The clock is ticking for Americans who are struggling to pay rent amid the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The $600-a-week enhanced unemployment benefits created in Congress’s CARES Act runs out on July 31. The federal eviction moratorium—which protected about one quarter of American renters—expired July 24. Many of the patchwork state and local eviction moratoriums have already ended, with more expiration dates on the horizon for others. The U.S. Census Bureau’s weekly survey of American households recently found that 26.4 percent of Americans have either already missed a rent or mortgage payment or have little to no confidence that they will be able to pay their next month’s rent on time.
House Democrats moved to extend eviction protections and provide rental assistance when they passed a second, $3 trillion emergency relief package called the HEROES Act in May. But to date, Senate Republicans have not reciprocated.
With tens of millions of Americans out of work and facing their August rent bill without any support from the federal government, advocates are sounding the alarm about a looming mass eviction crisis.
In June, researchers from the Aspen Institute and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project calculated that between 19 million and 23 million renters are at risk of eviction by the end of September, barring significant new intervention by the U.S. government. [Editor’s Note: A report released Aug. 7 estimated 30 to 40 million people could be evicted by the end of the year.]
That would be eviction on a historic scale. In 2016, for example, there were about 3.7 million eviction filings, according to the most recent data from researchers at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab (and likely just as many illegal or informal evictions on top of that). While every renter among those tens of millions evicted in the coming months wouldn’t end up homeless, many millions would be pushed to the street, forced to seek help in already-strained affordable housing, homelessness, and health care systems.
It is hard to imagine the impact of millions of Americans falling into homelessness during a deadly pandemic. It is a crisis that feels like something out of a disaster movie. But the more than 140,000 deaths from COVID-19 so far have shown us that real disaster can strike, especially when crisis is met with inadequate response by those in charge.
So what will happen if the worst comes to pass and upward of 23 million American renters are evicted from their homes? Shelterforce spoke with researchers, advocates, lawyers, housing economists, and rental housing industry representatives to understand what that crisis would do to evicted individuals and their families, and to shelter systems, public health, and the rental housing market.
The Spiraling Impact of Eviction
“I’m looking at this data and watching the United States careen towards the edge of this cliff and there are no guardrails,” says Emily Benfer, a Wake Forest University law professor and co-author of Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. “We cannot stand by as millions of households are about to enter this state of complete devastation. It will take generations to recover from.”
Evictions are terrible for those who suffer through them, and not just because people are forced out of their homes with potentially nowhere to go. Evictions come with a whole host of negative implications for long-term health and well-being.
“It’s a downward slope to housing instability, homelessness, [and] high health care expenditures. For children especially it leads to lifelong poor health outcomes,” says Benfer.
Housing instability and homelessness lead to higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. A New York University study found evictions lead to higher utilization of emergency room services. Because an eviction stays on your record and can make it harder to find new rental housing, people often end up moving to neighborhoods with higher poverty rates after their eviction. That in turn can contribute to physical health problems such as respiratory disease and other chronic illnesses.
For children, eviction can be emotionally scarring. A 2013 study by sociologist and Eviction Lab founder Matthew Desmond found that children who’ve been evicted often perform worse in school and can develop chronic health problems.
The impacts of eviction are not felt evenly. Black and Latino renters are evicted disproportionately compared to white renters. Families with children are evicted at higher rates than people without children. Poor women of color are at the highest risk of eviction in the U.S.
The cascading effects of eviction often leads to homelessness. National data on how often homelessness is caused by eviction is hard to come by. But research on local and regional evictions and surveys of those evicted give a sense of the problem. A 2018 report by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association found that of the evicted renters surveyed: 37.5 percent ended up living on the streets, 25 percent moved into shelter or transitional housing, and 25 percent moved in with family or friends. A 2018 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty cites research that found 12 percent of unsheltered homeless New Yorkers blame eviction for their homelessness, 14 percent of homeless residents in Santa Cruz, California, blame eviction, and 12 percent of homeless residents in San Francisco say eviction is the primary cause.
Even if just 12 percent of the 23 million people at risk of eviction end up experiencing unsheltered homelessness, it would mean 2.76 million living on the street. That of course doesn’t capture the millions more who would live with family or friends, in motels, or in other unstable housing. That’s more than 10 times the 211,292 unsheltered homeless people the Department of Housing and Urban Development found in the entire U.S. in its 2019 Point in Time count. In total, HUD counted more than 567,000 homeless U.S. residents in 2019, including those living in shelters and other nonpermanent housing.
The affordable housing and shelter systems were already beyond capacity before COVID-19 struck. The pandemic has pushed them closer to the brink as congregate shelters attempt to socially distance and housing providers continue to try and find homes for people amid the crisis.
“Any surge of people who don’t have a place to stay cannot be contained in the existing homeless system,” says Urban Institute researcher Samantha Batko. “People would be forced into vehicles and tents or the homeless system would have to find massive resources for more hotels.”
In the middle of a pandemic with an easily communicable virus, street homelessness is particularly dangerous because of the difficulty of social distancing and lack of hygiene access. Even for those who stay off the street by doubling up with family members or friends, social distancing is more difficult and the consequences of getting sick are amplified.
Perversely, an eviction crisis could actually have upsides for people already in the homeless and affordable housing systems. “The landlords evicting people are going to fill those units,” Batko says.
