Millions of evictions are coming. And rental assistance can’t arrive soon enough.
With a federal moratorium set to expire in a matter of weeks, the Biden Administration, state and local officials, and housing advocates are scrambling to avoid what could soon be the biggest eviction crisis in U.S. history.
Three times during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has imposed or extended a national moratorium on evictions. The moratorium prevents families who are facing pandemic-related financial hardships from being removed from their homes. But it does not prevent landlords from filing eviction notices with the courts – and once the moratorium expires on July 31, cases are expected to quickly proceed. There are no plans to extend it.
When the CDC first declared the moratorium back in September 2020, its order stated that “evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19 as they force people to move, often into close quarters in new shared housing settings with friends or family, or congregate settings such as homeless shelters.”
Although the order provided a certain amount of protection for a time, the moratorium did nothing to help renters whose accumulated debt has grown larger and larger during the pandemic. Estimates vary as to how many American households are behind on their rent, but most experts put the number somewhere between 8 million and 13 million. Many of the estimated 30 million people living in these households will be at risk of eviction in a few short weeks.
Congress has attempted to address the problem. Between an aid package passed in December and the American Rescue Plan passed in March, it has appropriated roughly $46 billion in aid for renters – but much of that money has not flowed to renters and landlords, in part because of local bureaucratic challenges, in part because of difficulties in applying for the aid, and in very large part because the U.S. has never had a national program of appropriate scale to address an eviction crisis.
Diane Yentel, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), points to three factors that could help those at greatest risk of eviction, according to the Washington Post: Applications should be simple. Aid should go directly to tenants if landlords don’t participate in an application, so tenants can pay the landlord. And when possible, people should be able to look to “self-attestation,” meaning documents could be verified by tenants and landlords themselves.
“Programs that overburden themselves and applicants with bureaucracy slow the process for everyone and risk leaving out those tenants most vulnerable to eviction,” Yentel said.
Late last month, the White House convened an emergency meeting of representatives from 50 cities to discuss what can be done to stave off the impending crisis. The Biden Administration is urging courts, states and localities, legal aid organizations and housing advocates to do what they can to keep families in homes – but the White House’s ability to do this on its own is limited. Despite this, the Biden Administration is actively encouraging localities to implement approaches that work to prevent evictions.
At the White House-sponsored meeting, evictions expert Matthew Desmond was invited to present findings about effective eviction diversion programs. The most effective programs combine early intervention to solve problems before landlords file for eviction, access to legal counsel for every person facing eviction, and referrals to needed social services. In order to spur the use of more of the emergency funds, the Administration has announced that if localities with emergency rental assistance funding are unable to get the funds out by September 30, the Administration will redistribute the unspent rental aid to other communities.
“It’s fundamentally the responsibility of state and local governments to get relief in the hands of renters and landlords,” Susan Rice, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, said at the meeting, according to the Post.
If you are wondering what an eviction crisis in the U.S. might look like, Shelby County, Tennessee is a good place to start. Shelby County, one of Tennessee’s poorest counties, includes Memphis, and courts there are facing a backlog of 20,000 eviction cases.
And evictions are happening, with reports that judges are processing cases at a rate of one case per minute.
For months, renters in Shelby County faced protection from eviction, as do renters in most areas of the U.S. But back in March, the U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Tennessee ruled that the CDC had overstepped its authority in issuing the moratorium. The judge’s ruling only affects those living within the judicial district, but that is of little solace to Shelby County renters, located squarely in the Western District.
Judge Phyllis B. Gardner, Administrative Judge of the Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court, told the Post that courts there are merely doing now what the rest of the country will be doing in the coming months. “It’s a national crisis for everybody,” she said. “We’re trying to emerge from it, but it is not that easy.”
Charlie Fineberg, a local process server who has been working to evict families, said the tide of evictions has only begun. “It’s gonna get worse, more so than you ever thought about,” he told the Post.
And it is not going to hit everyone equally.
A brand new analysis released by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) warns that women of color will face eviction disproportionately when compared to men or to white men or white women. The reason for this is tied directly to the pandemic and ensuing recession – simply put, women of color have suffered most, from job loss to being able to put food on the table to falling behind in rent payments.
The NWLC report found that nearly 4 million (14.6 percent of women who rent) reported being behind on their rent payment in May 2021. Among renters, nearly one in four non-Hispanic Black women (23. 1 percent), one in five non-Hispanic Asian women (20 percent) and more than one in six Latinas (17.6 percent) reported being behind on their rent. By comparison, only 9.1 percent of non-Hispanic white men and 9.0 percent of non-Hispanic white women were behind.
Nearly 3.3 million women (7.8 percent of women with mortgages) reported being behind on their mortgage payment in May 2021. Among homeowners with mortgages, more than one in seven non-Hispanic Black women (15.2 percent) and more than one in nine Latinas (11.8 percent) and non-Hispanic Asian women (11.2 percent) reported being behind on mortgage payments. By comparison, about one in 19 non-Hispanic white men (5.2 percent) and a little over one in 17 non-Hispanic white women (6.0 percent) reported being behind on their mortgages.
Although housing advocates welcomed the CDC moratorium, they say it was never going to be enough to address or prevent the eviction crisis.
“While an eviction moratorium is an essential step, it is a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed,” said NLIHC’s Yentel. She said the moratorium “delays but does not prevent evictions.”