Evictions due to COVID are still going down…
While the unemployment rate has started to rise again, this situation may not return to normal for a long time.
Especially for workers in the most precarious industries (like service jobs that rely on in-person engagement), the impact can’t be understated.
Loss of income, in a society where so many people rent homes and live paycheck-to-paycheck, means we can expect the homeless population to increase.
It’s been forecasted since the early days. Back in June, the Aspen Institute predicted 20 million renters would face potential eviction due to COVID by September. News media picked up on the story.
But, the situation hasn’t been dominating headlines for a while. Sensational stories – stories of street violence, military conflict, political squabbling – these make for better TV. Yet the eviction crisis is still very real. It’s been drawn out by aid bills, moratoriums, and shoddy, uneven pandemic response.
Federal and State Moratoriums
New York State first put a moratorium on evictions in March. Legislation was then passed at the end of June that extends protections until the end of the pandemic is declared.
This means no one can be evicted in NY until the crisis is declared over. This action, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, was accompanied by financial assistance to renters and homeowners. The moratorium was extended several times, most recently until October 20.
Nationwide, the CARES act temporarily protected renters from eviction, but the protections did not last long and some landlords began eviction even while the moratorium remained in effect.
At the beginning of September, a new order was put forward by the CDC, barring evictions for the rest of the year.
This new order comes with conditions, according to the Times and Marketplace:
- You must have attempted to obtain all available forms of government assistance.
- You can’t be earning more than $99,000 in 2020, or $198,000 if you’re married and filing a joint tax return.
- You must be experiencing a major loss of household income, have lost your job or faced major medical expenses.
- You must be trying to make partial rent payments, as much as “circumstances may permit.”
- Eviction would likely lead to either homelessness or your having to move to a place that was more expensive or where you could get sick due to proximity with other people.
Legal effects of evictions during COVID
This order could protect a lot of people. In the face of an epidemic and the economic crisis it has hastened, any relief might prevent somebody from being turned out onto the street.
And this isn’t just about protecting people’s housing. It’s about protecting people’s lives. Homeless shelters and other spaces where people stay close together are more likely to spread disease.
Right now, we are facing a novel virus and the seasonal flu at the same time. Thus, the risks compound. However, the specific nature of the order could cause problems. It was issued by the Centers for Disease Control, not Congress.
From an ethical standpoint, that shouldn’t matter – preventing homelessness is a good thing. From a legal standpoint, however, some commentators have argued that the CDC does not have this authority.
The order was framed as a public health measure. This framing becomes suspect when considering how inconsistent the Executive Branch’s response has been.
Of course, the case can be made – has been made by the CDC – that “housing stability helps protect public health.” That’s true, it does. But so far, the solution we’re seeing from the government is just restrictive.
There hasn’t been a proactive effort to house those already homeless. Doing so isn’t a pipe dream, by the way – Finland did it last year.
All that’s needed is for leaders to understand their own moral imperative to help people facing evictions during COVID.
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The Housing First approach is an assistance program that places an emphasis on providing permanent housing to individuals experiencing homelessness. Through this method, individuals experiencing homelessness can expect to be housed, where they will be able to work on personal objectives like getting a job or recovering from substance use. The Housing First method has proven to be an effective solution to ending homelessness. PSH or Permanent Supportive Housing has a long-term housing retention rate up to 98 percent. RRH or rapid re-housing has shown that up to 91 percent of households remain housed a year after rapid re-housing. For more information on the Housing First model, visit https://endhomelessness.org
Had this order come in the form of a law from Congress, things would be different from a legal standpoint. Had that happened, there wouldn’t be a door left open for the order to be challenged.
It’s probably a moot point, though. The moratorium is in place until the end of the year, and we’re already in October.
The rent isn’t canceled
More importantly, the CDC’s order does not include rent assistance, nor forgiveness. That means the money from missed rent payments can pile up. Renters will have to pay their landlords eventually.
For those living paycheck-to-paycheck, this is a serious problem. Even if every job that was lost gets replaced – and they probably won’t – many people will be behind by months. The poorest renters will be faced with a load of debt.
They might not be homeless now, but once the crisis is over, the CDC’s order can’t protect tenants. People will be turned out onto the street. They likely won’t be able to defend themselves legally.
Had there been a comprehensive rent assistance program, paying landlords on behalf of at-risk tenants, this crisis wouldn’t be happening. High cost, but a high reward. But, that isn’t what happened.
And how do people react when they’re faced with a dire situation like this? When the measures put in place by authorities seem to be putting the crisis off for later, instead of actually solving it?
People get angry.
Massachusetts’ state moratorium on evictions ends October 17th, so protestors have taken to the streets. Since plenty of people still haven’t gotten their jobs back, they still can’t pay rent. The state’s order is more protective, and prevents more evictions, than the federal one.
In New York City, despite the moratorium, eviction cases are still being heard in courts.
The COVID evictions situation has led to something of a mass movement for rent to be cancelled. According to the Right to Counsel, NYC Coalition, this wouldn’t mean that the government pays all rent directly to landlords.
Instead, housing payments would be canceled universally for the duration of the crisis, and a “small landlord hardship fund” would be set up for smaller individual landlords (as opposed to large real estate corporations).
Unrealistic? Probably. There’s no way that all the movement’s demands will be met, as much as doing so would help the homeless and those facing homelessness.
However, it may be that as more legal pressure is placed on officials, something changes. As it stands, delaying payment is – for the poorest among us – just pushing the coming crisis aside. The day will come when legal protections are gone and vulnerable people start to lose their homes.
Only time will tell how these COVID evictions will end, but the stage seems set for yet another national crisis. If it gets ugly, it’ll be after months as a “crisis-in-waiting,” one that could have been prevented if our society could come together and make a solution.
Still, we live in divisive times, and schisms have consequences.