On July 25, the federal moratorium on evictions ended. This Saturday, August 1, rent will come due for tenants across the country, just as the $600 weekly supplement to unemployment benefits expires for out-of-work renters.
As of early July, over 17 million people were receiving unemployment benefits; millions more are still waiting to access them, or are undocumented or otherwise unable to qualify for aid. Even for those who have managed to hang on to their jobs, the threat of eviction looms large. Census data suggest that nationally, over 40 percent of renter households are struggling or unable to pay rent — which could mean over 11 million evictions in the coming months.
Those who are booted from their homes will be more likely to lose their jobs, if they haven’t already, and find it harder to get a new job. They will be forced to double up with friends or family, vie for a place in an overcrowded shelter, or live on the streets, all of which will increase their vulnerability to COVID-19. If anywhere near the number of potential evictions are actually carried out, millions of people will suffer a devastating blow, prolonging the pain of the pandemic.
The metaphors the media typically use to describe the eviction crisis are those of a natural disaster: “an avalanche,” “a tsunami,” “a flood.” This implies a sense of inevitability — renters lost income because of the pandemic, therefore they can’t pay their rent, therefore they will be evicted. But there’s nothing inevitable or intuitive about the fact that millions of people should be thrown out of their homes while corporate landlords like Blackstone continue to rake in profits.
The reasons for this unnatural disaster are clear. Instead of investing in truly affordable housing and enacting nationwide measures to keep people in their homes, we’ve created a confusing patchwork of means-tested housing assistance and pushed people to compete for scarce units. The recently expired federal eviction moratorium, which was passed as part of the CARES Act, only applies to tenants in homes with federally backed mortgages — about a quarter of all tenants nationally. Republicans have not included the moratorium in federal stimulus legislation, and it’s unclear whether Democrats will have the leverage (or political will) to negotiate its extension.
Many of the tenants who were excluded from the CARES Act moratorium have been relying on legislation from state and local governments. The statewide moratoria are a confusing patchwork in and of themselves: in some places the governor enforces them, in others the courts do. California has enabled local governments to extend the state moratorium that expired at the end of May, so tenants’ risk of eviction varies by city. New York has prevented landlords from removing tenants but allows courts to impose money judgements for overdue rent. And they all expire on arbitrary dates, after which tenants will be expected to magically have steady jobs and full bank accounts.
In some states, tenants must prove they have lost income due to COVID-19 as a defense against eviction. This assumes that the purpose of an eviction moratorium is to protect otherwise “deserving” tenants who have seen their incomes drop because of the pandemic. But what about tenants who were cash-strapped before COVID-19 due to, say, medical bills? What about those who are evicted for a cause other than nonpayment of rent?
The devastating consequences of eviction on economic, mental, and physical well-being, even during normal times, are amply documented. The purpose of an eviction moratorium should be to prevent anyone from becoming homeless during a terrifying public health crisis and unprecedented economic collapse, whether or not that collapse led directly to their job loss. And the cataclysmic effects of the moratorium’s expiration should make us reconsider whether evictions should be part of the reality of life in this country for so many people.
In mid-April, Representative Ilhan Omar introduced legislation to cancel rents and mortgages for the duration of the public health crisis. The legislation would also offer financial relief to tenants and small landlords, and establish a fund to finance the purchase of private rental housing by local governments, public housing authorities, nonprofits, and community land trusts.
In addition to its legislative cosponsors, the bill has been endorsed by over three dozen community and labor organizations.
A statement on Omar’s website emphasizes that “due to layoffs and mass unemployment, renters and mortgage holders are accruing mountains of debt, despite many not having a steady income for the foreseeable future. We must take bold action now that extends the same financial assistance and protections to our struggling citizens as has been offered to profit-driven corporations.”
Unlike many of the mitigation proposals advanced by other lawmakers, Omar’s bill not only addresses the cause of the current eviction crisis, but lays out a path to eliminating housing insecurity and ensuring housing as a right. That’s exactly the right approach. Unless we cancel rent and mortgage obligations during the pandemic and enact policies to guarantee housing for all, we will be placing the burden of the coronavirus pandemic on those who can least afford it.