After more than a year of economic, social and spiritual upheaval, Americans are beginning to see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel. While infection rates are not yet stable in the U.S., hospitalizations remain on the decline, and the vaccine is now available to everyone. A return to something close to normal life feels tantalizingly close.
For the one in every seven tenants in the U.S. currently behind on rent, however, the end of COVID could mean eviction. Marginalized tenants are especially at risk — one in five Black tenants, Latino tenants and tenants with children currently owe back rent.
“We have projections of 500,000 people living on the streets of L.A. if nothing is done to curb these evictions,” Trinidad Ruiz of the L.A. Tenants Union says — a catastrophic increase from the estimated 40,000 people currently without housing in the Los Angeles area. Without assistance, over 10 million people nationwide could find themselves without housing when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eviction moratorium ends on June 30.
In an attempt to avert this crisis, the federal government has allocated a total of over $45 billion in renter’s assistance for states, counties and municipalities to distribute. This amount, while a far cry from the estimated $70 billion needed to provide aid to every tenant in need of help, could go a long way toward restoring housing security to millions of Americans.
Yet, despite the tremendous need for rental assistance, these funds languish in state treasuries while more and more tenants fall behind on their rent. Why?
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), much of the failure to distribute available funds results from city, state and municipal lack of experience with building and coordinating massive aid distribution programs. Inefficiencies and structural issues lead to massive delays in processing and disbursal. According to a February Avail poll, 54.7 percent of landlords and 72.7 percent of tenants who have applied for relief have yet to receive assistance.
In an attempt to create more efficient distribution programs, 55 percent of state and local agencies used the services of an NGO. Unfortunately, these NGOs are sometimes just as inefficient as amateurish government programs. Washington, D.C.’s government, for example, partnered with Deloitte, a company that provides audit, consulting, tax and advisory services, to coordinate rent relief; yet Greg Afinogenov of the anti-eviction group Stomp Out Slumlords reports the same bottleneck issue. “People around the city that we’re in contact with have been trying to apply for this money, and many of them have incredible trouble getting it,” Afinogenov told Truthout.
Other states, like Ohio, partnered with nonprofit organizations which, according to the NLIHC, typically outperform both in-house and NGO solutions. Nonetheless, nonprofits are also struggling to ramp up existing programs to meet demand for housing relief. “These groups normally deal with maybe 5 percent of the money they’re dealing with now,” Bill Faith of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) told Truthout. “So they went from going 15 mph to going 90 mph in no time.”
Even when relief programs function more or less as intended, many tenants remain unaware of the existence of rent relief programs. According to the Avail poll, 48.1 percent of landlords and 68.8 percent of tenants are unaware of available rental assistance programs. Even those who know about the programs show hesitation to apply — 62.7 percent of landlords do not believe they are eligible for relief.
Application processes also place significant burden on tenants, who must navigate a dizzying maze of bureaucratic requirements in order to obtain relief. “The application is not user-friendly,” Ruiz said. “It takes 2 to 3 hours per tenant, and this is [assuming] knowledge of how the web works, how to upload a photograph, and how to scan documents.”
Lack of technological knowledge hits especially hard because of COVID restrictions. “You’ve got to scan [the documents] in to send them in because people are still trying to minimize face-to-face contact,” Faith said. Recently relaxed COVID restrictions mean Ohio nonprofits are now able to hold open hours. Activists can thereby accept and scan documents directly, which helps get applications out the door and into processing.
The required documents themselves can be hard to come by, however, especially for people in unusual circumstances. Rose Lenehan of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN) describes a client from Oaxaca, Mexico, who speaks very little English and owes $10,000 of back rent. The tenant lost almost all work opportunities due to COVID, but because he works in the informal economy, he has no way to prove lost hours and apply for aid. While organizations like ATUN can sometimes help tenants like this put together an application, the situation is virtually impossible for someone without legal knowledge or whose English is limited.
To make things worse, activists across the country report that a substantial number of landlords prefer to move immediately to eviction rather than pursue or accept rent relief funding. Although it may seem counterintuitive for landlords to oppose a process that could potentially result in a large payday, their reluctance often stems from the aforementioned long wait times for disbursement and confusion about the programs themselves. “When you can talk to some of the owners,” Faith says, “they may not even know about the emergency rental assistance program, or … they don’t know whether [the assistance] will come.”
In some states, stonewalling by landlords renders tenants ineligible for rental assistance. Although the federal program specifies that tenants may receive rent relief even without landlord cooperation, states like Kentucky have adopted tighter requirements that prohibit the disbursal of funds if landlords refuse to participate. One-fifth of all rent relief applications in the Bluegrass State are rejected due to landlord noncooperation.
Activists across the country report that a substantial number of landlords prefer to move immediately to eviction rather than pursue or accept rent relief funding.
