Some of the states with the most alarming spikes in coronavirus rates are allowing rental eviction proceedings again, adding to fears that a pending housing crisis will only compound the economic and public health plight facing the country.
Of the 42 states showing an upward swing in COVID-19 infection rates as of July 9, 21 have already lifted temporary eviction moratoriums put in place at the start of the pandemic—including hot spots like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Idaho, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University and a law professor who has been studying state eviction policies. Many others have bans in place only until later this month or next.
“The combination is really disastrous,’’ said Emily Benfer, the Wake Forest University School of Law professor who has been tracking eviction policies during the COVID-19 outbreak.
- About half the states with recent upswings in COVID-19 cases—including hot spots like Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama—have already lifted temporary bans on rental evictions
- The overlap adds to fears of a pending housing crisis
- Key federal relief measures are set to expire at the end of the month
- One estimate suggests as many as 23 million people who live in renter households are at risk of eviction by the end of September
With pandemic-related lockdowns and business closures triggering a surge in unemployment, a massive wave of evictions is expected as initial emergency housing measures expire, extra federal unemployment benefits near their end, and new economic stimulus proposals stall in Congress. Some 19 million to 23 million people in the U.S., or one in five of the 110 million who live in renter households, are at risk of eviction by the end of September, the COVID-10 Eviction Defense Project estimated in June.
In states allowing evictions, a worrisome trend in COVID-19 cases only exacerbates the problem, tenant advocates and housing policy researchers say.
People evicted from their homes end up in homeless encampments or doubled up in overcrowded homes and apartments, not only making it hard for them to obtain jobs or housing, but furthering the risk of COVID-19 spread, Benfer said. What’s more, rising infections threaten the prospects for an economic recovery in those states, making it more likely people will find themselves without jobs and the ability to pay their rent.
“With continued waves of infections, it’s likely the economy will get worse, not better,’’ said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School in New York. “This is far worse than any downturn we have seen in our living memory.”
Expiring Relief Measures
Since March, when unprecedented business closings aimed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, monthly unemployment rates have surged to as high as 14.7%, triggering a series of government relief measures that are now lapsing as states re-open at varying speeds.
Besides state-level moratoriums on evictions (many of which expired in May and June), the $2 trillion CARES Act halted evictions from federally-subsidized apartments as well as evictions from homes covered by government-backed mortgages. (The owners of homes with government-backed mortgages also got relief, including a moratorium on foreclosures and the option to suspend monthly payments.)
The CARES Act also added an extra $600 per week to state unemployment benefits, provided potentially forgivable loans to small business loans, and funded one-time stimulus checks of as much as $1,200 for most Americans.
But the extra unemployment money runs out at the end of this month, as does the eviction provision. Landlords covered by the CARES Act will be able to post 30-day eviction notices starting in late July.
“When the rent isn’t paid, mortgages and property taxes go unpaid’’ because landlords rely on those payments to pay their own bills, said Benfer, who is a visiting law professor and recently moved to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from Columbia University in New York. “The entire community will feel the ripple effect of that.”
Indeed, about 26% of adults in the U.S. either didn’t make their last month’s rent or mortgage payment or feared they wouldn’t be able to pay them next month, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey, which offers a weekly sample of how people are feeling about things like their housing, job situation, and food during the pandemic. The survey, taken between June 25 and June 30, showed even higher percentages (31%-33%) in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas specifically.
Impact on Black and Latinx Renters
Since African American families have historically suffered higher rates of eviction, according to Benfer, it’s even more concerning that Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, both medically and financially.
Black and Latinx people have been three times as likely as White people to become infected by the virus, according to an analysis published July 5 by The New York Times, which sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get data.
Plus, unemployment rates for Black and Latinx workeres have outpaced overall unemployment rates before and during the pandemic. In June, when the total unemployment rate fell to 11.1% from 13.3% in May for Black and African American people, it fell to 15.4% from 16.8%, and for Hispanic and Latinx people, to 14.5% from 17.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Across the board, unemployment rates are still about three times as high as pre-pandemic levels.
