With national eviction moratorium expiration a month away, millions face homelessness
For many out-of-work Americans, the end of unemployment benefits is just around the corner if Congress doesn’t act, a failure that will slash $19 billion in income each month. Hungry people are lining up in droves at overwhelmed food banks, a situation that will inevitably swell without those benefits. And without an extension of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) national eviction moratorium past Dec. 31, the New Years’ gift millions of people could get would be a notice to move their stuff into the street. Come year’s end, 6.7 million households—19 million Americans—will be at risk of immediate eviction, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In the coming month, the count could add up to far more than that.
The U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey reported at the end of October that 9.9 million Americans were behind on rental or mortgage payments and not confident they could make their next payment on time. Across the nation, some families are being ordered to leave their homes despite the moratorium. Beyond the hardship of trying to find a new place to live in the midst of a pandemic and Pandemic Recession, a study in the Journal of Urban Health confirms the obvious: Mass evictions also mean a worsening of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, they already have. An Aspen Institute analysis and other studies show that people of color are disproportionately at risk. They are twice as likely to be renters and are more likely to earn lower incomes and be rental cost-burdened. Studies across the nation show that people of color, particularly Black and Latino people, constitute some 80% of people facing eviction. And they are more likely to be vulnerable to the virus.
Without aggressive government action, the situation could become a lot worse than those surveys indicate. Back in August, a month before the national eviction moratorium was extended until the end of 2020, the Aspen Institute spotlighted yet another example of the chronic economic inequities that have plagued the nation since long before the pandemic arrived:
COVID-19 struck when 20.8 million renter households (47.5% of all renter households) were already rental cost-burdened, according to 2018 numbers. Rental cost burden is defined as households who pay over 30% of their income towards rent. When the pandemic began, 10.9 million renter households (25% of all renter households) were spending over 50% of their income on rent each month. The majority of renter households below the poverty line spent at least half of their income towards rent in 2018, with one in four spending over 70% of their income toward housing costs. Due to chronic underfunding by the federal government, only one in four eligible renters received federal financial assistance. With the loss of four million affordable housing units over the last decade and a shortage of 7 million affordable apartments available to the lowest-income renters, many renters entered the pandemic already facing housing instability and vulnerable to eviction.
Before the pandemic, eviction occurred frequently across the country. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University estimates that between 2000 and 2016, 61 million eviction cases were filed in the US, an average of 3.6 million evictions annually. In 2016, seven evictions were filed every minute. On average, eviction judgment amounts are often for failure to pay one or two months’ rent and involve less than $600 in rental debt.
That chronic situation has cried out for a fix for decades. But right now it’s the acute problem that must be dealt with, and there is one big obstacle to accomplishing that: Republican senators who believe—or at least mouth off a lot about—how aid to rank-and-file Americans supposedly promotes sloth.
The expiration of the national moratorium—along with some emergency state and city restrictions on evictions—doesn’t just mean that renters and mortgaged homeowners only have to pay their January bills. They will be instantly on the hook for all the past payments they have missed during the pandemic.
Writes Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics, said: “If renters are required to quickly repay past due rent or face eviction, the hardship will fall predominantly on lower-income families who have already been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis.” Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at NLIHC, told CBS News, “If you were a low-income renter before the pandemic and you were hit financially, even if your income starts to recover, you’re going to have a very hard time paying back that rental debt.” Many people who so far have managed to cover their rent or mortgage have done so “unsustainably,” he said. “More than half are borrowing from family and friends to meet their spending needs, one-third are using credit cards, and one-third are spending down savings.”
The impacts of evictions extend well beyond just losing a home, which is itself one of the most traumatic events people can suffer. A 2015 study by sociologists at Rice University found that eviction can generate many negative impacts, including depression, health problems, and higher stress levels. Those side effects, just like the economic impacts, can last for years, as many who were evicted during the Great Recession learned.
Mass evictions will create more than hardship for renters. The National Consumer Law Center predicted in July that 3 million homeowners, or about 5%, would have delinquent mortgages by early 2021. Rental property owners and communities will suffer too, with many small-time landlords risking foreclosure and bankruptcy for their inability to pay their mortgages. Out of mass foreclosures on rental properties comes all kinds of additional problems: urban blight, lower property values, reduced tax revenues for cities and states, as well lower neighborhood safety and health.
A team at the Stanford Law School and Yale Law School have put together a collection of “Eviction Innovations” to improve the situation, many of them developed before the pandemic. But it’s clear the only approach that can flatten this crisis has to be national in scope. America has just elected a presidential team whose values are essential to implementing policies that reduce or eliminate evictions caused by the Pandemic Recession and make headway on the national housing problems that predate it. Standing in the way of such solutions, of course, are the same right-wing politicians whose vicious obstructionism constitutes a major reason why we face this crisis and the crises related to it in the first place.