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End of Moratorium Could Fuel Wave of “Invisible Evictions,” Organizers Warn

Untold numbers of tenants could lose their homes during a COVID surge even before landlords file for evictions in court.

Rep. Cori Bush holds a "housing is a human right" sign on the steps of the House of Representatives on July 31, 2021. She spent the night outside the U.S. Capitol to call on President Joe Biden and Congress to renew the expiring eviction moratorium.

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Housing justice organizers are bracing for a wave of evictions after a federal eviction moratorium expired and rent deadlines hit over the weekend, leaving an estimated 15 million people at risk of housing insecurity during a surge in new COVID cases.

A national moratorium on evictions put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was extended multiple times before expiring Saturday night. President Biden sent a last-minute request to Congress last week asking lawmakers to extend the moratorium once more, but House Democrats reportedly failed to muster support for a last-minute push to extend the moratorium before lawmakers began leaving for the August recess. There is even less support for extending the moratorium in the Senate, where Republicans hold 50 seats and can use Senate rules to obstruct legislation.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other frustrated progressives argued Democrats had no excuse for failing to use their slim majority in Congress to extend the moratorium. Meanwhile, Democratic leadership demanded the White House take action.

The moratorium did not fully protect tenants from their landlords in the first place, and more than 455,000 evictions occurred across just six states during the pandemic, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. However, the Urban Institute reports that the moratorium also prevented 1.55 million evictions nationwide and undoubtedly saved many lives by helping people stay in their homes as the virus spread.

Now, advocates say the consequences of lifting the moratorium are already being felt across the country as landlords demand another month’s rent — as well as back rent that has built up over the course of the pandemic. Researchers say renters in the United States owe landlords a collective $20 billion after months of economic instability and disruption caused by COVID.

Rep. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat who joined protesters and other progressive Congress members of color outside the Capitol Building as the moratorium expired over the weekend, said in a statement on Monday that the nation is now facing an “eviction emergency.” In Bush’s hometown of St. Louis, the local sheriff told the Associated Press that the team in charge of evicting tenants is expanding and will be serving 30 evictions a day starting August 9.

Against a backdrop of inaction on Capitol Hill, tenant union volunteers and housing justice organizers across the country have been busy helping tenants navigate applications for rental assistance and learn about their rights in case of an eviction. Legal rights for renters and their landlords vary from state to state, as does the scope of the housing crisis that has been complicated by a global pandemic.

Nationally, an estimated 16 percent of adults say their households are behind on rent, according to an analysis of federal data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Black and Latinx renters are more likely to be behind on rent than white tenants, and nearly 1 in 4 Black renters are behind on rent.

Some states have much higher percentages of households that are behind on rent, including states in the Southeast that have low vaccinations rates and have recently been hit hard by the pandemic. In Mississippi, only 34.5 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and 29 percent of households are behind on rent. In South Carolina, 28 percent of households report being behind on rent as the state reports that 12 percent of COVID tests are coming back positive.

Melanie Wang, a national field organizer with Right to the City Alliance, a coalition of local housing justice groups, said many states with low vaccination rates also have few legal protections for renters. Indeed, Princeton’s Eviction lab found that neighborhoods with the lowest vaccination rates in several major cities also had the highest rates of eviction filings in local courts.

“We’re concerned that tenants across the country are going to start making decisions knowing that they are unprotected [from COVID], putting them at greater risk of getting sick and putting their families in harm’s way due to the economic vulnerabilities that they are going to face,” Wang said in an interview.

Only a handful of states still have their own moratoriums on evictions, including Minnesota, New York, Nevada and Oregon, according to reports. In Massachusetts, the statewide moratorium was lifted back in October 2020. Andrea Park, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a group providing legal assistance to renters, said about 19,000 petitions for eviction have been filed since.

“We don’t know exactly how many but we believe around 10,000 cases were likely pending when the moratorium went into place, and those resumed in October as well,” Park said in an email. “The end of the CDC order will likely lead to an increase across all types of cases — new cases, pending cases, and tenants hanging on at the end of the process … the execution, which permits physical removal of a tenant.”

However, Wang said organizers are also concerned about what happens to tenants before eviction cases make their way into court. Wang fears that millions of “invisible evictions” will occur over the coming months as landlords ratchet up the pressure on tenants, pushing tenants to “self-evict” to avoid harassment or going to court. Defending against eviction in court requires time and money that many families do not have, Wang said, adding that tenants may also want to avoid landing on “blacklists” kept by landlords. Some tenants may be intimidated by the idea of going to court, while others may face language barriers. All of these factors can be used to pressure people to move out before a formal eviction takes place.

“It’s frightening, it’s emotionally stressful, it’s difficult on families and it’s a long process that requires a lot out of them,” Wang said.

Other tenants may decide to take on unsafe work that increases the risk of COVID infection, or be forced to make tough choices between paying rent and paying for other expenses, such as food and health care. More than 1 in 4 adults reported difficulty paying for basic expenses last month, including 42 percent of Black adults, according to CBPP.

Biden has urged states and cities to use federal pandemic relief funding to provide rental relief for struggling tenants and landlords, and Wang said it’s important that officials work to get the money out there as quickly as possible. However, local organizers have said that states and cities are not using enough discretionary COVID relief funding to support renters, and reports are surfacing about serious problems with state efforts to distribute relief earmarked for renters. In late July, Politico reported that only 6.5 percent of the federal rental aid allocated by Congress had been distributed.

Park said advocates in Massachusetts are pushing for legislation that would require landlords and tenants to apply for rental assistance before an eviction case can be filed in court.

“With the unprecedented amounts of federal rental assistance available right now, we really shouldn’t be letting cases get filed until and unless we know that the money can resolve it,” Park said. “Just a filing creates a permanent record for the tenant that can make it impossible for them to find new housing.”

Wang said that since Biden allowed the eviction moratorium to expire before the relief was distributed, the president’s encouragement to use the funds for rental relief feels like an “empty” gesture. Wang said advocates are calling on both the Biden administration to reinstate the moratorium and for Congress to immediately reconvene and pass protections for renters into law.

“The vast majority of rental relief programs have not been able to distribute all the rent relief at this point,” Wang said. “The fact that the moratorium ended two days ago means that tenants who might have access to rent relief funds in the long run are still going without protection right now … they are being thrown off the cliff without knowing whether there is a net to save them.”

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