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As lawmakers spar over extended unemployment benefits, millions of displaced workers who relied on federal aid in the midst of the pandemic, now face the specter of personal bankruptcy and impending eviction from their homes as their safety nets disappear in the midst of the continuing recession.
Earlier this year, when the pandemic totaled much of the US economy, lawmakers gave laid off workers a lifeline in the form of the Cares Act providing $600 a week in unemployment benefits. That weekly federal supplement week enabled many displaced workers to afford to pay their rent and other bills, but that federal money stops this weekend.
According to a CNN business report, more than 44 million furloughed and out-of-work Americans filed for unemployment benefits since March this year. That lifeline is due to disappear by end July with the Senate in disarray on how to resolve the relief package, forcing a housing crisis upon tenants who cannot make their rent.
In a double whammy, federal eviction bans offering COVID-related rent relief protection from evictions for renters living in homes with federally backed mortgages also lapse this month.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by halting evictions of renters living in properties they finance and providing aid for an estimated 12 million rental units, some with federally guaranteed loans. Even so, only 25% of eligible renters received housing subsidies. That safety net ended on July 24.
Millions of vulnerable out-of-work Americans now face a precarious prospect. They could be kicked out of their homes with no reprieve in sight, as a merciless pandemic continues to ravage their lives and livelihoods even as COVID-19 restrictions require them to shelter-in-place to control the coronavirus.
In an interview with NPR, Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, expressed concerns that “without a sustained federal intervention, there will be a wave of evictions and a spike in homelessness across the country.”
At a July 17th ethnic media briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, housing policy experts and advocates shared insights on the looming threat of mass evictions and identified measures that could protect tenants and at risk populations.
Who is Affected?
Experts are predicting “a tsunami of evictions nationwide,” as the pandemic exposes and deepens racial and economic inequities in American communities,
The housing crisis that already existed was exacerbated by the pandemic, said Dr.Emily Benfer, a visiting professor at the Wake Forest School of Law, and renters of color will bear the brunt of its impact.
“Between the scarcity of federal housing assistance and the loss of over 4 million affordable housing units over the last decade,” renters were increasingly vulnerable to eviction coming into the pandemic, she explained, “with seven evictions being filed every minute in 2016.”
Dr Benfer, the principal investigator in a nationwide study of COVID-19 eviction moratoriums and housing policies, confirmed that renters were experiencing increased financial hardship during the pandemic.
“50 million renters today live in households that suffered COVID-19 related job loss or income loss,” she stated, ”with 40 percent of that occurring in especially low income households.” The high demand for rental assistance meant that “programs were being exhausted within minutes of being opened.”
She noted that food pantry requests had increased “by as much as 2000% in some states,” which meant that renters were really financially stretched to pay their rent and had limited resources for other necessities like food and healthcare. Nearly 31.6% had low confidence in their ability to pay rent during the pandemic while many were using credit cards or taking loans to make ends meet.
An analysis of findings from the Household Pulse Survey, estimated that almost 16.9 million households, many with families and children, are unable to pay rent and risk eviction. One in four households reported they were late on rent and mortgage payments, and, the highest insecurity rates were recorded in states where eviction bans had already expired. Nearly 60% of landlords surveyed by the American Apartment Owners Association confirmed their tenants are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus.
Communities of color have been hit the hardest as benefit checks and housing relief measures vanish. They have experienced COVID-19 related infection, death and job loss at a higher rate than other demographics said Dr. Benfer. Almost 73% of black renters said they lacked emergency funds to cover expenses for three months and 61% of Hispanic renters said they had experienced COVID19-related wage and job loss.
Small property owners who lack the financial cushion to sustain non-payment of rent, but who own nearly 22.7 million rental units in the country, will be affected, predicted Benfer, citing a Harvard University estimate that almost 20% of renters in these properties will have difficulty paying rent. The impending decline in rental payments will cripple the affordable housing market, and small property owners who cannot find new tenants are likely to take rental units off the market and repurpose them, further depleting the affordable housing market, she added.
As moratoriums expire and evictions are filed (80 thousand are expected in Michigan, for example), most court cases have moved to remote hearings, but it raises question said Benfer, about how people with limited computer or phone access and language barriers, will get a fair hearing. Tenants rights advocate Nisha Vyas added that in California, landlords are represented by attorneys in the vast majority of eviction filings, yet, even if tenants have a strong case but no attorney, they will likely lose their case.
