We're down to our last line of defense against mass evictions

We're down to our last line of defense against mass evictions
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This week, as the country faces a significant surge in COVID-19 cases, the Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s emergency eviction moratorium — an action designed to keep people safe during an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. 

According to soon-to-be-released data from the National Equity Atlas’ Rent Debt Dashboard, this devastating decision puts more than 6 million households at imminent risk of losing their housing, and threatens to accelerate the alarming spread of COVID. No matter where we're from or where we live, having a safe place to call home is a basic need. 

It’s far past time for our leaders, at every level of government, to do the work necessary to protect communities, keep people in their homes and deliver the vital relief so many families need. Renters and small landlords should not suffer as a result of delayed and insufficient government action. 

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Over the last year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have exacerbated the impacts of generations of systemic racism and policymaking that prioritizes profits over people. Our country’s Black, Latino Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander and low-income white communities have suffered the highest COVID-19 infection rates and have experienced alarming and inordinate loss of life. Today, more than 6 million renter households — half of them families with children — are currently behind on rent. For too many of these families, the eviction moratorium is the only protection keeping them in their homes. 

While Congress took the important step of allocating $46.5 billion in rental assistance to state and local governments, only 11 percent of those funds have been distributed. 

Amidst a massively unequal recession that has disproportionately cost low-wage workers their jobs and livelihoods, low-income renters and renters of color are far more likely to be behind on rent. Among households with rent debt, 81 percent are low-income (with earnings less than $50,000 per year) and 64 percent are renters of color. The majority (51 percent) are currently unemployed.  

Renters of color are twice as likely to be behind as white renters — 24 percent of Black renters, 17 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander and Latino renters and 18 percent of multiracial renters are behind on rent, compared to 9 percent of White renters. In addition, homeowners — who are disproportionately white — saw a $1.9 trillion increase in home equity during the first year of the pandemic. This crisis is exacerbating economic inequities and deepening the racial wealth gap. 

The potential for mass evictions is one of the most pressing equity issues of the pandemic. We are calling on leaders at all levels of government to act now to prevent this crisis.

Congress can protect renters at the scale this moment demands. They must act immediately to pass a national eviction moratorium that provides long term protections to renters who have been impacted by the pandemic and should commit to providing relief to every household that needs it. This will give states and local governments the necessary time to provide assistance to the millions of people struggling to pay rental debt. 

The administration also has a critical role to play. We agree with our partners at the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Housing Law Project who are calling for an eviction moratorium for renters living in all federally assisted properties and urge the administration to explore and use any authority it has to institute a moratorium or other eviction prevention requirements on properties that have a federally backed mortgage or multifamily loan. The Department of Justice and Treasury should also be using their authority to ensure that renters eligible for relief get assistance quickly and are not moved through the court eviction process.

Finally, state and local governments and their courts must double down on the important work they are doing by partnering with directly impacted communities and renter advocates to pass and strengthen eviction moratoriums, streamline processes for relief, establish and fund the right to counsel for renters facing eviction and ensure that renters eligible for relief are not moved through the court eviction process.  

There are a number of state and local governments who have taken important steps to protect renters and they can serve as models but many more need to act. Government leaders have the opportunity to right immediate and past harms by partnering with and following the lead of grassroots organizations that have been advocating for our communities long before the current crisis.

Left unaddressed, widespread evictions and unresolved debt will increase the already unconscionable racial wealth divide and exacerbate the public health, economic and social costs the pandemic has wrought on families and communities. But this doesn’t have to be our future. Our governing institutions can and must serve better. They can start by acting together to prevent this eviction travesty and protect those suffering the most. This will lay a foundation for equitable recovery and pay dividends for all of us. 

Michael McAfee is the president and CEO of PolicyLink a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity.