The time for a nationwide eviction moratorium is now
The current public health and unemployment emergency is about to become a housing crisis. Without further action from lawmakers and the president, a wave of evictions is estimated to displace 20 million people from their homes during the weeks between now and Sept. 30. That means one in five people who live in rental housing will lose their homes in just over two months.
When a foreclosure crisis inevitably follows, these events will pour lighter fluid on the dual infernos of COVID-19 deaths and economic recession.
Friday’s date marks the expiration of the CARES Act, which injected the economy with rental assistance and unemployment benefits, while also shielding more than 12 million households from eviction. Temporary eviction moratoriums enacted by states and local governments protected millions of additional tenants, but many of these laws have also expired.
We already know what evictions look like during the pandemic.
In some states, courts are open, but tenants are too fearful of indoor contacts to contest their cases, even if they have a legal or factual basis for rent relief. In at least 24 states, private landlords are now free to file eviction actions, but court proceedings have moved online. The National Housing Law Project surveyed at the end of June of legal aid attorneys in 38 states revealed a host of problems with remote hearings.
In some cases, tenants are being evicted with no hearing notice at all. Tenants appear at locked courthouses, only to be told that all proceedings are on Zoom. Even for the few tenants who have a lawyer, most courts have not created processes to submit evidence and communicate privately with counsel. Even before the crisis — when low-income tenants in some cities could try to acquire a legal aid lawyer in the courthouse the day of their hearing — nine of every 10 tenants had no legal representation.
Beyond procedural concerns, much research suggests that the dehumanization of virtual proceedings negatively affects assessments of a defendant’s credibility and character, for instance, by making defendants appear as if they are avoiding eye contact with a judge. Broadband remains costly, and a major national study in 2016 found that 27 percent of Americans still lack in-home Internet access. Among low-income families and seniors, especially African American and Latino ones, the digital divide blocks a majority of households from reliable connectivity.
Eighty-year-old John D. in Des Moines, Iowa, got an eviction notice in April with a hearing set over Zoom. Mr. D figured out how to log into the hearing despite no video conferencing experience, but the court had no way to receive or track his evidence. Even though it was unable to review the evidence that Mr. D said waived his rent obligation, the court evicted him anyway.
Evictions have huge societal consequences even in normal times, leading to school turnover for children, absence from work, and additional family debt. They propel a deterioration in living conditions that, in turn, increases ER admissions for chronic and stress-related illnesses. In the middle of a pandemic, evictions are more dangerous still, disrupting a family’s ability to shelter-in-place and practice social distancing. Evictions force families to seek new housing and crowd into relatives’ homes.
Some will become homeless, piling onto the humanitarian emergency of shelters and encampments that cannot meet quarantine and social distancing requirements.
Just as people of color are facing the worst impacts of COVID-19 and the economic downturn, so too, they are facing the most significant risks of eviction. Systemic inequities in the housing market, both historical and current, mean that Black and Latino’s households are much less likely to own their own homes.
When they rent, they pay a higher average share of their income for housing. The current moment has us trapped in a vicious cycle: Higher death rates fuel lockdowns and job losses, job losses mean missed rent, missed rent risks evictions that prevent families from staying home to flatten the curve. Even without a public health crisis, housing displacement of the magnitude expected in the coming weeks would risk a devastating collapse of the real estate market.
Housing has proven itself to be more than a commercial product. It is a public health necessity and a linchpin of our economic order.
The Senate and the president must move now to enact the rental assistance and nationwide eviction moratorium included in the HEROES Act, which passed the House in May. We need rent checks to keep flowing, but evictions to stop.
Michelle Wilde Anderson is a professor of law at Stanford Law School. Shamus Roller is the executive director at the National Housing Law Project.