The Impact on Renters
“Evictions have negative consequences, warned Benfer. Being evicted takes a disproportionate toll on the financial wellbeing of renters; it will send credit scores, employment and academic prospects into a downward spiral; residential instability and homelessness will contribute to downward mobility forcing families into housing of substandard quality or crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the inability to access social services will leave many without a safety net.
Even receiving an eviction notice can increase stress and severely impact health outcomes, advised Benfer, referring to studies that document how eviction increases rates of respiratory diseases, mortality, depression, and suicidal ideation, while children become susceptible to early drug use, teen pregnancy and adverse childhood experiences.
Evicted families will be forced into overcrowded housing or homeless shelters, warned Benfer, which are spaces that will not allow them to safely social distance and puts people at risk of greater exposure to COVID19. “Evictions are likely to lead to a 20 to 40% increase in homelessness,” added Dr. Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center and the Director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, and many people “fall from eviction directly into homelessness.”
“Ultimately” Benfer pointed out, “the pandemic has magnified and heightened the socio-economic divide, and the health and racial disparities,” shredding the already threadbare safety net for vulnerable communities in America.
Housing Relief Measures
Policy makers are introducing bills to ease the hardships that tenants face during the pandemic. Senator Kamala Harris introduced the Relief Act to ban evictions and foreclosures for a year for tenants and homeowners. Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the “Protecting Renters from Evictions and Fees Act,” to broaden the eviction moratoriums in the CARES Act and protect all renters for a full year, while HHS Secretary Alex Azar renewed the COVID-19 national public health emergency declaration, effective July 25.
The Children’s Defense Fund urged Congress to intervene and provide housing assistance on behalf of millions of children who could lose their homes, while the National Housing Law Project together with a coalition of 100 other organizations, sent a letter to HUD to use its legal authority to protect low-income renters.
Landlords are also looking for creative ways like lease guarantees, to shield against non-payment of rent.
The House of Representatives passed the Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act of 2020, which would appropriate $100 billion for direct rental assistance, but the Senate continues to stall on a new coronavirus relief bill.
State Sponsored Interventions
Maryland State delegate Kumar Barve told the panel that his committee had urged Governor Larry Hogan to extend the eviction moratorium until January 2021 so as to craft a more permanent public policy response on housing relief for affected residents and avoid the potential for largescale social disruption.
”Evicting 10 percent of the population would be a humanitarian catastrophe” he said.
In California, due to dramatic increases in unsheltered homelessness during the pandemic, Governor Newsom launched Project Roomkey, to secure thousands of hotel and motel rooms to protect homeless people from Covid-19, stated Dr. Kushel. The initiative has successfully housed over fifteen thousand homeless individuals so far. The newly launched Project Homekey will provide $600 million to acquire properties and convert them into interim or permanent, long-term housing.
Sonoma County small business owner Akash Kalia described how the hospitality industry could make a social impact in the housing crisis. In 2015, he converted his family’s 104 unit motel ‘The Palms,’ into permanently supportive housing for homeless veterans and chronically homeless civilians. Robust, cost effective services provided on site – weekly food distribution, mobile health clinic and therapy – ensure that sustainable housing is maintained for this vulnerable population.
Meanwhile, as of April 1st, more than 80 cities and counties have adopted tenant protections including temporary bans on evictions said Vyas, a senior attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. Her firm is co-sponsoring a Tenant Protection Bill (AB 1436) designed to give tenants a fair chance to pay rent owed and for landlords to pursue unpaid rent through the civil actions rather than an eviction process.
Who’s to Blame?
Vyas cautioned against using the term ‘tsunami’ to describe the looming threat of mass evictions. “I want to be really clear that this is not a natural disaster. It will be a disaster of our own making.”
How will we recover?
Unquestionably the housing crisis needs a humanitarian response. The Heroes Act is still stalled in the Senate awaiting approval for a second round of stimulus checks, even as the deadline draws near.
Will lawmakers use this opportunity to ensure that the new post pandemic reality that Dr. Benfer hopes for, is one in which “health justice, racial justice and housing justice are realized?”
Time is running out.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents