Dec. 28, 2020 -- Millions of Americans have struggled to pay their rent since the pandemic started, as the economic crisis brought pay cuts, furloughs, and job losses, adding insult to the coronavirus nightmare. Tenants are being evicted; some end up living in crowded homeless shelters or couch-surfing with family members or friends.
The Eviction Lab at Princeton University estimates there have been more than 150,000 evictions during the pandemic in the 27 cities it tracks.
“I spoke with one woman living with her 12-year-old daughter in an apartment who let a friend who had nowhere else to stay sleep in her living room. She is concerned about the risk of COVID-19 -- anytime you add a new member to your household, there’s an added risk,” says Danya Keene, PhD, an assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, CT.
Living in crowded situations also makes it harder to comply with public health measures like social distancing, hand-washing, and quarantining.
“There is no question that evicting people during a pandemic is willfully placing millions of adults and children in severe jeopardy. Allowing evictions to continue not only threatens their health and safety, but endangers every individual they come into contact with,” says Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Benfer co-authored a new paper with Keene that will be published in the Journal of Urban Health on the relationship between housing, eviction, and COVID-19 transmission.
Those most at risk for eviction are Black and Latino people, who were nearly twice as likely to report a wage or job loss as whites in April. They also were less likely to have 3 months of income saved to cover emergencies than whites, according to Pew Research Center surveys.
And people of color already faced discriminatory housing policies and a crisis in affordable housing.
“The people with the highest risk of eviction also have the highest risk of being hospitalized for COVID-19 due to existing health conditions,” says Benfer.
Eviction Bans Curb COVID-19
Public health experts support federal and state bans on evictions as a tool to reduce COVID-19 cases and deaths. Forty-three states and Washington, D.C., made evictions illegal during the spring lockdowns, and 27 states lifted them afterward. The moratoriums that were lifted lasted an average of 10 weeks, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California (Los Angeles and San Francisco), Johns Hopkins University, Boston University and Wake Forest University. The study, released Nov. 30, has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The states that lifted their eviction bans had 1.6 times the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths than the states that kept them, according to the study. Nationally, the results translated to a total of 433,700 excess coronavirus cases and 10,700 excess COVID-related deaths.
“Our study shows state-level action is effective in preventing spread of COVID. Even barring action at the federal level, states can step in with their own moratoria,” says lead author Kathryn Leifheit, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
She explains that it took 7 to 10 weeks to see an increase in COVID cases and deaths because that’s about the time it takes to legally evict a tenant.
“We know from data from the Eviction Lab that when moratoria are lifted, a lot more evictions occurred. We also know from a modeling study at the University of Pennsylvania that more disease transmission occurs in cities when households merge due to evictions, such as doubling up with friends and families, or moving into homeless shelters,” says Leifheit.
Her study ended Sept. 3, just before the CDC issued a temporary halt to evictions. “There is still a patchwork of bans at the state level, which are stronger and more enforceable than the CDC moratorium,” she says.
The CDC order followed the federal CARES Act, which expired in July and banned landlords from evicting tenants in federally assisted housing and properties with federally backed mortgages. The CDC order was broader and also applied to tenants in private housing who met certain eligibility criteria.
A ProPublica analysis of eviction cases filed before and during the pandemic shows evictions at federally backed apartment buildings made up more than a third of the eviction cases filed in cities like Atlanta and Houston every month. In those two cities alone, that amounted to more than 7,700 households a month.
Since the CARES law went into effect in March, eviction filings at those properties have dropped to less than 200 a month on average, making up about 5% of eviction filings in May and June, according to the ProPublica analysis.
The federal moratoriums have been done differently across the country -- in some states, judges have not applied them, citing legal principles that support state sovereignty, according to Benfer. “Whether or not you receive protections depends on what ZIP code you live in.”
In addition, landlords continue to use “self-help” evictions outside the legal system to expel tenants from their units. These intimidation tactics include turning off the utilities so there’s no heat in the winter, removing the front door to the unit so it’s no longer safe, and changing the locks so the tenant can’t re-enter, says Benfer.
Groups representing landlords and property owners have challenged the CDC ban in court in several states, claiming undue hardship and overreach of authority. The first case was filed in Georgia in October, and a judge decided the ban wasn’t a hardship because landlords can collect past-due rent once the moratorium is lifted, says Benfer. She and several attorneys from Yale University Law School filed a “friend-of-the court” public health brief on behalf of several medical groups, including the American Medical Association, that support the CDC ban.
New cases in Ohio and Louisiana will challenge that decision in the coming weeks, says Benfer, although she doesn’t think there are constitutional grounds for their claims.
“The goal of the briefs is to ensure that judges have the most up-to-date medical, social, and public health information about the effects of lifting the moratorium,” says Benfer.
In the meantime, the CDC moratorium was set to expire at the end of December. The new coronavirus relief bill, signed into law on Sunday, extends the deadline to Jan. 31. It also includes $25 billion for rental assistance and extends unemployment benefits that were about to expire for 12 million people.
President-elect Biden’s transition team is considering delayed evictions as a public health strategy once his team takes office in January, Leifheit says.
Many renters remain worried, because once the CDC moratorium is lifted, landlords can collect back rent owed plus interest from tenants.
The researchers are calling for a comprehensive strategy that includes moratoriums on evictions, rent relief assistance, and housing assistance. The National Low-Income Housing Center has estimated a need of at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.