Before the novel coronavirus struck, 300,000 evictions were filed in the United States in a typical month. With nearly 10 million people filing unemployment claims last month, evictions would clearly skyrocket, absent intervention from the government. In one hint of the trouble to come, researchers at the City University of New York found at the end of March that 44 percent of New Yorkers expected to have trouble making their April rent.
Fortunately, Congress, states, municipalities and the Department of Housing and Urban Development all have stepped up to issue temporary bans on eviction. That’s good news, but there are significant limits to many of these bans – and even the best of them are temporary. In many places, for instance, landlords are still filing eviction papers, even when there is a freeze on ejecting people from their homes – and not every state has imposed such a freeze. Without a stronger state and federal response, the United States appears headed toward an unprecedented housing crisis.
We at the Eviction Lab, based at Princeton University, in partnership with Columbia visiting law professor Emily Benfer, have been tracking when and how state and federal eviction policies are changing. We’ve found clear fault lines in current policies to prevent people from becoming homeless during this crisis.
The coronavirus-relief bill passed last month by Congress prohibits foreclosure on federally backed mortgage loans for 60 days, covering some 30 million homeowners. The bill also prohibits rental evictions for 120 days for properties secured by a government-backed mortgage. That covers about half of all multifamily homes. Beyond that, however, protections for renters tends to be haphazard, varying widely by state. As of this past weekend (policies are changing quickly), only 14 states have barred landlords from formally beginning the process of eviction, according to our data; 36 – plus the District of Columbia – still permit evictions to be filed.
Many of these states are in effect simply delaying hearings, typically for 60 or 90 days or until the state’s emergency declaration lifts. What’s more, only 21 states and D.C. have halted the execution of an eviction order issued before the coronavirus outbreak turned into a major health crisis.
In the remaining states, a family legally evicted in February could be physically evicted today.
Thirteen states – including Florida, Nevada, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming – allow cities and towns to set their own eviction policies. Some cities (Miami is a notable example) have responded by issuing moratoriums, but suburban and rural communities have been much slower to act. The problem is that housing insecurity affects communities large and small across the country. In fact, some rural towns have eviction rates that rival the highest-evicting cities.
In some cases, states have placed bureaucratic hurdles between renters and the protections that have been passed. Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, New Mexico, Nebraska and Utah all require tenants to demonstrate they’ve been affected by virus outbreak – either the disease itself or the mandatory business closures – before they are shielded from eviction. While there is little guidance on how to prove you’ve been affected by the outbreak, states could require tenants to contest an eviction order in court by demonstrating job termination or presenting unemployment filings (which are backlogged as is). But since most courts are closed to in-person hearings the path forward is murky.
This crisis has struck the United States at a moment when millions of people were already living perilously close to eviction. Because of stagnant wages and rising rents, one out of four renters spent over half of their income on housing. Among rent burdened households – defined as those that spend more than one third of their income on housing – half have less than $10 in savings.
Nearly a third of the American workforce – some 41.7 million people – earns less than $12 per hour and has limited access to health care, paid sick days and paid family and medical leave. The mandatory stay-at-home orders and forced closing of business will force much of this population, even with the help of unemployment insurance, to choose between paying rent or buying groceries.
Some landlords have delayed eviction and even canceled rent for their tenants. Others, however, have been less sympathetic. The Daily Beast recently reported on the case of a Las Vegas nurse who was evicted because her landlord worried she might potentially spread covid-19.
The problem is simply too consequential to be left up to landlord discretion. And if evictions are merely delayed, not permanently stopped, that could lead to a resurgence of the virus, after stay-at-home measures “bend the curve” of infection. Evicted families end up in homeless shelters, where people eat and sleep next to each other – the opposite of social distancing.
People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to upper respiratory illness including to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Well before the pandemic, sprawling tent encampments had experienced outbreaks of medieval diseases like typhus and trench fever.
Evictions harm families in ways that will last long after the coronavirus emergency has passed. Being forced from your home has been linked to a range of negative consequences, from job loss to depression and suicide. Some harms will persist even in cases where eviction papers have been filed but eviction does not occur. An eviction record – the “scarlet E” – limits your housing options, sullies your credit and can prevent you from accessing federal housing assistance.
Governors, state legislators and state supreme courts have a number of tools to prevent mass evictions and homelessness: They can freeze all evictions during the state of emergency, including orders already given by the court; eliminate late fees for renters; and create a time frame to pay back rent and mortgage arrears, as California has done, so families aren’t immediately evicted once the state of emergency is lifted. More sweepingly, they could also issue a rent and mortgage freeze until the pandemic is over.
Congress has less leverage over landlords than it does over banks that sell mortgages, but there are several things it could do to ameliorate the present and future housing crisis. Only one in four families who are eligible for rental assistance currently receives it. Congress could fully fund that strapped program and ensure that every family that qualifies for housing aid gets the help they desperately need. The federal government should massively bolster rental assistance, since a $1,200 check will hardly cover rent, food and other needs for the duration of the pandemic.
If federal and state leaders do not act swiftly to patch all the holes in their eviction policies, the nation’s biggest public health crisis in a century could easily cause a full-blown outbreak of homelessness. In these trying times, eviction will not help landlords get paid. It will only spread yet more poverty, sickness and death.