By Igor Derysh, Salon, July 12, 2020
One in five Americans who live in rentals could face eviction by the end of September as Congressional Republicans move to cut off unemployment assistance and other coronavirus relief, according to an analysis by the Aspen Institute.
More than 20 million people — roughly 20% of the 110 million Americans living in rented homes — could face homelessness by the fall, according to the analysis, which used data from the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.
“We’re… going to face the biggest homelessness crisis that this country has faced in decades, probably since the Great Depression,” former Democratic presidential candidate and HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in an interview with Salon. “We’ve never seen anything like that in our lifetime… Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump — it’s not surprising that they’re so disconnected from the lives of everyday people. That’s what people are thinking about. That’s what they’re worrying about. How am I going to pay the rent?”
The federal government and many state and local governments have issued partial emergency eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, though these vary in degrees of protection and are set to expire in the coming weeks. More than 20 states, including hard-hit Texas and South Carolina, have already allowed eviction proceedings to resume and only about a dozen states will have any eviction protections by the end of the summer unless further action is taken. The federal moratorium, which was implemented under the CARES Act, is set to expire on July 25, after which renters will get 30 days notice of eviction proceedings.
These moratoriums paused evictions but provided no rent relief, meaning that renters unable to pay during the pandemic will be on the hook for months of back rent once they expire.
Though it’s impossible to predict exactly how many people will be affected, “the number is just insanely massive,” said Vincent Reina, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies housing policy.
“I really wonder what is the number that makes people convinced enough that this is actually a topic worth intervening,” he said in an interview. “Without a multi-pronged meaningful response, what you’re going to see is increased levels of eviction, increased levels of housing instability, increased levels of homelessness that have larger ramifications.”
House Democrats approved a $100 billion rental assistance and $75 billion homeowners’ assistance program last month, but it was rejected by Republicans, who called it a non-starter in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has already vowed not to extend the $600-per-week federal unemployment benefits in the next phase of coronavirus relief as Senate Republicans and the Trump administration declare premature victory over the pandemic.
“Every American has been affected from the closure of our economy to caring for the sick and mourning those tragically lost, but under the leadership of President Trump our Transition to Greatness has already begun,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told The Washington Post.
But both the health and economic crises are far from over. The United States hit a record-high 60,000 new confirmed infections in a single day this week and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted that number could soon hit 100,000 per day.
Though Trump has touted recent jobs reports as proof that the crisis has ebbed, economists argue that the economy has been buoyed by unprecedented federal relief, which is now set to expire.
Unemployment rose higher in the first three months of the outbreak in the US than it did during two years of the Great Recession. More than 44 million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began, nearly 30% of the entire federal workforce.
The economic crisis has left millions unable to pay rent, a fact that will not change when crucial relief programs expire. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the unemployment rate is not expected to fall below its pre-pandemic level until at least the end of 2030.
Even President Donald Trump’s properties have sought rent relief, citing hardships from the coronavirus crisis. Trump’s Palm Beach golf club sought rent relief over the “significant impact” caused by the shutdowns. The Trump Organization also asked the Trump administration for a break on its lease agreement for the Trump International Hotel in DC after it stayed empty throughout the pandemic.
The eviction crisis poses an unprecedented economic threat because of housing instability issues that predate the coronavirus.
“There’s a housing supply problem of just not enough units being built, and so that compounds over time,” said Reina, who co-authored an upcoming report on the eviction cliff for The Justice Collaborative with Kathryn Howell, the head of the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s driving up rents at all ends of the spectrum so you have that reality of the fact that the supply response to the demand for housing in many markets has been insufficient.”
There has been a “distinct lack of federal intervention” on housing affordability, he said.
“We rely on one major production program for affordable housing, the longterm Housing Tax Credit Program, and while that produces really important housing units, a lot of households who live in those properties may still find themselves housing cost burdens because… they’re so low income that they’re well below the income threshold, and therefore they’re still paying a fair share of their income towards rent or a disproportionate share of their income towards rent,” he said. “The private market’s not supplying the units enough and there’s a lot of factors that drive that, not the least of which is nimbyism and restrictive land-use practices and owner processes that drive up costs and kind of delay production time. There is a lack of federal support, particularly for the development of low-income housing. There’s a lack of federal safety nets.”
The government has offered vouchers and other programs to help low-income renters but these programs have been “largely oversubscribed,” Reina said.
“The number of eligible households, the number of households who actually receive these subsidies is way disproportionate,” he said, adding that estimates show there are “four eligible households for every one subsidy.”
