To hear the landlords tell it, the U.S.’s eviction crisis is over. A June 11 letter to President Biden, signed by 12 large real estate and landlord associations, cheerfully asserts that the economy is recovering, unemployment has fallen, rental assistance programs have worked and vaccination rates are high enough that the pandemic danger is all but passed: “As the Administration continues its support for housing, we urge you to sunset the nationwide federal moratorium on evictions on June 30th and focus on targeted housing support for those renters who continue to recover from the pandemic,” the letter says.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although the GDP and the stock market are both doing well, many Americans are still struggling. March 2021 saw the highest poverty rate recorded during the pandemic: 11.1 percent. Unemployment in June 2021 was more than 2 percent higher than it was in February 2020. And, with vaccine rates dropping and the Delta variant spreading fast, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from behind us.
The number of tenants at risk of eviction remains at unprecedented levels. As of May 24, 10.4 million renters — 14 percent of all tenants — were behind on their rent. Nor is the problem improving on a national level; more people failed to pay rent on time in June than in May. Over 4 million people are at immediate risk of eviction in the next two months.
“I think [people] would for the most part be evicted into homelessness,” says Rose Lenahan of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU). “It’s very unclear what they would do.”
The landlords are correct about one thing: Rental assistance could theoretically go a long way toward solving the immediate crisis. And, while many state and municipal programs got off to a slow start, the U.S. has started to see uneven but significant progress in getting this money to the people desperately in need of relief.
But time is running out. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the moratorium to July 30, 2021, on Thursday, the agency indicated that this will be the last extension. Many state eviction programs are still scheduled to expire on the CDC’s original June 30 deadline.
“There’s a feeling of impending doom among organizers,” says Jake Marshall of the Autonomous Tenant Union (ATU), a tenant collective based in Albany Park, Chicago.
Lenahan, Marshall, and other organizers across the country are acutely aware that local protections may soon be the only thing standing between struggling tenants and eviction. With the CDC moratorium badly weakened and scheduled to sunset, responsibility falls on states and municipalities to avert a catastrophe that could irreparably damage millions of lives.
A Houseless Generation
“Losing your home in 2021 is not simply a matter of losing your belongings and community, which is traumatic enough,” says Alieza Durana of Eviction Lab, a research group affiliated with Princeton University.
Any eviction attempt on one’s record — even a failed one — makes finding housing extremely difficult. “You wind up either in lower quality housing or in some cases doubling up with a friend or a family member. Or, in the worst cases, without a home,” explains Andrew Aurand of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC).
Long-term housing insecurity resulting from the pending eviction crisis will disproportionately impact people of color. While 9 percent of white renters are currently behind on rent payments, that number skyrockets to 22 percent for Black tenants, 19 percent for Latino tenants and 18 percent for Asian tenants. Once evictions resume in earnest, that disparity may widen even further. According to the ACLU, landlords historically file evictions against Black renters at nearly twice the rate of white renters, suggesting an increased willingness by landlords to evict tenants of color.
This racial disparity in eviction outcomes may gain a grisly new dimension due to the ongoing pandemic. Durana points out that areas most at risk for eviction also have the lowest vaccination rates — a problem especially acute in majority-Black and Latino neighborhoods. Mass evictions at this stage of the pandemic could spur yet another wave of infection that impacts the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
The stress and privation of housing insecurity bleeds over into other areas of life. Over half of people currently behind on rent also struggle with hunger. And the constant anxiety takes a toll. “Not having stable housing, we know there are negative mental health consequences,” says Aurand. “There’s negative physical health consequences. If there are children in the family, it can disrupt their education.” This last point is especially troubling, given that 20 percent of all tenants with children are currently behind on rent.
Evictions can affect the health of children before they are even born. A Georgia study found that babies whose mothers dealt with eviction during pregnancy were at increased risk of premature birth and low birth weight, along with a possible increase in infant mortality, compared to those whose mothers endured eviction before or after pregnancy.
Durana cites the historically high eviction levels in August 2020 — after the CARES act protections expired and before the CDC moratorium went into effect — as a harbinger of things to come. With more people behind on rent and fewer state protections, rates will likely skyrocket even higher after the moratorium sunsets.
