we will be at. And a lot of us, you know, dispatched and started having conversations with our colleagues, even some moderate Democrats, to say, “What do you need in order for you to be able to be with us in protecting 11 million people across this country from being evicted?”

And as those conversations were taking place throughout Friday, it was our understanding that those conversations would continue, that we would legislate and that we would protect these 11 million people. And we were shocked when we saw that leadership decided to seek unanimous consent and was not going to bring the bill to the floor for a vote and that some of our colleagues were leaving, and they were choosing to also not leave their proxy votes, because, you know, during the pandemic, we’ve been able to have the ability to vote without being physically at the Capitol. And the fact that they weren’t willing to leave their proxy votes with people so that we could actually pass legislation was alarming to us and, you know, very shameful.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain Democratic Congressmember Rashida Tlaib’s call on House Democrats to return recent contributions from real estate tycoon George Marcus, who recently donated $1 million to the House Majority PAC, just weeks before the Democratic lawmakers failed to extend the eviction moratorium — who he is?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: These sort of really clear conflicts of interest for legislators is something that we should be having a broader conversation. I was shocked when I saw the reporting. I think it’s really important for there not to be a doubt on behalf of the people that we are there representing them and that we’re going to do everything that is going to help them. And the fact that, you know, there was a rush to leave and not do anything on expanding the eviction moratorium, until that drastic measure was taken by us choosing to sleep on the Capitol steps, is really not sitting well with so many people. I remember getting a lot of calls from my constituents if those were linked, and I joined Rashida in that call, because we have to get rid of any semblance of conflict of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: So, also, if you can explain what you have introduced, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act? I mean, the fact is that even if there’s a moratorium, isn’t it true that, afterwards, people who can’t afford to pay their monthly rent will have to pay it all back?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, the problem right now that we are seeing is that, you know, we allocated billions of dollars to these municipalities and to states, and that money is taking so long to get out the door. With my legislation, we would have automatically canceled rents, and landlords would have had the ability to get those resources themselves. And it would have reduced the amount of money that is being utilized for administrative costs.

The backlog and the slow process that we are seeing right now is due to the fact that there are, in some cases, pages-and-pages-long paperwork that people have to do, and there are a lot of people who still are not aware that they can access this money. And I thought, you know, oftentimes we create policy that creates more problems than addressing the actual issue, and having direct legislation that provides direct solution, like the cancel rent and mortgage act, is really important.

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“This Is What America Looks Like”: Ilhan Omar on Her Refugee Journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis

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