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Eviction crisis sparked by pandemic disproportionately hits minorities

The eviction crisis exacerbated by the pandemic is hitting minorities much harder than other Americans, and experts are concerned the problem will only get worse in the coming months as the coronavirus recession drags on.

A review of more than 8,000 eviction cases by the Center for Public Integrity found that almost two-thirds of the tenants lived in areas with above average minority representation with a median household income below $42,000. The thousands of evictions filed spanned late March to early July, primarily in Florida and Georgia.

Residents on the brink include people like Bishop Donald Harper, who was making nearly $5,000 a month as a chef for Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort in Orlando, Fla., before the pandemic hit. Harper, 55, was soon furloughed.

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Now, almost eight months into the pandemic, unemployment benefits from the state of Florida are his only source of income. But, at just $275 a week — the max amount offered by the Sunshine State — Harper doesn’t come close to what he was making pre-pandemic.

The extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits given to Americans through the CARES Act, signed in late March, was effective for a time, and it helped Harper, who is Cuban and Trinidadian, to pay rent on his apartment. But that program expired at the end of July, briefly supplemented now by a $300 a week benefit authorized by President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE as Congress remains deeply divided over another coronavirus relief package.

In the meantime, for Harper and millions of other Americans who have lost their job because of the pandemic, rent is still due.

“What do you do with [$1,100] a month, when everything is due?” Harper, whose rent is $1,900 a month, said to The Hill.

The Princeton Eviction Lab, which tracks evictions across 17 cities in the country, has recorded more than 60,000 evictions during the pandemic, with more than 1,500 coming over the past week.

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An August study by the Aspen Institute projected that anywhere from 30 million to 40 million Americans could be at risk of being evicted if nothing changes by Dec. 31, when the moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expires.

At the end of September, the National Council of State Housing Agencies released a report that says the debt that renters nationwide will collectively owe by the end of the year could be as high as $34 billion.

During most of the pandemic, the federal government has had in place an eviction moratorium, first through the CARES Act and then through a policy implemented by the CDC. That policy is slated to expire at the end of the year, and experts say the jury is still out on how effective the moratorium between now and the end of year will be.

“[A moratorium’s] effectiveness really depends on how comprehensive it is,” said Alieza Durana, who works for the Princeton Eviction Lab. “Normally, a moratorium can affect three different stages of the eviction process. The first relates to the filing of an eviction. ... The second part of the process relates to the court process itself, and the third relates to the enforcement of the eviction process is usually local law enforcement, such as a sheriff that will go to do a lockout or to remove [a tenant’s] belongings.”

“The most effective way to prevent people from being forcibly removed,” Durana added, “is to either ban all three or to, at the very least, prevent filings, because even the threat of an eviction hanging over a family can negatively impact their physical and mental well-being.”

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However, critics have called the CDC’s guidance vague, noting that it largely puts the onus on tenants in guarding against evictions. It also doesn’t provide any additional money for rent relief for tenants or landlords.

Complicating matters is the fact that states often have different tenant laws, meaning the order was interpreted in different ways in courts around the country until the CDC issued a clarifying document that effectively weakened the guidance’s power.

The moratorium is not “intended to prevent landlords from starting eviction proceedings, provided that the actual eviction of a covered person for non-payment of rent does NOT take place during the period of the Order,” the document reads.

The moratorium also doesn’t stop the landlords from charging interest or fees on the back rent.

“It's not a solution. It's not even a band-aid on the problem,” said Dianne Enriquez, co-director of community dignity campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy. “It's just creating a myth that families are protected when they're really not.”