Seven months into her fight to stay housed, 48-year-old Kimberly is furious.
“I’m angry that people can think so little of human life,” she told Vox.
In 2016 — after massive floods in her hometown of Houston, Texas, left her homeless and she was forced to abandon her cat to stay safe — she thought she’d never be in that position again. She got a job, found a place to live, and rescued three dogs she refers to as her “fur babies.”
But after Covid-19 hit, she lost hours at her job as a crew trainer at Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers and found herself on the brink of financial collapse. She fell behind on her rent and when she tried to work with her landlord to set up a repayment plan, she told Vox that she was served an eviction notice. Now, the only thing keeping her in her home is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) national eviction moratorium, which prohibits landlords from evicting qualifying tenants for failing to make rent.
If she’s evicted, Kimberly says she has nowhere to go — and will be homeless for the second time in five years.
Kimberly isn’t alone. According to research by the Aspen Institute, nearly 40 million Americans could face eviction over the next several months. The only thing holding back the flood right now is the CDC’s eviction moratorium order and a patchwork of state and local protections for renters.
But these moratoriums are only kicking the can down the road. Chief economist for Moody’s Analytics Mark Zandi told the Washington Post that tenants could owe nearly $70 billion in back rent by year’s end. And for landlords left holding the bag, there’s been little relief, as they’ve been forced to take on the role of government — subsidizing housing for millions even as their own taxes, mortgage payments, and other expenses are due.
The moratorium is an imperfect solution, and one that leaves a number of renters and landlords hanging. But without Congress passing renters’ assistance or other stimulus, it’s one of the few things helping keep Americans housed.
Kimberly is angry at Congress, at her landlord, at a system that asks for personal responsibility and calls her an essential worker but has no safety net for people who are fighting to work and to stay housed.
“You’re endangering our lives,” she told Vox. “You’re asking us to stop gathering on Thanksgiving and yet it’s somehow okay to put us on the streets?”
Kimberly, and millions like her, could indeed end up on the streets right as the US rings in the New Year. That’s when the CDC’s eviction moratorium expires — leaving countless Americans on the verge of losing their homes, even as Covid-19 cases continue to surge.
The CDC eviction moratorium, explained
The CDC’s eviction moratorium was an emergency measure; like a hastily applied bandage over a gaping wound, it was never a holistic solution, but it’s what you do to keep yourself alive until you can get to a doctor.
It came together in something of a slapdash way: After a partial eviction moratorium from the CARES Act expired at the end of July, the lack of congressional action left a void of federal protections against eviction. Some states and localities enacted renters protections, but fearing a national emergency, experts, advocates, and tenants began sounding the alarm, pointing to the tangible public health risks of evicting people while a highly contagious respiratory disease was still spreading.
On September 4, the CDC responded to these concerns by invoking its authority under the Public Health Service Act to pass a broad eviction moratorium. The agency’s justification was that evictions could lead to overcrowding and homelessness as those forced to leave their homes searched for alternative housing. It’s hard to follow social distancing orders if you have to double-up at a friend’s or family member’s house, and it’s impossible if you’re homeless and are forced to turn to shelters as a last resort.
Here’s what it does: Until January 1, landlords cannot force tenants out of their homes due to a failure to pay rent, as long as the tenants legally declare they qualify for protection under the order. This means tenants have:
- used “best efforts” to get “all available” rent and housing assistance from the government
- are below certain income thresholds
- are unable to make rent because of a loss of household income, layoff, or “extraordinary” medical expenses
- are using “best efforts” to make partial payments
- and that eviction would make them homeless or force them to crowd into a new home.
Landlords can still evict tenants for other reasons — like “engaging in criminal activity” or “threatening the health and safety of other residents.” But moratoriums like the CDC’s and the one passed by Congress in the CARES Act succeeded in stopping many evictions. Research by ProPublica shows that the CARES Act reduced evictions, and the Eviction Lab found that between the end of the CARES Act moratorium and the beginning of the CDC moratorium evictions rose, indicating that the current federal protection has had real success at keeping many renters in their homes.
