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Advocates plead for housing aid as eviction cliff looms

Advocates plead for housing aid as eviction cliff looms
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A potentially dire housing crisis could erupt if the Trump administration and Congress fail to reach a deal on further coronavirus relief that includes eviction protections and substantial rent assistance, experts warn.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a sweeping eviction ban last month in an unprecedented flex of its emergency authorities, but the moratorium stands on shaky legal ground — and only runs through the end of the year.

Uneven interpretations of the CDC’s ban among judges across the U.S. have hobbled its effectiveness, forcing thousands of families out of their rental homes already. Millions more could face the same fate when the ban expires on Jan. 1.

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The Trump administration and House Democrats have been locked in volatile negotiations over the past few weeks with no clear path to deal to more pandemic relief before Election Day. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE's mixed messages and frequent reversal on the size and scope of the aid have only complicated the talks, but both the administration and Democratic leaders broadly agree on the need for some form of housing aid in an eventual package.

Evictions not only make it harder for struggling families to get back on their feet, experts say, but also increase COVID-19 transmission by forcing ousted tenants into shelters or doubling up with other families in tighter living environments.

“Larger households are dangerous for infectious disease because you have more people so there's more avenues of ingress of the virus,” said Michael Levy, a epidemiology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the connection between evictions and coronavirus transmission.

“The worry was even a fairly modest change in the household size structure in a population could have kind of an outsized effect on an epidemic on a city scale,” he said.

Housing advocates and analysts said the CDC’s ban on landlords evicting tenants who can no longer pay rent due to the pandemic was a sorely needed lifeline for millions of families.

"The CDC order is crucial right now, and it's equally important that it be coupled with rental assistance to prevent the long-term harm and suffering that's just ahead of us,” said Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University.

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"It's unconscionable for the government to turn its back on the millions upon millions of people who are struggling, and unreasonable to ask them the people hardest hit to bear the brunt of the pandemic knowing that they cannot recover without this type of assistance."

Housing advocates hailed the Trump administration for its novel and ambitious bid to prevent a flood of evictions amid rising coronavirus cases. One month later, they say the ban has largely been effective when renters facing eviction are aware of their protections.

Even so, advocates say they’ve struggled to reach the overwhelming number of renters facing eviction in time to prevent landlords from proceeding with efforts to oust them.

“The challenge is that in order to be protected, renters have to take an affirmative step to be covered,” said Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In order to qualify for the eviction protection, a tenant must declare that their 2020 income will fall below the threshold set out in the order; that they’ve sought all potential sources of federal housing aid; and that they cannot afford to pay the rent due to a pandemic-related job loss or expense despite their best efforts to do so.

“Many renters just don't know that moratorium is in place and what steps they need to take, and that has allowed — especially institutional and corporate landlords — to move forward with evictions,” Saadian said.

Between Sept. 27 and Oct. 3, more than 2,100 landlords in 17 U.S. cities initiated eviction filings, according to the Princeton University Eviction Lab. Landlords have filed a total of 58,612 evictions in those cities since the start of the pandemic.

The lack of clear federal guidance and disparate applications of the order by judges have also created holes in the CDC’s safety net. Some judges have applied the CDC’s order to dismiss eviction filings entirely until next year, while others have only delayed the effective date of the eviction until then or even challenged the legality of the ban entirely.

"Across the country, states and counties have taken somewhat inconsistent approaches to applying the CDC moratorium,” Benfer said, noting that just 13 states have issued guidelines or orders meant to fill in those gaps.

“When that happens, there's a greater potential to thwart the purpose of the order itself, which is to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” she continued.

Households that manage to avoid eviction and infection still face considerable challenges at the end of the CDC ban without federal support. The order requires households protected from eviction to pay rent and fees due to landlords as soon as Jan. 1, a daunting challenge for those unable to afford rent amid soaring unemployment and rapidly depleting relief funds.

Roughly 32 percent of U.S. households believe they will face eviction or foreclosure within the next 60 days, and another 6.8 percent said they do not expect to pay their next monthly rent or mortgage payment on time, according to a Census Bureau survey released Wednesday.

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David Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, estimated that it will take $25 billion to $35 billion to cover the rent due to landlords.

“Congress is going to have to pay this bill, sooner or later. It's going to be a lot more expensive later,” Dworkin said.

Updated at 12:13 p.m.