The massive and prolonged economic disruptions that began with the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States during the winter of 2020 knocked many renter households into arrears from which many have not recovered. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that almost 7.8 million renter households were behind in rent at the end of June, with 4.9 million having no confidence in their ability to pay their next month’s rent. These figures are down significantly from well over 10 million at the height of the pandemic, but still represent a crushing catastrophe of mass evictions. For perspective, the U.S. would normally see about 3.7 million eviction filings and about 900,000 completed displacements throughout an average year prior to COVID-19. Now, twice as many evictions could take place within a matter of weeks, with the impact—like the direct health effects of COVID-19—concentrated on BIPOC households.
The federal government has appropriated over $46 billion in rental relief funds aimed at preventing this giant wave of evictions, but in many places the distribution of funds has been slow. This left tenants relying on a national eviction moratorium from the CDC, a public health measure that protected many tenants from eviction since September 2020. The order expired on July 31, a Saturday, and the predicted eviction tide came rushing ashore the ensuing Monday morning. With sustained pressure from advocates, especially a five-day vigil Rep. Cori Bush led sleeping outdoors on the Capitol steps, the administration announced a new, more limited eviction halt order on Aug. 3.
In the meantime, the White House has urged rent relief programs to accelerate their efforts to disburse rental assistance funds, only a small percentage of which has yet been paid out to landlords.
Landlord groups have already challenged the new halt order in court, however, and only a new ratification by an Act of Congress could reassure tenants that the eviction halt will stand.
Though Congress will hopefully solidify the CDC’s authority, state and local governments have full authority to impose eviction moratoria and other measures to ensure troubled renters are not displaced in the midst of the delta variant surge—just as 43 states did early in the pandemic. State and local governments should act now to reimpose renter protections, and not leave the fates of families and communities to the whims of judicial interpretation. And even beyond the immediate need to stop mass evictions, there is much more that state and local officials can do to facilitate housing stability in a longer-term transition out of the pandemic emergency. The time for those critical measures is now.
One simple step state and local governments can take to substantially reduce the number of families and individuals facing displacement would be to make the timely payment of rent for August an acceptable defense to eviction, provided the tenant remains current in rent thereafter. This would enable tenants who pay their current and future rent to avoid evictions resulting simply because of lingering arrearages accumulated during the pandemic. Though tenants would still owe those balances, in most cases they could apply for rental assistance funds or pay those balances off over time.
Policymakers should bear in mind that the basic reason landlords evict tenants for nonpayment of rent is to bring in new tenants who will pay—but a new tenant who replaces an evicted one does not pay the previous tenant’s arrearage. Allowing landlords to evict tenants who are able and willing to pay current and ongoing rent is wholly counterproductive on public policy grounds. Such evictions will harm the affected individuals and families and contribute to the communitywide strife and destabilization of large-scale displacement, while producing no corresponding benefit to landlords. Preventing such evictions gives rental assistance programs more time to process and distribute relief funds, stabilizes communities with large numbers of delinquent renters, and relieves much housing-related stress and enables households to better plan and make sound financial decisions.
New Jersey just enacted legislation of this kind on Aug. 4, prohibiting eviction for rent debts accrued through August 2021. California has largely taken this approach as well, prohibiting evictions solely for rent arrearages where a tenant has paid at least one-fourth of the pandemic-era rent, while multiple other states have adopted eviction moratorium “off-ramps” that prohibit evictions of delinquent tenants who have at least applied for rental assistance funds. Hopefully more states will soon recognize the wisdom in this simple, yet effective housing stabilization measure.
Second, states should ensure that displaced renter households, as well as those living in unsustainable or otherwise poorly suited housing, can secure new rental homes despite a negative rental history associated with COVID-19. That a tenant fell behind on rent or was evicted during a 100-year pandemic, during which entire industries were disrupted and more than 22 million U.S. jobs were lost, can hardly be taken as predictive of the tenant’s post-pandemic tenancy. This is especially true of tenants who have since returned to work or have acquired other financial resources that enable them to afford housing once again. Hence, the use of such information as a basis to deny rental housing admission has, at most, limited value to landlords. And the effects of such practices are likewise discriminatory and contrary to the public policy goal of reducing residential segregation.
While practically any kind of adverse rental history will diminish the range of housing opportunities available to a household, certain items—especially eviction records, debts to current or past landlords, or delinquent utility bills—often have a drastic effect. Renters with eviction records or landlord-tenant debts often cannot qualify for any quality rental housing in areas of good economic opportunity (i.e., safe communities with quality schools, job opportunities, and public services). Their adverse rental history commonly forces them to seek lower-quality (or even unsafe) housing in areas of economic disadvantage, where the reduced demand for housing may lead landlords to apply less-stringent admission criteria. Even before the onset of COVID-19, the kinds of rental admission barriers that most significantly diminished housing access (eviction records, criminal history, and damaged credit) were disproportionately common among households of color—and thus reproduced patterns of housing segregation and concentrated inequity. The pandemic has only exacerbated these racial disparities, and will continue to do so long into the future unless action is taken now.
State and local governments should therefore prohibit landlords from denying admission to rental applicants who have eviction records, landlord-tenant debts, or other adverse rental history related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple cities and states have already enacted protections of this kind, including Virginia and Philadelphia.
To ensure that such measures are effective, jurisdictions should also enact accompanying procedures. Both the Virginia and Philadelphia laws, for instance, require landlords to disclose to rejected applicants the reasons they were denied and an opportunity to appeal (for example, by providing additional evidence demonstrating that an eviction record was related to the pandemic even if that was not apparent from the background report the landlord ran on the applicant). States and local governments should also address rental application fees, which deter tenants with eviction records or other adverse rental history from even applying to quality housing in the first place. Good alternatives include requiring refunds to denied applicants, prohibiting landlords from collecting application fees from applicants with portable tenant screening reports available, or prohibiting application fees altogether.
Third, state and local governments must work with the courts to create pre-filing eviction diversion programs coupled with access to emergency rental assistance. As multiple successful models across the country have shown, providing holistic intervention to tenants even before a landlord files a case in court can effectively resolve landlord-tenant disputes and promote housing stability. Tenants can avoid the impacts of eviction filings by obtaining access not only to rental assistance but also comprehensive services such as mental health, domestic violence advocacy, case management, and other supports.
Ultimately, the threat of mass evictions that has arisen during COVID-19 is a symptom of more fundamental problems in the rental housing market. There is an inadequate supply of quality, affordable rental homes—especially for lower-income tenants—in every U.S. state. Predatory investment firms have broadly entered a space once dominated by mom and pop landlords who had a stake in the broader well-being of the community. Most U.S. states still rely on summary eviction procedures, relics of Roman and medieval law, that undervalue the importance of rental homes and emphasize speed, efficiency, and reliably delivering possession to landlords. Unlike other courts, eviction courts are not designed to achieve just and humane outcomes that serve community interests, only the demands of property owners. These problems call for deeper, more structural changes—such as ensuring tenants have access to legal representation and a meaningful opportunity to defend in eviction proceedings, limiting evictions to circumstances where the landlord has good cause to terminate the tenancy, and investing in adequate social housing and rental subsidy programs to fulfill the overall need.