Universal Basic Rent?

And a campaign to bring free prison + jail calls to New York state

Hi all,

I hope you’re having a nice October. I have two new freelance stories to share.

1. One is a new piece in The Atlantic raising the question: what if instead of a cumbersome housing voucher program that involves landlords signing contracts with the federal government, we instead gave cash assistance directly to renters?

The voucher program has been around since the 1970s, but this question of what would happen if we paid renters cash directly actually hasn’t been really studied since the 1970s. That’s starting to change. In this story I report on a new discussion taking place at HUD around the idea, as well as a new study launching in 2022 in Philadelphia to test the concept. Giving cash to renters isn’t a panacea to our housing woes, but it could provide more accessible relief to people, as well as be potentially empowering to low-income tenants. We saw in the pandemic that the government can cut checks to individuals when it wants to.

Landlords complain a lot about red tape. One benefit of studying this cash assistance idea, as Phil Garboden, a sociologist I interviewed for the story put it, could be to disentangle whether the landlord’s problem is really bureaucratic hassle, or if it's an aversion to renting to poor people. You can read that story here.

I published a second story last week in New York Focus on a new legislative effort in New York to make prison calls for the incarcerated and their families free. This follows on the heels of Connecticut, which became the first state to pass such a law earlier this year. (You can read my past coverage on Connecticut’s campaign here.)

Incarcerated New Yorkers pay some of the steepest rates for jail calls in the nation, as high as $9.95 for a single 15-minute call! And many New York counties take large massive kickbacks from those jail calls. Just under two-thirds of revenue from the average jail call goes into NY counties’ coffers, according to research published this year by the Prison Policy Initiative. In 22 New York counties, that figure stood at at least 80 percent.

What this means in practice is that a state effort to make prison calls free will likely face resistance from municipalities and/or sheriffs who currently rely on the revenue they extract from families trying to keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. That’s not an insurmountable problem, and morally it’s abhorrent. But it is a political one advocates expect they’ll face in the coming months. You can read the full story here.

Thanks for reading and supporting independent journalism. If you like this kind of work consider sharing this newsletter or becoming a paying-subscriber. I’ve got a few more pieces in the works coming soon!