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Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
Despite billions of dollars in federal rental assistance flowing to cities and states, the number of evictions sought by landlords is climbing back to pre-pandemic levels in cities across the country, as wage growth continues to lag behind inflation and millions of people struggle with the rising cost of basic necessities.
An estimated 35 percent of respondents to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey said they are either “very” or “somewhat” likely to leave their home in the next two months due to an eviction. Only about 11 percent said they applied for and received rental assistance through federally funded programs typically administered by states and cities, which are charged with distributing around $46.5 billion in aid to landlords and tenants. A larger Pulse survey found that nearly 25 percent of renter households are “slightly confident” or “not confident at all” in their ability to pay the next month’s rent.
These federal figures are just estimates extrapolated from surveys, but if they are anywhere close to reality, a growing wave of evictions could displace millions of people as the cost of living spikes.
Until recently, employment gains and support from temporary pandemic aid packages shielded the working class from the harms of inflation, according to Shawn Fremstad, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. However, corporations continue to raise prices on consumers, and Congress failed to extend safety net programs such the expanded Child Tax Credit that kept millions of people from going hungry last year.
“But it is now clear that corporate greed is hitting the working class head on,” Fremstad said in a statement this week. “According to the Census Bureau, just over one in three adults (about 34 percent) now report difficulty paying for the usual household expenses, the highest level we’ve seen since early 2021.”
Across the six states and 31 cities tracked by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, landlords filed for more than 10,247 evictions in the last week alone. In Texas cities — Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth — landlords filed for 37,000 evictions in the first three months of the year, according to a Texas Tribune report based on the same data.
In Dallas, eviction filings plummeted during the height of the pandemic to as few as six per week, but filings skyrocketed after local and federal eviction moratoriums were lifted months ago. More than 1,000 filings were recorded in Dallas during one week this month alone. Similar reports are surfacing in cities across the country as pandemic social aid dries up.
And the housing crisis goes beyond eviction. Thanks in part to a broken social safety net and low wages for workers across multiple top industries, nearly one in three U.S. households can only afford to pay $600 in rent per month or less, resulting in many families grappling with crowded or dangerous housing conditions.
The United States was facing a housing and eviction crisis long before the pandemic forced businesses to shut down and put millions of people out of work. Even before the pandemic, many were charged rent they could not afford, according to housing justice groups. Prior to 2020, more than 3.6 million evictions were filed each year in the U.S.
Falling behind on rent can be a slippery slope toward losing a home, especially in red states with few legal protections for renters. When facing an eviction, only about 3 percent of tenants are represented by an attorney compared to about 81 percent of landlords, according to the National Coalition for the Civil Right to Counsel. However, many evictions are never even challenged in court, according to John Pollock, a staff attorney at the coalition.
“They just leave. If they try to fight alone, they will lose, and they know it,” Pollock said in an interview. “Half of the people involved don’t even go to court for something that can make them homeless, lose their children, lose their job.”
Even the filing of an eviction, regardless of the outcome in court, can remain on a tenant’s record for years.
The burdens of this crisis are extremely uneven. From 2012 to 2016, Black tenants on average were served eviction notices from landlords at nearly twice the rate of white renters, and low-income Black women were disproportionately targeted, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Fortunately, Pollock said concerns about housing during the pandemic have amplified efforts in multiple cities to guarantee tenants the right to legal representation and set up eviction diversion programs that aim to resolve disputes between tenants and landlords with the goal of preventing an eviction hearing in court. Tenants unions have also organized to collectively challenge landlords and fight evictions across the country.
Washington State, Maryland and Connecticut established “right to counsel” programs that provide legal counsel to tenants facing eviction based on income, and similar programs were recently established in New York City, San Francisco, Newark, Boulder, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Louisville, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Toledo, Seattle, Denver and Cleveland, according to Pollock.
“There are now 16 jurisdictions that have right to counsel. There were zero in 2017,” Pollock said.
Other cities attempted to thwart and eviction crisis by passing new protections for renters, but Pollock said these efforts suffer from “enforcement problems.”
“Often tenants have to file an affidavit of some kind, they don’t know how to do it, and landlords can challenge it,” Pollock said. “In the cities that don’t have a right to counsel, some of the eviction diversion programs and other efforts have helped, but sometimes they are hampered by the fact that there are no lawyers there to make sure that laws are actually followed.”
Even in cities where tenants have a right to counsel, the infrastructure behind many of the new programs is still being built. Pollock said there are shortages of defense attorneys for tenants across the country. A federal moratorium on evictions was thrown out by the Supreme Court last August, and most local moratoriums have expired. Local courts are filling with tenants facing eviction, with in-person hearings replacing the onerous Zoom calls that previously slowed court proceedings and locked out defendants without internet access during pandemic lockdowns.
Still, advocates know a right to counsel can keep many people in their homes. In New York City, 84 percent of tenants with legal representation stay in their homes; in Cleveland, 93 percent of represented tenants avoid an eviction or involuntary move, according to Pollock.
Many tenants are unable to appear in court due to work, family and other obligations during the daytime. In cities without a right to counsel, these tenants are often forced out of their homes without a chance to assert their rights. Legal representation from right to counsel programs instantly fixes that problem, with attorneys appearing in court and filing paperwork on behalf of tenants.
Pollock said advocates are encouraging more law students to become tenant’s attorneys in hopes of building a “pipeline” from graduate law schools to state and local programs that guarantee legal defense for tenants.
“We view this as a cutting-edge civil rights fight, which it is; we view this as part of the fight for the right to housing,” Pollock said.
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