During COVID, more and more people started having trouble making ends meet. And they felt trapped: They could apply for rental assistance from the federal government, but much of that money still hasn’t gone out the door. And to be eligible for assistance in the first place, you have to have already missed a payment. It’s a risk. Meanwhile, the temporary protections, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium, are winding down. So what happens to the Americans who have been depending on these measures as they remain devastated by the effects of the pandemic? With a possible eviction boom just days away, I spoke with Alieza Durana, a reporter with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University who focuses on housing, evictions, and homelessness, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: As people got sick and lost their jobs, Congress first issued an eviction moratorium. This was back in the spring of 2020. It expired, last summer, and the question was, what was going to happen then? That’s how the CDC stepped in.
Alieza Durana: The CDC moratorium came about because policymakers were worried that the public health and economic crisis that had affected so many households—job loss, health issues—might trigger a cascade of events in which folks were unable to pay for their rent. They might then lose their home and, in the process, face increased exposure to COVID-19. So in September of last year, shortly after the CARES Act had expired, the Eviction Lab saw a big spike in evictions with the loss of the federal moratorium. Within two weeks, the Trump administration passed a CDC order through the Department of Health and Human Services to help try to buy time to keep people in their homes while they applied for rent relief and tried to find new jobs.
I remember when the CDC order came out. It felt a little strange, like, what’s the CDC’s jurisdiction here? Is this enforceable? I’m sure you had questions like that too.
It came as a bit of a surprise that the federal eviction moratorium was being issued through the HHS, through the CDC, rather than through Congress or by executive order. It certainly took us by surprise, but it did have an immediate dampening effect on eviction filings in certain parts of the country. But because of some flaws in the way the CDC order was crafted, it left many parts of the country exposed to ongoing eviction filings. So there are many states, including our most populous ones, like Florida or Texas, where evictions have been ongoing in spite of the CDC moratorium.
How have they been ongoing?
There have been numerous legal challenges to the moratorium by various realtors associations in states’ circuit courts—including the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio—that the Department of Justice has been appealing. So right now, we find ourselves in a place where we have this sort of important but tattered Band-Aid that is a federal eviction moratorium. And there are many more renters now than in a typical year who have fallen behind on rent in 2020 and 2021—which are not typical years by any stretch of the imagination. So we’re preparing for the possibility that many families who were facing evictions earlier this year but had received protection may see their eviction process start up again when the moratorium lifts on June 30.
There is a system in place that’s supposed to catch these renters when the moratorium expires. Congress has set aside billions of dollars in rent relief to avert potential evictions. But local municipalities have struggled to get that money out to families.
Congress allocated about $25 billion in December and then an additional $20 billion in 2021. This money has just started to trickle down to states. My understanding, from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, was that about an average of 13 percent of that $45 billion has been spent down. So having an eviction moratorium in place is really important as an emergency measure to help ensure that that money reaches communities before they lose their homes. We’re seeing this play out in real time, where folks who have an eviction filed against them have applied for rental assistance but the eviction is being processed faster than they’re receiving the money. So we’re urging governments both at federal, state, and local level to extend the eviction moratorium until emergency rent relief measures fully reach communities.
Decades of underinvestment in our public infrastructure made it very difficult to get money out the door. Ensuring that there are organizations on the ground that have the capacity to disperse that money and know how to prioritize applications has been a big challenge. The challenges we’re facing right now have been decades in the making.
The Eviction Lab has new research out this week that examines the association between vaccination rates and evictions. What we found in all the sites for which we have data is that the neighborhoods where there have been the biggest barriers to access around vaccine rates, are also neighborhoods that are facing the highest eviction rates. So, to put that differently, if you live in a neighborhood that has been underserved by public health authorities or public policies.
Not only could you lose your home and your connection to community come June 30, but you could also face increased exposure to COVID-19, given that there have not only been issues with protecting folks from exposure to this life-altering virus, but also with providing them a place to call home.
The Eviction Lab says renters who get kicked out carry a “Scarlet E” forever after. How many more renters will carry that mark after this moratorium expires? And what has the past year revealed about this rickety system that isn’t really serving renters at all?