In Louisiana, where tenants are protected primarily by the federal moratorium, Hannah Adams, a staff attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, told Vox that the CDC order has been a “godsend.”
But that’s not the whole story. Loopholes in the CDC’s order have allowed landlords to continue filing evictions. And since many evictions happen to marginalized individuals without access to legal protection and without knowledge of their rights, some are even being evicted illegally.
While at first the federal moratorium appeared to be a blanket federal order stopping all evictions for nonpayment of rent for covered persons, four days after it went into effect the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) sued the CDC over the order, calling it an “unprecedented power grab” and requesting a federal injunction. A month later, the CDC released a non-binding “Frequently Asked Questions” document, which made the controversial claim that the order was not “intended to prevent landlords from starting eviction proceedings, provided that the actual eviction of a covered person for non-payment of rent” doesn’t happen.
That means that property owners can pursue the process of eviction (which is usually a lengthy and multi-step endeavor) up until the actual removal of the tenant. And some have taken advantage of this so that the final steps needed for evictions can begin as soon as moratoriums are lifted.
Other owners, however, have used “just the filing of the eviction as a method of harassing tenants and getting them out [of their homes] even without judicial action,” Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, told Vox. Attorneys for indigent defendants in Illinois, Louisiana, and North Carolina told me similar things — people terrified of an eviction record following them around will frequently leave after receiving notice before they officially have to.
Additionally, the CDC told landlords they weren’t required to inform tenants of the federal protection, which means many tenants may not know they have the ability to stay in their homes even if they can’t continue paying rent.
The CDC declined an interview to discuss the moratorium, stating that it does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Lawrence Wood, a supervisory attorney at Legal Aid Chicago, told Vox that in one of his cases a landlord is seeking to evict a woman for nonpayment of rent. Wood says the Cook County sheriff isn’t carrying out any evictions, and the state’s own moratorium prevents people from “commenc[ing]” eviction proceedings for those who qualify; but some landlords are dubiously claiming they can still file the paperwork. Even in a state like Illinois, where the protections are stronger than the CDC’s, there are loopholes that allow some renters to fall through the cracks.
Overall, national, state, and local moratoriums were a needed step in the right direction, according to policymakers and tenant rights advocates. But their imperfect protections have been a huge burden for other groups, who feel the government has dumped its obligation to provide a social safety net on them.
“Everybody’s going to suffer” — renters and small landlords are in a no-win situation
The CDC policy prevents people from being evicted if they can’t pay rent, but at the end of the day, someone has to pay.
“I’m not sure who ends up holding the bag, everybody’s going to suffer — local governments are going to suffer when taxes can’t get paid, banks are going to suffer when they’re not getting paid, bondholders are going to suffer. Everyone’s going to feel the pain,” Greg Brown, senior vice president at the National Apartment Association, which represents over 85,000 members in the rental housing industry and has joined the NCLA’s lawsuit, told Vox.
The moratorium doesn’t include debt forgiveness, and billions in back rent and late fees are accumulating. These costs are piling up not just for big corporations, private equity, and banks but for average Americans like Marita, a 51-year-old from Weatogue, Connecticut, who’s seen her $65,000 annual income dry up during the pandemic.
Marita’s income used to come from a commercial property she co-owned with her two brothers, but after the two occupying restaurants had to shut down, the building has become a liability as taxes and upkeep costs pile up without the usual accompanying rent payments.
Now, for the first time in her life, Marita is on food stamps, $15,000 in credit card debt, and owes her landlord over $11,000 in unpaid rent. She has no idea how much she owes in late fees — she’s afraid to look.
If Marita gets evicted, she told me her only option will be living in a car.
Marita’s story is an extreme case — most of the landlords I spoke with were not on the brink of losing their homes — but her story illustrates an important point about the diversity of Americans burdened by this crisis.
Most affordable housing in America is owned by individual investors or “mom-and-pop” landlords. This can be surprising because many people think of rental property owners as being part of giant corporations, but 41 percent of the nation’s 48.2 million rental housing units (not just affordable housing units) are owned by these mom-and-pop property owners.
