Between 10 and 40 million Americans face the risk of eviction, according to various studies. That could cause unprecedented levels of homelessness and poverty if the GOP doesn’t act.
William Woods is scared.
The 61-year-old resident of Dallas, Tex., has seen his livelihood shattered by the pandemic and has been unable to pay his rent, making him one of the tens of millions of Americans at risk of eviction.
“I’m very concerned, because I don’t have anywhere to go,” Woods told COURIER. “I will be homeless.”
Woods, who is disabled due to heart and kidney issues, used to drive part-time for Lyft and Uber, in order to supplement his disability benefits and afford his rent. But with the coronavirus pandemic effectively shutting down sporting events, concerts, nightlife, and other public events, demand for rideshares has plummeted, robbing Woods of his ability to make enough money to fully pay his rent.
Since he receives disability payments, he also failed to qualify for unemployment benefits, taking away another potential avenue of income.
In late July, Woods’ landlord filed an eviction case against him. He was temporarily protected against eviction by Dallas County’s eviction moratorium, but that freeze expired Aug. 5. Woods plans to challenge his eviction notice during an Aug. 27 court date. But if he loses and he’s unable to pay the $2,500 he owes his landlord or reach a repayment agreement in accordance with Dallas County’s latest ordinance, he stands to lose his home.
The West Dallas native isn’t alone. Nearly half of Texas renters (48%) are at risk of eviction, according to recent analysis from global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross.
“It’s a shocking number, but shocking things are happening,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants Union, a nonprofit organization focused on tenants rights and tenant organizing.
While that’s a huge range, one thing is clear, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project: “It’s going to be disastrous regardless, if we’re not able to stop this.”
An avoidable crisis made worse by ongoing inaction.
This crisis was avoidable. When the federal government passed the CARES Act in March, it included a four-month federal moratorium on evictions for properties with federally backed mortgages and for tenants who receive government-assisted housing. This freeze protected tenants in nearly 30% of the nation’s rental units from being evicted, according to an estimate from the Urban Institute.
House Democrats voted in May to pass the Heroes Act, which would extend the moratorium for up to a year and provide $100 billion in rental assistance—efforts supported by the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden. But the Trump administration and Senate Republicans refused to take up that legislation and allowed the federal moratorium on evictions to expire on July 24.
“It’s really the Senate that’s not appreciating the significance, or maybe they just don’t care about what’s going to happen,” Dunn said. “It’s unthinkable that they’re just not aware, it just unfortunately seems that there may be some other priorities.”
Woods also made clear he blamed Republican Senators for holding up the House-passed Heroes Act for three months. “They just sit on it and America is hurting,” he said. “You got a lot of Republicans, I mean they get over $100,000 just being in the senate, and they don’t care. They really don’t care.”
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate until September 8, without having reached any sort of deal to help struggling Americans—a decision Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont called “morally obscene.”
In the absence of a deal, President Donald Trump announced an executive order to address the issue on Aug. 8, but it has been described by housing advocates as “toothless,” as it merely directs federal agencies to “consider” whether eviction bans are needed.
“It creates the impression that something was done, when in fact nothing was done,” John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, told CNBC.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition was similarly brutal in its assessment of Trump’s order, describing it as “an empty shell of a promise that does nothing to prevent evictions and homelessness and acts only to mislead renters into believing that they are protected when they are not.”
The GOP’s failure to extend the $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit is also likely to accelerate the crisis, as tens of millions of jobless Americans lose their main source of income.
State and local governments are also letting their residents down, housing advocates say. Twenty-four states have also allowed their freezes to expire, while six others never instituted them in the first place. Many cities and counties have also allowed their moratoriums to expire.
“Certainly I feel like states and local governments need to be taking action as well,” Dunn said, noting that the collective failure of federal, state, and local governments will lead to mass evictions and huge turnover in neighborhoods and communities.
In cities like Memphis, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, that disaster has already begun, with landlords evicting struggling residents in the middle of a pandemic. Millions more Americans may soon meet a similar fate.
‘People Are Going To Be Wiped Out.’
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, America’s housing crisis was reaching a tipping point. Housing costs have soared in recent decades, while wage growth has stalled and the nation’s stock of affordable housing has plummeted.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC)’s annual report, released last month, found that there isn’t a single state, metropolitan area, or county where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford a modest two-bedroom rental home. The problem is so widespread that full-time minimum-wage workers even cannot afford modest one-bedroom apartments in 95% of U.S. counties.
“The housing crisis is not a foreign term, because capitalism just doesn’t produce enough housing for people who are poor, which is why we need subsidized housing programs. But those have never been adequately funded,” Rollins said.
This crunch has led to a slow-moving eviction crisis. There were more than 2.3 million eviction filings in 2016, resulting in roughly 900,000 households being evicted, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
But what the U.S. is facing now is unprecedented.
“We’re in a whole new territory,” said Rollins. “A lot of people who never expected to be teetering on this edge are now teetering on this edge. People lost jobs and the government was completely unprepared for the catastrophes ahead.”
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The consequences of tens of millions of evictions could be devastating, creating waves of poverty and homelessness that have no historical precedent. “It’s pretty expected that we’re going to have massive increases in poverty,” Dunn said. “People are going to be wiped out.”
“There’s going to be a cost—an unacceptable cost—if there is an explosion in homelessness,” Rollins added. “Homelessness is not just a tragedy for the individual household, although it certainly is that. It’s a tragedy for the children who might live in that household.”
More than one in four children currently lives in a home that’s behind on housing payments, can’t get enough food to eat, or both, according to recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This means millions of American children are at risk of becoming homeless.
Fifty years of progress, gone in five months.