She argues that the crisis makes vouchers more appealing to landlords who opposed renting to voucher holders in the past. Batko says she heard anecdotes from service providers who’d found greater success finding housing for renters with vouchers in the early days of the pandemic than they had previously. “In March and April, landlords that previously didn’t want to take vouchers or other rental assistance all of a sudden were open to it because it was a guarantee for rent,” she explains.
Whether every landlord is able to hang on to their property through an eviction crisis remains an open question, however. Mom and pop landlords who manage a few units are particularly vulnerable when it comes to weathering a lack of rental income. Those can often be the landlords more willing to rent at below-market rates who create the unsubsidized affordable housing market.
“The worst-case scenario [of evictions] is ruinous,” says Paula Cino, National Multifamily Housing Council’s vice president of construction, development, and land use policy. “No question there’s tremendous vulnerability in [the mom and pop landlord] segment in particular. But it’s difficult to identify by size which landlord could face distress. I think all parts of industry are going to face distress.”
Matthew Gardner, Windermere Real Estate’s chief economist is confident the big, corporate rental housing players will be just fine. The smaller landlords are at a much greater risk, but even there, Gardner thinks the mortgage forbearance program created by the CARES Act is going a long way toward helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. With forbearance, homeowners were able to delay mortgage payments for three months. Those who can prove COVID-related financial hardship can apply for another 12 months of reprieve.
It is in large part because of the forbearance program that Gardner does not think we’re heading for a repeat of the 2008 foreclosure crisis. “Everyone asks me if I’m worried about ownership housing,” he says. “No, I am worried about renters. … Anyone expecting a huge fall-out of foreclosures. I just don’t see it.”
Given the spike in unemployment and threat of lost homes, the Great Recession seems the obvious comparison to the moment we’re living through. But today’s crisis has already surpassed the fallout from the foreclosure crisis in some ways and still has the potential to be far more devastating.
Unemployment during the Great Recession peaked at 10 percent. Nearly 10 million people lost their homes to foreclosure between 2006 and 2014. But homelessness remained nearly flat between 2009 and 2011. The reason is, in part, that President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, included $1.5 billion for local communities to keep people housed or rapidly fund new rentals for those who lost their homes.
The Great Depression is a more apt analogy for the crisis America now faces. It was then when unemployment hit 25 percent. There was no annual accounting of homelessness in the 1930s, but an article in the Journal of Urban History cites a three-day census taken by the Roosevelt administration in 1933 that found 1.5 million Americans were homeless. Many of those 1.5 million lived in the hundreds of Hoovervilles that dotted the country—the makeshift shanty towns named as a dark acknowledgment of President Herbert Hoover’s failure to intervene in the crisis.
It’s Not Too Late
Though an unprecedented eviction crisis looms on the horizon, it is not a foregone conclusion.
“It’s really, really not too late,” says Zach Neumann, head of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and co-author of the Aspen Institute eviction report. “If Congress is able to extend federally enhanced unemployment benefits or get money in the hands of tenants, they will be able to pay their rent, they will be able to stabilize themselves through the late summer and fall, and we can avoid a really significant chunk of the crisis we’re outlining in the report.”
Advocates have been lobbying the Senate for months to take up the House’s HEROES Act and provide a massive relief package to keep renters housed, expand temporary, emergency housing capacity, and more. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) is calling for at least $100 billion in rent relief funding, which has garnered broad support among affordable housing advocates and landlord groups like the National Multifamily Housing Council. NLIHC is also asking the Senate to include a uniform national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and at least $11.5 billion to address existing homelessness.
One hundred billion is an eye-popping figure. But inaction isn’t a cost-saving measure. The University of Arizona law school’s Innovation for Justice program created a cost of eviction calculator that models how much it costs a community in increased emergency shelter, inpatient and emergency medical care, child welfare services, and juvenile delinquency for each person evicted. For the worst-case scenario of 23 million evictions, it calculates a nationwide, one-year cost of $128.7 billion. Innovation for Justice Program Manager Mackenzie Pish says the model doesn’t include the costs of increased mental health services or policing, so their calculation is likely on the low side.
“Homelessness is not natural,” says Eviction Lab’s Alieza Durana. “It is a choice we are making as a society and we can choose differently. We are a wealthy nation, we have the ability to support people in our community especially when they fall on hard times.
In the months since the House passed the HEROES Act, states and cities have continued piecing together or extending their own moratoriums, along with rent relief programs paid for by philanthropic dollars, CARES Act funding, and even state and local general funds. But those local and state programs have not been able to keep up with demand. “Only the federal government has the resources to provide rental assistance at the scale it is needed,” says Andrew Aurand, NLIHC’s vice president for research.
More than two months after the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, the Senate is finally taking action on a second relief bill. Their $1 trillion proposal is reported to include another round of $1,200 stimulus checks and a reduction in the size of the weekly enhanced unemployment payments. According to NLIHC, it is still “possible, but unlikely” that Republicans will include rent relief in their package. In an emailed statement, NLIHC writes “That’s why we’re working with all of our state and local members to urge their representatives and senators to prioritize emergency rental assistance and other resources and protections. … Each day that Congress waits to enact emergency rental assistance puts more people with the lowest incomes at risk of evictions and homelessness.”
If Republicans refuse to make the sort of deep investments affordable housing, homeless, and rental industry advocates are calling for, the only question that remains is whether America’s newly homeless will call their encampments Trumptowns or McConnellvilles.