Not only have affordable housing programs been “largely insufficient,” the US population is rapidly aging.
“The number of people who are elderly and disabled and poor is only going up, and these are households who aren’t going to make more money,” Reina said. “These are households who are largely past the wage-earning ages, or at least the age where their wage is going to increase at a meaningful level to reduce their housing cost burdens, and so there’s a large compounding reality that essentially built over time without an adequate market or government response to it.”
These issues have been exacerbated by the economic crisis. The Census Bureau recently found that 25.9% of households reported that they missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment.
Some cities are developing rent relief programs to respond to the unprecedented housing crisis, relying on a mix of local tax dollars, federal aid, and even donations. But these programs are “still insufficient,” Reina said, because federal unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of the month and “the level of those benefits going forward are a big element of keeping people at a level of income where they can afford their housing.”
“There is absolutely a need for very meaningful federal support in housing policy, both in stabilizing markets, in creating incentives for more products for the private market to provide, but also indirect subsidies to households to production and essentially across the spectrum,” he said.
But local governments are being asked to develop novel rent support programs without federal support. Senate Republicans have pushed back against providing relief to local and state governments who are facing a historic revenue shortfall and any state and local aid in the upcoming relief bills is expected to fall far short of the $1 trillion approved by House Democrats last month.
The local programs being developed are not enough to make up the shortfalls felt by landlords, leaving cities to also contemplate “programs that target owners specifically,” Reina said.
The scale of the crisis requires significant federal intervention.
“When you get this meaningful level of federal infusion, you’re relying a lot less on local dollars, particularly while local dollars are diminishing at a rapid rate,” Reina said. “It places a lot of strain on the ability of localities to really respond to everything meaningfully, particularly in areas like housing, and so that’s where those federal dollars become all the more crucial in the current moment.”
Without federal assistance, millions of people will be plunged into turmoil.
“Where do they go? Do they double up? Do they become homeless? Do they move to another unit until potentially they’re evicted again?” Reina pondered. “There’s formal evictions, which might amplify as courts open up, as state and local eviction moratoria end, as the federal eviction moratoria end, but as we know, very clearly from a lot of the eviction research that has been going on around the country is that there’s a lot of informality to eviction and people being pushed out of units that don’t fully get captured by all of those numbers, and so that’s happening at the same time.”
Landlords would also face default on their mortgages. In areas where housing prices are stagnant or falling, landlords may simply decide to walk away from housing units or choose to defer maintenance and repairs, which would lead to lower housing quality.
“One thing that is very clear is that the need for assistance existed before COVID and it’s been really amplified during COVID… the immediate implications are for the lowest income households, particularly the lowest income renters who are most at risk of losing their housing,” Reina said. “What that means for their personal welfare, their economic welfare, their kids’ welfare, their overall health, but then it has much larger systemic implications for what it means for the owners of these properties, what it means for revenue for cities… So those amplifying effects become overwhelming when you think about… the scale of households we’re talking about right now.”
Mass evictions could also worsen the health crisis.
“We’re telling people to socially distance and shelter in place when, in many cities across the country, having a home or a roof over your head was actually something that people were struggling to have at all, and then when you think of issues of doubling up, the issues of needing to move, the issue of you need to find housing, potentially moving multiple times, the challenge around living on the street, accessing shelters,” Reina continued. “When you put that in the context of a global health pandemic where one of the biggest recommendations people are landing on is consistently social distance from people, what you realize is that the social distancing becomes almost like a luxury that low-income households can’t afford so therefore they’re even more susceptible to the virus itself.”
Reina has worked with several cities in developing their rent relief programs and hopes that lawmakers around the country acknowledge that while the pandemic has been an economic shock to millions of households, “low-income households are facing economic shocks on a persistent basis.”
“You have to hope that this will sustain beyond the current structure, which relies very heavily on an infusion of federal dollars,” he said. “That might go away when people feel like we’ve responded to COVID, and this goes back to this idea that these local rent relief programs are one of the many important tools we need in place and that they should exist, and they should not just exist because of COVID. They should exist because there’s longstanding challenges around issues of housing security, housing stability, and housing affordability, and this represents a really meaningful form of intervention that can really help households, not just now, but at points in the future.”
The current crisis, he argued, magnified longstanding problems that have gone unaddressed for years.
“I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about some of this but there’s a lot of uncertainty… The level of need is quite large and it’s not going away. It’s building off of past unmet need and essentially accelerating it,” he said. “If this plays out, even for a fraction of these households the way we might expect it to, that’s a staggering number of people who are being negatively affected by our current housing challenges.”