The consequences of evictions on this scale could reverberate for years, if not generations.
“It’s not something that you can easily recover from physically or emotionally or financially. It sets people up for being in the underclass permanently,” Rollins said.
Being evicted affects your credit and makes it exceptionally difficult to obtain housing. “Almost all landlords will deny admission for someone who was actually evicted,” Dunn said.
Even having an eviction case filed against you—like Woods has—can hurt you down the road. “A lot of landlords will automatically deny a rental application to somebody who has just been sued for eviction. Even if they settled the case, even if they won the case in court, they’ll still be denied,” Dunn added.
Research has simultaneously shown that being evicted increases the likelihood of losing your job and that being homeless makes it more difficult to get a job, thus reinforcing a vicious cycle of poverty.
Unless the government acts, Rollins said, they could be dooming millions of people to this fate.
“I know there have been people that have been able to get out of that and rebuild a life, but it’s not an easy thing and to allow this to happen is malpractice,” Rollins said. “It’s negligence beyond negligence if policymakers allow this to occur, and it has financial costs that are going to be much greater than just finding a way to keep everybody afloat until it’s safe to resume normal life.”
One of those costs, Dunn said, will be a long-term increase in segregation by income and race, with the formerly-evicted being relegated to a second-class housing market where they think they’re more likely to be accepted by landlords.
“After being evicted, people can’t get housing in good neighborhoods with parks, good schools, etcetera,” he said. “They have to settle for areas that are more troubled, where either the housing stock isn’t in as good condition, there are higher crime rates, there are environmental hazards, or the schools are not as good.”
This sort of de facto segregation would play out as follows, according to Dunn: If between 25-40% of tenants have eviction records after the pandemic or still owe debts to prior landlords, it will force landlords of less desirable properties to loosen their criteria, creating a sort of economic stratification that Dunn said would be “very racial in the way it plays out because of who’s being affected by the pandemic.”
Owing to decades of systemic racism, Black and Latino Americans make up a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases, are overrepresented in essential and frontline jobs, and are more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Now, they’re also more likely to be evicted, a reality which Dunn fears could exacerbate already-existing racial and wealth disparities and cause enormous setbacks.
“Where you live directly affects where your kids go to school, where you can work, what transportation options are available to you, what kind of healthcare you can access, and the quality of the air you breathe,” Dunn said. “Once you take somebody out of their safe, stable home and you put them in that second-class environment, then their opportunities are diminished.”
How bad could things get?
“I think any progress we’ve made toward integrating residential communities since the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 could really be wiped out overnight,” Dunn said.
‘We need FDR-type solutions.’
The clock has been ticking on evictions for months now. During that time, housing advocates have urged local, state, and federal leaders to enact rent forgiveness measures, rental assistance, and other programs that would help prevent millions of Americans from becoming homeless.
Dunn advocates for a web of protections, including financial assistance for renters who have been most affected and tenant screening protections for the future, so that renters who owe money to former landlords due to the pandemic are not discriminated against when applying for housing two or three years down the road.
He also called for states to ban evictions of tenants who temporarily lost their jobs and accrued rental debts, but have since returned to work and can afford future rent payments. Under this proposal, affected tenants could still have their wages garnished or have collection lawsuits filed against them, but they’d at least be protected from eviction over old debts.
“Don’t let landlords use the threat of making somebody homeless or actually make people homeless over old debts,” Dunn said. “If you evict somebody and you bring in a new tenant, that new tenant isn’t going to be paying the arrearage either, so from a public policy standpoint, we feel that’s just common sense.”
While many states, counties, and cities still have eviction moratoriums on the books, and others have funded rental assistance programs, it’s been a drop in the bucket so far, and leaders have resisted calls for rent forgiveness, even as it drew support from the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden.
“There should be rent forgiveness and there should be mortgage forgiveness now in the middle of this crisis,” Biden said during a May appearance on Snapchat’s Good Luck America. “Not paid later—forgiveness. It’s critically important to people who are in the lower-income strata.”
In the absence of such forgiveness, evictions are all but guaranteed to proceed.
Sandy Rollins, of the Texas Tenants Union, said that renters need a “gap year,” and that the government needs to understand that it’s not safe to force people back to work amid a spiraling pandemic. Instead, she says, they need to provide support for them during this time.
“I do think we need FDR-type solutions,” Rollins said. “There needs to be large-scale, nationwide policies to address this that don’t involve people having to risk their lives because [Texas Governor] Greg Abbott or Donald Trump says, ‘Get back out there.’”
‘This is not our fault.’
While these battles play out in the marbled halls of Washington, state capitols, and city halls across the country, William Woods is growing more frustrated. He’s angry. Above all, he’s indignant that his landlord, the state of Texas, and the federal government aren’t doing more to help people like him.
“This is not our fault. The landlord and the owner of the apartment complex need to be a little more sympathetic towards the renters,” he told COURIER. “The landlord is holding our foot to the fire.”
Pallas Midtown, the company that owns and operates Woods’ building, did not respond to a request for comment, but Woods says they need to be more understanding and accommodating given the extreme circumstances of the pandemic.
Woods also called out what he viewed as the government’s racism and classism in how it has responded to the pandemic and refused to sufficiently extend or expand social welfare programs.
“They always have a spotlight on the minority when it comes to food stamps, when it comes to Social Security, when it comes to disability—but everyone is receiving something from the government. Whether you’re rich or whether you’re poor, you’re receiving something from the government. Everyone depends on the government,” he said. “But only the rich people can get some of the government money.”
As for people like him, he said, they’re being left to fend for themselves.
“It’s not right,” he added. “It’s not fair.”