COVID-19 already made America’s housing crisis worse. And then the Supreme Court intervened and Ida happened.
Now, within a 72-hour period last week, many of these same families faced a double whammy. First, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, August 26 ruled 6-3 that a CDC-imposed moratorium on evictions was unconstitutional and must be lifted immediately. And just three days later, Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast, the most powerful hurricane to do so in well over 100 years.
We do not yet have a clear picture of Ida’s damage – and it will be days, if not weeks, before we do. Earlier this week, flash flood watches were posed all the way from Mississippi to Massachusetts and more damage is expected from flooding as the former tropical storm makes its way to the mid-Atlantic and then heads north.
As for evictions: A new report out this week estimates that about 750,000 renter households will lose their homes to eviction between now and the end of the year. The report, prepared by Goldman Sachs economists, could be conservative. It found that 2.5 million to 3.5 million households in the U.S. are behind in rent – other experts put the number of households in arrears much higher.
On Monday, more than 1,000 local, state and national housing advocates came together for a regularly scheduled weekly strategy call. They discussed the eviction crisis, ongoing efforts to get much more of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance already approved by Congress out to those in need, and ongoing budget negotiations in Congress, which could see an additional $332 billion investment in affordable housing. They also heard a first-person update from New Orleans on Ida.
Joining the call – which you can listen to here – were Andreanecia Morris, President of HousingLOUISIANA; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Gene Sperling, Senior Advisor to President Biden and American Rescue Plan Coordinator; Noel Poyo, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Economic Development, Department of the Treasury; and Sarah Saadian, Vice President of Public Policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). The call was moderated by NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel.
Morris, joining the call via cell phone from New Orleans, described a scene where no one in the city has power and temperatures are expected to approach 100 degrees this week. She said many low-income residents were unable to evacuate, both because they could not afford to do so and because residents did not have much advance warning about the storm’s anticipated path and intensity.
She said efforts were made to bring people without homes out of harm’s way, but the results were mixed. “All we were offering them was congregate housing inside of a dual disaster,” she said. “Coming out of the rain and wind, but also what we have for you is not something of privacy…a traditional shelter where you may feel like you are at risk of being exposed to COVID.”
Exacerbating the situation, Morris said, was Louisiana’s failure to distribute rental aid in a significant way. She said the state has received $553 million from the federal government, but only $67 million has gone to those in need. She said there is a need right now for safe, sustainable housing that doesn’t crowd people on top of each other at a time when Louisiana ranks near the top of all 50 states in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“Again, that housing has to be mindful of COVID,” she said. “Putting people together and overcrowding them, this is the exact kind of worst situation. If you have a family member that has running water and you don’t, you may go stay with them if they have power and you don’t. You are going to have more people doubling up out of necessity.”
Sperling addressed concerns over the slow pace of emergency rental aid flowing to tenants who need it. “I think all of us know this has been a race with time,” he said. “The emergency rental assistance created an enormous opportunity and an enormous challenge. The opportunity is, we as a country have never had a national infrastructure for a humane eviction policy in the country.”
He said 430 local and state jurisdictions are responsible for getting the aid out, and some are moving more quickly than others – for example, Louisville, Kentucky. has distributed 100 percent of its aid, and San Antonio and Harris County, Texas, have each distributed 92 percent. “It is a frustration to me that we spend so much time on the phone to local leaders pushing,” he said. “Why are there not more like the mayors of Louisville and San Antonio and others who are taking responsibility?”
So, what comes next? Sperling said the White House has two strategies. “One is, we have to do everything possible to speed up the rental assistance everywhere – not just among the highest performers,” he said. “And secondly, we still need – even with the national eviction moratorium being overturned – we still need to do everything that we can to delay, divert, and prevent evictions from happening as the emergency rental assistance is still being set up.”
For her part, Speaker Pelosi endorsed efforts by House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) to introduce legislation that would streamline and speed up efforts to get rental assistance to where it is supposed to go. Waters is still drafting her bill; it is expected to be marked up in committee on September 13.
Pelosi also urged housing advocates to shine the spotlight on the housing crisis – and to show where assistance is working and where it is not. “President Lincoln said public sentiment is everything,” Pelosi said “With it, you can accomplish anything. Without it, practically nothing. For public sentiment to work, people have to be aware of what is at stake.”
And she added that she has one overarching goal in the weeks and months ahead. “We said we were going to put vaccinations in the arms, money in the pockets, children safely in school, and people safely back to work. So that they can meet their needs in addition to helping with the rent.”
Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, there is one welcome piece of news. Morris, the Louisiana housing advocate, says there won’t be any evictions in the immediate future.
“The roof flew off the courthouse.”