More than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks as the deadly coronavirus continues to cripple businesses and trigger layoffs from coast to coast.
The staggering loss of jobs means many families will be struggling to pay rent in the coming months. Even before COVID-19, the nation was seeing an average of about 300,000 eviction filings per month.
“It fluctuates in a given month or year, and it also varies by geography, but we were roughly seeing the number of evictions per month the size of the city of Pittsburgh,” says Alieza Durana, narrative change liaison at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, a project founded by Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
With so many people out of work, the very real fear is that the number of evictions will skyrocket even higher. However, the toll likely won’t be seen right away because the formal eviction process takes time, so there’s a lag in seeing the data. In addition, the numbers only capture official evictions and not cases where a landlord verbally threatens eviction or uses other pressure to get a resident to leave, says Durana.
“To us, it is concerning that in April a third of renters had trouble making rent or missed rent payments,” she says. “The unemployment numbers are quickly approaching Great Depression levels of unemployment where one in five Americans was unemployed.”
With the worsening conditions, it’s safe to assume that more and more people are dealing with financial precarity and stress in addition to the health concerns brought on by the virus.
To help, Congress recently passed the CARES Act, which included provisions to prevent the eviction of tenants of properties secured by federally backed mortgage loans for 120 days. Most states and many local jurisdictions have also put in their own protections.
However, the bans are often limited, and a number of questions still surround the policies, including can a landlord still initiate the eviction process and file for an eviction during this time. Are the courts operating? Are hearings delayed? And, are local law enforcement agencies enforcing eviction orders?
There’s also the question of whether the moratoria covers only new eviction orders or also older orders. “The reason this is important is that again even prior to COVID-19 we were seeing an eviction every seven minutes.” Durana says. “That means there were probably a lot of people in February and March that were facing orders of eviction prior to the spread of COVID-19, and it’s just as important we keep those people in place as we do people who have been more recently affected by job loss.”
Connecticut has one of the most expansive moratoriums in place. Gov. Ned Lamont recently signed an order that enacts a series of protections for struggling renters during the health emergency.
Landlords are prohibited from beginning eviction proceedings before July 1 except for serious nuisance cases. In addition, for rent due in April, landlords must grant tenants an automatic 60-day grace period for payment instead of the existing nine-day grace period. For rent due in May, landlords must grant a 60-day grace period for payment upon the request of tenants. Under this provision, a tenant must notify the landlord that they have lost a job, lost hours, or otherwise lost revenue or faced significant increased expenses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Policies continue to change, and they vary widely from state to state, according to Durana.
Looking ahead, filling the holes in eviction policies will be important to thwart a rise in homelessness.
Congress is also working on another relief bill. At this time, only one in four people who qualify for rental assistance receives it, Durana says. One move could be to consider fully funding the backlog of rental assistance, which would help both renters and landlords. The National Low Income Housing
Coalition estimates that $100 billion is needed to prevent evictions and homelessness through emergency rental assistance.
While it’s too soon to predict the full impact of COVID-19 on the economy and housing market, there’s much to be concerned about it.
“Without greater intervention we’re concerned that we’re going to see a wave of mass evictions, that we will see higher rates of homelessness, that this will affect the mental and physical well-being of many Americans, and our generation will experience some of the trauma that the generation that lived through the Great Depression experienced,” Durana says. “Because the markets are still working, we’re missing a disconnect with what’s going on in the market and what so many Americans are experiencing day to day, which is different from the Great Depression, but the toll that will take over time on Americans families could be devastating for both the current generation and future generations as well if an increasing number of children have to grow up with financial precarity and instability totally out of the control of their families and communities.”