When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and prompted “shelter-in-place” policies to safeguard public health and slow the spread of infection, many states and localities issued eviction moratoriums to protect renters during the unprecedented and devastating health and economic crisis. But as parts of the country begin to open up again, those moratoriums are being lifted or will be allowed to expire—and threaten to plunge millions of vulnerable U.S. households into homelessness.
Meanwhile, the CARES Act enacted in late March prohibited evictions of renters in federally assisted properties for 120 days, which means that moratorium expires July 25 unless Congress acts. That affects people in 12.3 million (28 percent) of the 43.8 million U.S. rental units. If you assume an average occupancy of two per household, that means about 25 million people and their belongings could end up on the street.
Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions or “HEROES Act,” which would deliver a number of benefits, including $200 billion in housing and homelessness resources through the “Emergency Rental Assistance Act and Rental Market Stabilization Act”; an additional $11.5 billion to prevent and respond to outbreaks among people experiencing homelessness; and a national, uniform moratorium on evictions for all renters. Unfortunately, the Senate has yet to consider it and some Republicans say it’s dead on arrival because of the price tag. Particularly as it concerns the cost of keeping renters in their homes, Congress is now confronted with what many of us have known for some time—that “rents are too damn high.”
A Crisis Worsens
COVID-19 is exacerbating what was already a crisis. Half of all renters were already cost burdened, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines as a household spending 30 percent or more of its income on housing, prior to the onset of the pandemic. There are also the severely cost burdened, which includes people who spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing. That group accounts for about 25 percent of the renter population.
With millions of workers (many already in low-wage service sectors of the economy) facing severe reductions in their working hours or outright layoffs, the threat of eviction for nonpayment of rent becomes clear and present.
Adding to this crisis is the simple truth that “sheltering in place” has been the safest way to slow the spread of the disease. Therefore, allowing evictions to proceed during a pandemic, creating greater instability for families and households by increasing the threat of homelessness, weakens our ability to get through this crisis.
Despite evidence of the need, the federal COVID-19 response has fallen far short of what is required. Without comprehensive federal direction on prohibiting evictions and providing support for financially strapped renters and building owners, states and local governments have been left to themselves, implementing a patchwork of policies determined by local capacity, political will, and ideological orientation. With state and local moratoriums beginning to expire, housing advocates are warning of an “avalanche of evictions” likely to come as renters have no protections and their options for work are limited.
Thankfully the CARES Act did offer billions of dollars to provide housing and rental assistance to those who qualified. This included $4 billion in Emergency Solutions Grants for homelessness assistance, $1.25 billion for the Housing Choice Voucher program, and $1 billion for project-based rental assistance. Despite this short-term infusion of resources to support tenants, cities such as Houston, Texas, saw their resources to support renters maxed out 90 minutes after the assistance hotline opened. And even though the needs are so great, the state of Texas has ended the moratorium on evictions. Many thousands of the state’s most vulnerable families could be forcefully removed from their homes at a time unstable housing can literally mean life or death.
The city of Dallas was allocated approximately $13.7 million in rental and mortgage assistance, maxed at $1,500 per month, per family, but it was only expected to cover about 1,000 area families.
A similar pattern emerges nationwide:
- Santa Clara, CA’s $11 million financial assistance program to help low-income residents who lost work as a result of the new coronavirus ran out of funds in just two days.
- Wisconsin had a 60-day eviction ban that expired on May 26, yet $25 million in housing assistance funds won’t be available until early June;
- Iowa is likewise expecting to see a massive number of evictions as its statewide moratorium expired at midnight Wednesday (May 27); and
- Tampa Bay, Florida, landlords have already filed hundreds of eviction cases in local courts despite the confusion as to what laws apply and to whom. By one estimate, only about 34 percent of Florida rental units are covered by the CARES Act, and even that may provide little recourse for tenants threatened with eviction due to a Florida law that requires renters to pay any back rent owed prior to contesting an eviction filing.
For the many families and individuals facing evictions, losing a home is not the end of the burden caused by the lack of clarity and support from the federal level to ensure their protection during this pandemic. Evictions lead to damaged credit, which can then turn into a vicious cycle of housing insecurity even during a strong economy. The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is likely to last for some time time, bringing with it massive levels of unemployment that burden poor and low-income families the most.
In short, a wave of evictions in the midst of an ongoing pandemic will create a debt and economic drag on the nation’s economy for years to come.
The proposed HEROES Act would provide some relief through an extension of the current eviction moratorium for an additional 12 months on non-payment evictions for ALL rental housing, including multifamily housing properties. Landlords would also have to provide a 30-day notice of eviction to tenants after the moratorium expires. In addition, multifamily housing property owners who receive mortgage forbearance may not charge tenants late fees or penalties and may not report negative information of individuals to credit rating agencies.
However, with very little understanding of how long this pandemic will last, and the likely long-term effects of the economic recession, a moratorium can at best only postpone the likelihood of eviction.
More Attention Is Needed
The longer people stay at home to avoid contracting the disease, the longer they are unable to work and the more need there will be as rent debt continues to accrue. Without actions such as a complete suspension of rental burdens during the pandemic, coupled with adequate support for the landlords and property owners who maintain the buildings, any hold on evictions will only be a temporary one.
Congress must now deal with the fact that our housing system was completely “unprepared for COVID-19” and in a state of emergency prior to the pandemic. Rising land prices have fueled an affordability crisis that governments at all levels must now bear at considerable cost.
The federal government, still functioning under a logic of limited government has retreated from its responsibility to provide housing and can only offer low-balled estimates of the true cost to seeing people through this crisis.
Supporting renters through this pandemic requires the nation to address the affordability crisis in housing and cannot be done without also confronting the weaknesses of the American safety net that housing is a part of.
If we listen carefully to the needs rising from our most vulnerable households and communities, perhaps we can learn these lessons in time to correct our course. Fighting for and passing the HEROES Act with a uniform moratorium on ALL evictions must be a first step in a deeper conversation about how we provide affordable, healthy and sustainable housing to all.