Research from the Urban Institute shows that the average rent in small rental properties is less than “the median for single-family rentals, medium-size apartment buildings, and large apartment buildings.” And in 2018, “the median income for a two-to-four-unit landlord was $67,000.” Renters of these units are predominantly Black and Hispanic, and they have the lowest median household income when compared to renters of other types of properties.
This means that renters of small properties tend to be poorer and tend to work in industries that were most harmed by Covid-19 — food service, retail, and construction to name a few. On top of that, the landlords they rent from are some of the least capable of absorbing the loss of income from unpaid rent. Many of these landlords have mortgages of their own, and all of them are required to maintain their properties — which means operating costs continue even as rent payments decline.
This is what has Malcolm Bennett, a broker and real estate agent in Southern California worried. His firm oversees around 2,000 units, and he knows many of his property managers don’t have enough capital to withstand the downturn. He’s right: More than half of mom-and-pop landlords don’t have access to credit, according to a March survey. “We’re not in the eviction business … we need tenants,” Bennett told Vox, but “we’re the only industry being asked to carry the burden for the pandemic … that’s what the government is for, they should have given relief [to renters].”
A simple solution on the one hand, a patchwork of complicated half-measures on the other
The answer to this complicated problem is refreshingly simple: Give renters money so they can pay their landlords. Renters want to pay their landlords. They don’t want to owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent and late fees. And landlords want to keep their tenants: Eviction is expensive, frustrating, and emotionally fraught; moreover, finding a replacement tenant can be hard. Every expert I spoke with, as well as tenants and landlords, believes that rental assistance is the only holistic solution to stopping this crisis.
“If they’re going to make us not charge them rent then I think they should pay for the rent!” Laurie, a landlord in Port Richey, Florida, told Vox.
If sufficiently large, rental assistance could effectively stop evictions for nonpayment of rent because … people could pay their rent. Rental assistance would reduce pressure for landlords to search for loopholes to evict their tenants officially or pressure their tenants to leave unofficially. It also ensures that mom-and-pop landlords have the funds they need to keep their buildings operating and keep America’s affordable housing stock solvent.
So what’s the problem?
“For nine months, this tsunami on the horizon has been completely predictable and entirely preventable; we’ve known the solution to this for months, [the problem] is the lack of political will,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We’ve been saying for nine months now that it’s going take at least $100 billion in rental assistance.”
Lobbyists say there’s bipartisan support for some rental assistance, but the size and timing of a relief package that would include it is uncertain. Congress has struggled to get the votes necessary to pass a large stimulus package.
In the meantime, advocates say the most obvious — and needed — first step is simply not allowing the federal moratorium to expire on December 31. That alone could help stave off a looming eviction crisis in the dead of winter.
And while the executive branch is at it, Mary Cunningham, the Urban Institute’s vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy, recommends clarifying the order to restrict landlords from beginning the eviction process, putting less of the onus on the tenant to prove financial hardship, and increasing enforcement of the order to ensure landlords are following the law. These changes could help further reduce evictions.
Experts Vox spoke to also suggested enacting tax relief for landlords and passing a law to cloak the credit scores of renters who are evicted during the pandemic. Another potential boon might be technical assistance to states on how to use existing federal dollars for rental aid. (Katherine McKay, senior program manager at the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program, pointed out that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and various community development funds could be commandeered for this purpose).
But most of the other proposals floating around would either be too limited or too slow to help many people. Take the idea of tax relief, for example: Not only are most states and localities — the entities that would be offering the tax breaks — already strapped financially because of the pandemic, but people in the real estate industry like Bennett suspect the program would be very convoluted and operate on too long of a timeline to help mom-and-pop landlords.
The only real solution is rental assistance from the federal government.
“You know, I lose my home, I lose everything. I lose my dignity, I lose my pride,” Marita told Vox.
Advocates are worried nothing could happen by the end of the year. If they’re right, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe for tens of millions of families in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.
And none of it had to happen.