Those hit hardest by COVID-19 often “don’t have the financial cushion to pay rent without employment,” Benfer added. “The availability of jobs for people who are unemployed right now is scarce. And an eviction makes it hard to secure employment. All these things are connected.”
In addition, people in households with eviction records have a tough time getting approved for future housing, forcing them into substandard dwellings, disrupting school for their children, and creating continued insecurity, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project.
“There’s not a shelter to put 19 or 23 million families,’’ he said.
Different States, Different Policies
Eviction moratoriums across the country have been a patchwork of different laws and court orders that vary by state, city and court system. Some moratoriums only apply to people who can demonstrate a COVID-19 related hardship. Others apply more broadly.
What’s more, there are several stages to the eviction process—the initial notice to the tenant, filing the eviction in court, the court hearing and ruling, and enforcement of the order of eviction—and some of the states Benfer lists as having resumed evictions are only allowing certain parts of the process to move forward again.
For instance, some states allow eviction filings but forbid sheriff’s offices from enforcing them, she said. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, founded in 2017 to track evictions around the country, now works with Benfer to score each state based on its approach during the COVID-19 crisis.
The scorecard, updated daily, analyzes more than 20 criteria related to the eviction process and other forms of short-term and long-term renter aid, giving higher scores to states that are banning more parts of the eviction process and/or helping renters in other ways. Some states require a landlord to give a tenant a grace period to pay overdue rent before eviction. Some forbid late fees during the pandemic.
Some cities and states have offered to help residents directly, providing assistance with rent or utilities using discretionary CARES Act funds allocated for state and local use. Others have suspended utility shut-offs, much like the eviction moratoriums. Houston, for instance, gave $15 million of aid to renters, a grant that was so popular, it was reportedly gone in less than two hours.
To be sure, available eviction data has yet to show an upswing, though the federal government doesn’t track eviction numbers, nor do most state governments, according to the Eviction Lab.
Take Texas, for example, where limits on eviction proceedings began expiring in May. Eviction filings are running well below average in both Austin and Houston, according to the Eviction Lab. In June, for example, there were 2,482 eviction filings in Houston—well below the average of 6,290 filings for the same month in previous years.
The Eviction Lab is only able to track recent eviction filings in 11 cities where county court systems allow for weekly updates.
Passing Along the Costs
Although states that forbid or limit evictions get points in The Eviction Lab’s scorecard, some economists and landlord groups say halting evictions over the long term is neither responsible nor meaningful.
"We're going to have to face up to the fact that landlords can't allow people to simply stay in their houses and apartments without paying rent,'' said William Poole, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and a former member of President Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors. "Landlords can't afford that, and you'll send landlords into bankruptcy."
Groups such as the National Apartment Association are lobbying for direct assistance to renters, and say moratoriums on evictions only address half the problem if you don’t also let apartment building owners suspend their mortgage payments.
A new coronavirus relief proposal in Congress, the $3 trillion bill known as the Heroes Act, would suspend evictions and foreclosures for all renters and most homeowners for a year. It would also provide $100 billion in rental assistance, add another round of stimulus checks, and extend the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits through January 2021. But after passing the Democratic-led U.S. House in May, the bill has languished in the Republican-led Senate.
Meanwhile, people like Cara Grimes of Shelbyville, Tennessee, are joining tenant advocacy groups to protest pending local evictions. Evictions have been allowed to resume in her state, and Grimes herself was threatened with eviction after being laid off from her factory job in March.
Grimes figured she didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because she worked for a temp agency, and by June, she was $250 behind on rent. Luckily, she managed to find a new job before it was too late. (As of July 9, Tennessee had one of the biggest upward swings in COVID-19 cases, according to Johns Hopkins’ data, but then the two-week trend improved.)
“I know a lot of people won’t speak up,’’ said Grimes, who posted video on Facebook of a neighbor getting evicted, including trash bags of belongings being hurled from the second-floor balcony to the ground below. “As a community, we aren’t being listened to.”