“We’re crucially forgetting how normal poverty and eviction were and are as fixtures of American life prior to the pandemic,” Durana says. “The [pre-pandemic] eviction crisis created a houseless generation, a permanent underclass of communities living paycheck to paycheck.”
COVID-19 exacerbated the U.S.’s eviction crisis but did not cause it. Although the U.S. did not compile national evictions statistics before 2021, estimates suggest that landlords evicted nearly 1 million renters every year from 2000 to 2016 (the last year for which data is available). Yet even this grim figure understates the pre-COVID problem. The estimate does not include California or New York, neither of which provide eviction data. Worse yet, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that for every tenant evicted by court order, two more undergo “informal evictions” where landlords pressure tenants to leave without going to court.
This eviction crisis is unsurprising given the combination of skyrocketing rent and stagnant real wages. Between 2017 and 2019, rent increased by 8.6 percent. As of 2019, half of all renters were “cost-burdened” — over 30 percent of their income went toward rent. The number of cost-burdened families skyrockets to 88 percent for tenants making under 20,000 a year.
Landlords, on the other hand, have done quite well over the years. They are, on average, four times as wealthy as the average person in the U.S. Tenants sit at the other end of the spectrum: The average U.S. tenant owns only an eighth as much wealth as the average person in the U.S. Landlords make money by charging more for rent than they pay for the property itself, and the discrepancy between rent and value increases as housing quality decreases. In other words, landlords make the most profit from their poorest tenants.
The coming end of eviction moratoria is especially frustrating in light of uneven but significant progress in distributing rental assistance to the tenants who need it — efforts that need more time to be truly successful.
“Programs are starting to get the money out,” reports Andrew Aurand of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). “Texas is a good example, where they struggled at the beginning. But now, a few months later, I think they’ve gotten things going.”
In the early days of Texas’s infamously backlogged relief program, wait times were as high as 60 days, according to Christina Rosales of Texas Housers, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to housing justice. “People were evicted in the course of waiting for rent relief.” Since March, however, wait times have decreased steadily to a current two to three weeks. “There is an expedited process for renters who are at a very high risk for evictions,” Rosales says. “And it does make a huge difference.”
Baltimore, Maryland, is another success story. The city’s Strategic Targeted Eviction Prevention (STEP) program, which won a national award for innovation, also took a while to get off the ground. “[The program] had some snafus in the beginning,” recalled Carol Ott of Fair Housing Maryland. However, the Baltimore mayor’s office worked closely with nonprofit organizations on the ground to analyze and fix failure points within the STEP program. “I report to them where we’re getting the most complaints, the most requests for assistance,” Ott said. “And they were able to say OK, let’s start focusing on these areas.”
Outcomes in Texas and Baltimore offer hope for humane and timely responses to the current eviction crisis. “We know that programs are able to [distribute funds]. We know what makes it easier for programs to do this,” says Aurand. “And we see signs that this is starting to happen.”
Yet rent relief programs need more than the short time left before the scheduled sunset of the CDC moratorium to get help to everyone who needs it. “There are days when I feel like, great, we’re making progress,” says Bill Faith of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO). “There are thousands of people getting assistance. The money’s really starting to move…. But on a bad day, I focus on how many more people are just languishing right now.” Wait times in Ohio for rent assistance remain high — according to Faith, four to six weeks is the best-case scenario. And, without a strong moratorium in effect, that’s four to six weeks in which a landlord can evict the tenant before rent relief arrives.
Local governments are not helpless in the face of the sunsetting federal moratorium. Many states and municipalities passed laws that offer better protection than the embattled CDC moratorium, with encouraging results.
Washington, D.C. has done a poor job of distributing aid — as of May 31, the district’s Stronger Together by Assisting You (STAY) program had given out just 5 percent of its allotted assistance money. Yet the city has seen no evictions since the pandemic started due to its ironclad eviction moratorium.
“As things currently stand there shouldn’t be any evictions until the end of the year,” says Greg Afinogenov of the D.C. tenant union Stomp Out Slumlords. This moratorium means Afinogenov and other activists can spend their time advocating for improvements to the STAY program instead of engaging in on-the-ground eviction defense.