The housing crisis prior to COVID-19 was partially a story of rising rents across the country—in small and large communities, in red and blue states—as well as a question of wage stagnation, how American residents have not gotten a raise in decades. At this point, in addition to that, there’s a layer of racial and gender discrimination in our housing market and policies. we do see that communities of color—and in particular, Black and white women, families with children, and families experiencing domestic violence are facing a disproportionate risk of eviction. For these communities, for our communities across the United States, eviction is a cause of poverty We refer to it as the “Scarlet E,” that an eviction not only triggers the loss of home and connection to community, but also will ruin a person’s credit, their jobs, their tenant and rental history. It affects mental and physical health deterioration as well as suicidal ideation.
The implications of an eviction are quite grave for the many communities affected across the United States right now. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen laid bare this story of two Americas: an America for whom housing security exists, one that is protected from the violence and trauma of poverty, and another America that we have effectively abandoned.
Eviction should not be the solution to every landlord problem, even though that has been an underlying assumption in the United States for a very long time. We are comparing a choice that someone makes to start a business venture with a fundamental right and need for shelter just to exist as a human being—and I think we need to stop equating those two things. The issue is not that landlords should subsidize tenants in this difficult time, but rather that governments should come in and support communities through times of hardship. We need time to get money to both property owners and tenants right now, which is the process of rent relief. We simply have not had enough time to deliver on that support. So what we’re asking right now is feedback, making sure that the process of accessing rent relief is as easy as possible, particularly for historically marginalized communities, and at the same time making sure that this does not result in mass homelessness, which is absolutely on the table.
Most landlords in the United States are not mom-and-pop landlords. Most landlords in the United States are owned by corporate entities. We’re currently also seeing a big buying spree in the residential rental market: Large-scale venture capital investors are buying up properties across the United States, including in places like Milwaukee, where my colleague Matthew Desmond wrote the book Evicted. Landlords are seeing this as a business opportunity rather than a moment where we need to address the question of our humanity and an ability to make it through one of the biggest crises that is affected the United States in a century.
What are you expecting to happen on July 1 when this moratorium is over? You said that some areas of the country are already seeing eviction levels that are back to where they previously were. Are you expecting all the other regions to bounce back as well?
We could see a couple of things happen. There might be a boom of evictions. We’re certainly hoping that governments at the local, state, and federal level, consider putting more money and resources into continuing protections for tenants in many different forms: unemployment insurance assistance, food assistance, housing assistance, extending eviction moratoria. But at this point, with so few state-level eviction moratoria in place and the federal moratorium about to expire, we’re preparing for a possible spike in eviction filings and increased risk of eviction and homelessness for millions of Americans.
I wonder how much impact it’s really going to have, or whether this is a chance to remind people that the housing system has been incredibly insecure and continues to be insecure throughout the pandemic. The government acknowledged that insecurity, and that’s a change, but the moratorium itself may not have been the protection we hoped it might be.
No, it wasn’t the protection that we’d hoped it might be, and I know we can and should demand better. Frankly, I think that the pandemic laid bare how normal the trauma of poverty and eviction are as fixtures of American life. And the housing and eviction crisis, as it deepens through the pandemic, has the potential to create a houseless generation, a permanent underclass of communities that live paycheck to paycheck through no fault of their own. And we’re rushing back to crisis levels right now. The Eviction Lab has a tracker that is scraping court data from five states in 29 cities. We can see that in the parts of the country that are not observing the CDC order, eviction filings are almost set back to “normal levels,” where we were seeing seven evictions per minute in some parts of the country. So I hope people choose to see this as a shift where we can articulate rights and human dignity for much more of America.
Many people can’t afford to pay their rent and they’re anxiously looking at this looming deadline of June 30. What would you say to someone in that position about what they should do now, with the moratorium ending?
The first thing I’ll say is that if you’re facing an eviction right now, if you’re worried about paying rent, you have a right to fight an eviction in court. There are millions of dollars in rental assistance available across the country. You may be eligible for a lawyer to help you fight the eviction and access that rental assistance. I would encourage you to talk to your neighbors, talk to your community members, document everything that’s going on in your life, take photos of any communication that you receive from your landlord. The Eviction Lab has a sister site called Just Shelter, where we house a database of legal and social services across the United States. If you’re looking for help, that is a good place to start. At the same time, we’ve seen a lot of inspiring demonstrations for fundamental human rights in the United States over the past year through the Black Lives Matter movement, through other civil rights movements, and this is a moment for us to actually “build back better” instead of abandoning tenants. We’ve learned a lot about fixes to the housing system through the pandemic. Now is the moment to make those fixes permanent.
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