Some landlords actively use their tenants’ housing insecurity to gain economic advantage. Afinogenov reports that many D.C. landlords refuse to fill out necessary rent relief paperwork unless the tenants first agree to move out. Lenehan describes “cash for keys” operations in which landlords offer to forgive back rent if tenants move out of rent-controlled housing. Once they leave, landlords turn around and rent the same apartment for a far higher price. Meanwhile, their old tenants find they can no longer afford to live in the city. Low-income, undocumented, and tenants whose second language is English are especially at risk of these kinds of predatory practices.
Nevertheless, They Evicted
Rent relief cannot help those already evicted from their apartments. “Possession is everything,” Ruiz explains as he describes Los Angeles landlords who illegally lock tenants out of their apartments, often with the backing of the police.
Landlords need not resort to physically removing possessions to convince tenants to leave their homes. According to Eviction Lab, many states allow landlords to file for eviction, but not to actually go through with the process until the moratorium expires. Nevertheless, even the threat of eviction often frightens tenants enough that they decide to vacate rather than risk a black mark on their rental record.Despite the federal moratorium, illegal evictions never really stopped. “It’s not a [real] moratorium,” Elena Popp, lawyer and executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Eviction Defense Network, told Truthout. “If you had a moratorium, the sheriff would just stop evicting people.” Instead, landlords and local governments alike continue to take actions that put families onto the street despite federal and local safeguards.
Chaotic, last-minute policy changes have also created legal loopholes that led to tenant evictions. In Los Angeles, tenants must re-file for eviction protection each time the CDC extends the deadline. On March 29, the CDC extended the moratorium expiration date from April 1 to June 30, which left tenants and activists three short days to file for extensions. While the Eviction Defense Network managed to protect all but one client from eviction, Lenehan knows of at least 20 tenants evicted as a result of this avoidable legal chaos.
What Must Be Done
As things stand currently, the U.S. has a little over two months to sort out this chaos if it wants to avoid a housing crisis of proportions not seen since the Great Depression. But the situation is far from hopeless.
According to Emily Benfer, chair of the American Bar Association’s COVID-19 Task Force Committee on Eviction, state and local governments should begin by halting all stages of the eviction process. This simple step would allow families to stay housed while awaiting rent relief.
Improvements to distribution programs can also go a long way. While most state and local governments place the primary onus on tenants to start the rental relief application process, Baltimore’s program now contacts landlords directly and adds up the total rent debt for each complex. If the landlord agrees to discount 20 percent of back rent owed and cease eviction attempts, the program pays the landlords a lump sum to cover all rent debt. This “bundling” approach requires far fewer total applications, which cuts down on total paperwork. Focusing on landlords also places the bureaucratic burden on the party better able to navigate legal paperwork.
While this solution may seem counterintuitive given widespread landlord resistance to rent relief programs, activists often find that approaching landlords directly can clear up misconceptions and encourage cooperation. Nonprofit groups in Ohio now take a similar approach, with good results. “Sometimes if you work with the landlords as one way to do outreach, they can help,” Faith said.
Activists across the country are organizing to help tenants understand their rights and navigate the onerous legal process necessary to obtain relief. Thanks to the Eviction Defense Network, Los Angeles courts must include a flyer in the packet of eviction paperwork sent to tenants in danger of losing their homes. This flyer helps tenants understand their options and tells them what organizations they can contact for help. COHHIO sets up tables outside the convention center, where eviction proceedings currently take place, to help people process eviction paperwork on the spot. The L.A. Tenants Union is pushing hard to build more robust networks of tenants to better resist eviction attempts. Organizer Colin Stevens told Truthout that the group’s membership increased fivefold since the beginning of pandemic shelter-in-place orders. The group hopes to organize up to 62 percent of tenants by 2028, when the Olympics will come to town and massive homeless sweeps will likely occur as they did during the Olympics in 1984.
“We are the majority,” Ruiz said. “It’s time to flex that political power.”
Ultimately, however, the country’s housing problem extends far beyond the COVID crisis. Even before the pandemic, tenants struggled to keep up with rental costs, which increased at over three times the rate of inflation in 2019. Vacancy rates are at their lowest point in over 30 years, which means landlords can increase rent with impunity. While 2019 saw the construction of many new apartment buildings, only 12 percent of those new units rented for below $1,050, further squeezing supply for the poorest tenants. It is little wonder that over 70 percent of households earning less than $15,000 per year pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. These worrisome trends were already accelerating before COVID, and the increasing wealth inequality caused by the pandemic will likely only make things worse.
“The one thing that this whole situation brings to light is how poorly we are, as a country, at meeting the basic housing needs of our citizens,” Faith laments. “There’s no buffer. Everyone’s on the edge. [People are] one paycheck away from having a crisis. Until we address that, we’re just waiting for the next crisis to create another wave of evictions in this country.”