Even before COVID-19 struck, America faced its worst housing crisis in a century. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, 20.5 million families already struggled to scrape the rent together, and only 1 in 4 eligible renter households received financial assistance. Between the scarcity of federal housing support and the loss of 4 million affordable housing units over the last decade, it’s no wonder renters are increasingly vulnerable to eviction. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, four evictions were filed every minute in 2016, when the national unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. Today, unemployment is close to three times that level.
Though many states enacted a patchwork of temporary eviction moratoriums and the federal government issued a partial ban on evictions, these moratoriums are quickly expiring.
Though many states enacted a patchwork of temporary eviction moratoriums and the federal government issued a partial ban on evictions, these moratoriums are quickly expiring. Only a long-term solution to housing precarity and its disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx families can protect the millions of Americans who are accruing significant amounts of back rent and the landlords who rely on rent payments.
Underscoring the pandemic’s immense toll, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation estimate that 50 million renters live in households that suffered COVID-19-related job or income loss, with almost 40 percent occurring in low-income households. The demand for financial assistance is at an all-time high, with a 92 percent increase in daily rental assistance requests and food pantry requests increasing by as much as 2,000 percent in some states. In Houston, a $15 million rent relief fund was depleted within 90 minutes of opening. Renters are stretched threadbare and are taking on credit card and loan debt just to keep their housing. It’s not surprising, then, that over 31 percent of renters have slight or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent.
Determined to secure equitable housing and justice for tenants, the Cancel the Rent movement and eviction protests are rising across the country, but with one exception, in Ithaca, New York, policymakers have yet to respond.
Without robust government intervention, the United States can expect an avalanche of evictions that will bury entire communities and result in a cascade of additional losses to financial well-being, health and housing opportunities. As the pandemic continues and the policy patchwork frays, more and more families will find notices of eviction tacked to their doors. Sheriffs will forcibly remove them from their homes and their communities. Children across the country will watch as their beds and toys are piled on the curb or locked up in storage. On top of the emotional trauma, eviction always leaves physical wreckage in the aftermath: family photographs, unmatched shoes, beloved childhood books left as trash on the sidewalk. Eviction is a jagged, downhill slide, with no ladder back up.
The distress among renters will surely surge this summer when recently enacted federal unemployment benefits run dry and courts reopen. In North Carolina, thousands of pending evictions were on hold in the courts. The Michigan State Court Administrative Office estimates that landlords could file for over 75,000 evictions when the courts reopen. In other states, like Minnesota and Rhode Island, landlords aren’t waiting for the moratoriums to end and have resorted to illegal self-help eviction by changing the locks, removing door frames or employing other tactics that push tenants out by circumventing the law. Elsewhere, courts are starting to use Zoom for eviction hearings.
Renters aren’t the only ones bearing the brunt of the crisis. States, cities, school districts and landlords suffer along with renters. When rent payments stop, so, too, do property tax and mortgage payments, along with building maintenance and employees’ salaries. Declining rent payments are more likely to affect small landlords, who, like their renters, lack a financial cushion to ride out the pandemic.
This type of housing instability is costly, for families and society alike. Tenants sued for eviction routinely are blacklisted in the rental market — even if they ultimately win their cases. An eviction also devastates credit scores. Eviction almost always leads to a downward move to a more disadvantaged, higher-crime neighborhood. It leads to unemployment, residential instability, homelessness, academic decline and negative health consequences for adults and children. Numerous studies have shown that eviction results in respiratory diseases, increased mortality, depression and suicidal ideation, among other poor health effects. Such outcomes cost communities and taxpayers far more than the price of solving the housing affordability crisis itself.
Yet, the HEROES Act — a bill that is endorsed by both housing advocates and property owner associations and would provide over $100 billion in rent relief, create a national eviction moratorium and extend unemployment insurance past July — sits untouched on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk.
The United States has a sordid history of repeatedly infringing on the rights of low-income communities and people of color that is perpetuated by the current administration’s efforts.
We cannot blame the pandemic alone for this housing crisis or its disproportionate impact on marginalized people. The United States has a sordid history of repeatedly infringing on the rights of low-income communities and people of color that is perpetuated by the current administration’s efforts to dismantle fair housing and abandon civil rights protections. The effects of longstanding discriminatory housing practices, including racially discriminatory lending and zoning practices, to name a few, are apparent today.
The median wealth of a white family is nearly 12 times that of a Black family, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Communities of color are plagued by crumbling infrastructure, environmental injustice and poverty. One survey found that, after controlling for education, Black households are more than twice as likely as white households to be subject to eviction, and families with children have the highest risk. Without intervention, we can expect these disparities to deepen as COVID-19 mortality and job loss affect communities of color at higher rates than other groups.
Our responsibility, as we reopen America, is to eliminate the longstanding inequality that the pandemic magnified and accelerated. As an immediate measure, the federal government should create a nationwide moratorium on evictions and provide the rental assistance necessary to sustain renters, state and local governments and the housing market. In addition to rental subsidies, new construction or rehabilitation would increase long-term affordable housing. Then we could provide equal access to housing, thriving communities and areas of opportunity so that a person’s livelihood is no longer determined by ZIP code.
Ultimately, as a nation, we must define our post-pandemic reality. Will we callously turn families out on the street solely because the economic depression proved too heavy to shoulder? Or will we finally redress housing disparities, making the right to a safe and decent home central to what it means to be American? If humanity reigns, we won’t hesitate to choose the latter.