Jun 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Fears grow of an eviction apocalypse

Illustration of a cardboard moving box with the facade of a house drawn on it
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most states paused evictions when the coronavirus hit — but those holds are expiring at about the same time that more generous unemployment benefits are set to dry up.

Why it matters: The one-two punch could easily exacerbate the housing crisis for Americans already bearing the worst of COVID-19's effects.

  • One fifth of adults polled in May said they had slight or no confidence they would be able to pay their rent or mortgage due in June, according to a weekly Census survey measuring COVID-19’s impact on Americans.
  • An Urban Institute analysis of Census data found nearly 25% of black renters deferred or did not pay their rent last month, compared with 14% of white renters.
  • In Michigan, courts are bracing for "a coming deluge" of as many as 75,000 landlord/tenant filings. (The state's moratorium expired this week.)

The big picture: The pandemic — which forced an economic collapse — is adding new burdens on top of the country's longstanding housing problems.

  • "There was a supply and affordability problem before, and the opportunity for it to get a lot worse presents itself, unless there's really good support coming from the federal, state and local level," Paula Cino of the National Multifamily Housing Council, a trade group for the apartment industry, tells Axios.

What they're saying: The result could be even higher rates of homelessness — leaving more people out on the streets in the midst of a global pandemic.

  • "Prior to the pandemic, our homeless shelter system in the U.S. was stretched thin, and also not set up for social distancing," Alieza Durana, a policy analyst at Princeton University's Eviction Lab, which is tracking states' measures, tells Axios.
  • "The run-of-the-mill devastation that normally occurs in the wake of an eviction is further amplified by the conditions of this pandemic and economic crisis itself."

Catch up quick: As with other measures that were passed in haste when the pandemic hit, cities and states enacted a patchwork of eviction halts with varying lengths and caveats.

  • Moratoria in places like Texas have lapsed.
  • Others are set to expire in coming days and weeks, including Louisiana and Pennsylvania, while New York State and other places have announced extensions.
  • At the federal level, the coronavirus stimulus package barred federally subsidized housing from evicting residents until July 25.

Between the lines: An eviction moratorium is not a rent freeze — which means that overdue rent is still accumulating for tenants who have been unable to pay it. Once a moratorium expires and landlords can get court approval to take or resume eviction action, residents could be months in the hole.

  • Even more troubling: Some of the expirations collide with the stoppage of more generous unemployment benefits that have helped keep unemployed Americans afloat.
  • Congress is still debating whether to extend enhanced unemployment benefits beyond July 31.

What to watch: It's possible that property managers or mom-and-pop landlords will negotiate with tenants before evicting them. But landlords themselves are likely feeling the pinch: Some states have also put halts on property foreclosures, and those pauses are about to end.

  • The cost of evicting an existing tenant may not be worth it, particularly if there is little demand from new renters to sign a lease.
  • The same is true for commercial landlords, although some have already said they are taking nonpaying retail tenants (such as Gap Inc.) to court.

Driving the news: San Francisco essentially made its moratorium permanent this week — prohibiting landlords from ever using missed rent for pandemic-related reasons as grounds for eviction, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • "The City has a shortage of affordable rental housing, and a significant percentage of its households are renters and at risk of permanent displacement should they be forced to leave their current homes," officials wrote in the legislation.

The bottom line: There's the potential for a domino effect that would harm both tenants and property owners.

  • Landlords need rental income to pay their bills, taxes and mortgages.
  • Municipalities need tax income to pay workers and fund essential services.
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