Death by eviction

As the pandemic rages, landlords across the country continue to kick tenants out of their homes. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, for example, 244 families have been evicted from their homes since September 4. Just last week, landlords filed 2,358 eviction cases in 27 cities tracked by the Princeton University Eviction Lab.

It's killing people. 

A new study by public health researchers at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and other institutions looked at the impact of "the expiration of state-based moratoriums during the summer of 2020." The researchers "tested whether lifting eviction moratoriums was associated with COVID-19 incidence and mortality."

The results are chilling. The study concluded that "lifting [eviction] moratoriums amounted to an estimated 433,700 excess cases and 10,700 excess deaths" between March 13 and September 3. The infections and fatalities occurred across "27 states that lifted eviction moratoriums" during the study period. In Texas alone, the study found there were 4456 excess deaths after the state lifted its eviction moratorium on May 18. The researchers "accounted for stay at home orders, mask orders, school closures, testing rates, time trends, and other state characteristics to better isolate the impact of eviction moratoriums."

Evictions result in crowding, as families consolidate homes to make ends meet, or homelessness, forcing families to live in shelters or other congregate settings. This increases the chances of contracting COVID. Further, the impact of COVID on this population may be more severe because "poor health and costs associated with healthcare may drive eviction risk." 

"Looking to 2021, policymakers should consider extending federal, state and local moratoriums alongside rent relief, and other legal and supportive protections to prevent future evictions, COVID-19 transmission, and associated harms," the study's authors conclude.

What about the federal moratorium?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instituted a national eviction moratorium starting September 4. The moratorium doesn't expire until the end of 2020. So why are thousands of people still getting evicted? 

The moratorium is not universal and not self-executing. To qualify, tenants must fill out a declaration stating that they have tried to obtain rent assistance from the government, earned no more than $99,000 in 2020 ($198,000 for couples), are unable to pay because of loss of income, and would likely become homeless if evicted. If tenants fail to fill out this form, evictions can proceed normally. Many tenants are not represented in court and don't even know the moratorium — or the declaration — exists. 

Further, judges in some states, including North Carolina and Missouri, have refused to recognize the federal moratorium. Even if a court does recognize the declaration, it does not prevent eviction cases from being filed. In court, according to the CDC, landlords can challenge "the truthfulness of a tenant’s declaration." The CDC also warns that tenants that complete the declaration "in bad faith" will be subject to criminal prosecution for perjury. 

In many cases, the filing of an eviction case itself is enough to get a tenant to vacate. Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, explains:

Because tenants often value their ability to obtain other rental housing over remaining in one specific property, the fact that such cases are being filed likely has a chilling effect on tenants who would otherwise assert the moratorium. Tenants who receive eviction notices will move out to avoid the creation of an eviction record, rather than stay in their homes.

The eviction moratorium also does nothing to stop landlords from evicting tenants for criminal activity, property damage, or building code violations. 

So it's easy to see how, despite the moratorium, thousands of people continue to face eviction every week. But, as bad as things are, they are about to get much worse.

The eviction cliff

Despite the holes in the CDC’s moratorium, it has had an impact. According to the Eviction Lab, more than 150,000 evictions have been filed across 27 major cities during the pandemic. But evictions are still well-below average. In Phoenix, for example, eviction filings were more than 50% below average in November. 

But at the same time, unpaid rent continues to accrue — once the moratorium expires in January, renters will be expected to pay back their rent in full along with any late fees. In other words, without rental assistance, the moratorium will end with an avalanche of evictions. Come January, many may find themselves homeless in the middle of the still-raging pandemic.

According to a report prepared for the National Council State Housing Agencies, an estimated “8.4 million renter households, which include 20.1 million individual renters, could experience an eviction filing” in January.

This especially impacts Black and Latino renters who face a higher risk of eviction than white renters. These are the same populations who are already disproportionately impacted by COVID.

There is also a large group of people who have been paying for rent using credit cards, either because they did not qualify for the moratorium or were unaware that they could remain in their homes without paying rent. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia recently found that there has been a “70% percent increase from last year in people paying rent on a credit card,” reports NPR

“If you're putting your rent payments on to a credit card, that shows you're really at risk of eviction. That means you've run out of savings; you've probably run out of calls to family members to get them to loan you money,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of the Housing Law Project, to NPR. 

Congress goes AWOL

The last time Congress passed a COVID relief bill was over seven months ago. With evictions set to resume in January, the deadline for lawmakers to act on this impending crisis is quickly approaching. 

This week, a bipartisan group of senators revealed a new $908 billion stimulus package proposal. The new proposal includes $25 billion in rental assistance. But it is unclear if this will be enough. Experts are estimating that “renters will owe close to $70 billion in unpaid January, or $5,400 for the typical family that has fallen behind.” Diane Yentel, the President and CEO of National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Vox that “it’s going [to] take at least $100 billion in rental assistance.”

“For nine months, this tsunami on the horizon has been completely predictable and entirely preventable; we’ve known the solution to this for months, [the problem] is the lack of political will,” said Yentel.

House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion relief package in October that provided $50 billion in rental aid for those at risk of eviction as well $5 billion in homeless assistance grants. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, is pushing a $500 billion “targeted relief bill” that does not provide any rental aid or any “continuing eviction protections.” 

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