Afinogenov points to D.C.’s success as proof that moratoria work. “D.C. has not seen some kind of collapse in rent payments … for the most part, people will continue to meet their obligations even if they’re not under constant threat of eviction.”
Los Angeles tenants find themselves in a similar situation. While evictions are occurring in Los Angeles, California’s SB-91 offers far stronger protections than the federal moratorium. The provision, recently extended to September 30, will hopefully buy time for the California state legislature to finalize a bill that would provide total rent forgiveness for anyone making 80 percent of median income or less.
So far, however, California rent relief is flowing at a glacial pace. “Nobody I know has gotten money yet,” Lenahan says. “No one knows for sure that they’re going to get money.”
Harbingers of Catastrophe
In some states, where creative lawyers and overeager landlords have already eroded CDC protections almost past meaning, the eviction crisis has already arrived.
“The eviction numbers are back to where they were before the pandemic,” Faith says. Ohio lawyers have successfully challenged both the constitutionality of the moratorium itself and tenant certifications of eligibility for eviction defense. Whether numbers will increase still further after the federal moratorium sunsets remains to be seen. “It won’t get any better if the eviction moratorium expires, that’s for sure.”
Chicago finds itself in an even worse position. Illinois did not even start their assistance program until after April, and tenants still find the convoluted application process nearly impossible to navigate. Worse still, the state relief program requires landlord approval. Since landlords cannot evict if they accept funds, many simply refuse to cooperate. “I’ve been working with tenants whose landlords simply refuse to even engage in the process or to file an application for rent relief,” Marshall says.
Illinois courts recently weakened their state moratorium to allow landlords to evict tenants with pre-pandemic eviction orders. Even before this change, however, Chicago landlords contrived to carry out illegal evictions with a stunning array of tactics. Marshall has seen illegal lockouts, utility shutoffs, refusals to perform essential maintenance, harassment, and threats of legal action for unrelated issues. Chicago also permits landlords to evict for reasons not related to late rent, which include no-cause evictions as long as the landlord gives proper notice. As if this weren’t enough, landlords also have the option of suing for back rent in civil court, which turns rent debt into consumer debt that lower tenant credit scores for years. “Often what these landlords do is say, hey, we’ll drop the case if you just move out, so it effectively becomes an eviction,” Marshall says.
Chicago’s failure to prevent evictions may portend the broader dynamics of a post-moratorium U.S. “It’s not just about getting tenants’ money now,” Marshall says. “The city and state government … allowed thousands of people to fall through the cracks for months and months.” Marshall believes even a functional rent relief program would be insufficient at this point. “It’s too late to address this harm with a basic program that only lasts a few weeks. “
A Structural Problem
Activists agree: Time, information and simplicity could still go a long way toward staving off a national eviction catastrophe in the short term. Moratoria extensions allow more time for money to reach struggling tenants. Better information can help tenants and landlords alike apply for and receive aid. And simpler programs would reduce red tape and speed up the entire process.
Many activists believe that blanket rent cancellation makes far more sense than the Byzantine programs currently in place. Such policies would put the onus on property owners to recover lost rental revenue. “Property owners [could] apply to the state to have their overhead costs covered by the state,” Marshall says. “They’re the ones who have the resources. They’re the ones who have all types of associations and professional associations that can assist them.”
Yet most activists also agree that the problem goes far beyond a temporary COVID-fueled crisis. “Had we had a stronger housing safety net to begin with, we wouldn’t have as many renters in a crisis situation now,” Aurand points out. “What we need to think about in the long term is investing in affordable housing programs so that we have that safety net in place.”
Durana believes the eviction crisis represents an opportunity to fix underlying problems. “Instead of abandoning tenants, let’s build back better — provide renters a right to counsel, fully fund housing assistance and eviction diversion programs, raise the minimum wage, and construct more low-income and affordable units.”
Rosales hopes that people will go further and reexamine their assumptions about rent, landlords and housing in the wake of this crisis. “Housing should be a right,” she says. “It’s just something we need to stay safe and healthy.”
Afinogenov agrees. “Eviction is a moral evil. Rent is a moral evil. And we should aim to eliminate these things rather than to put band-aids over them.”