As coronavirus relief — and eviction protections — expire, millions at risk of losing homes

The pandemic is taking its toll in Los Angeles
The pandemic is taking its toll in Los Angeles. (Valerie Macon/AFP)

The experience of two states which lifted eviction moratoriums two months ago provides a preview of the housing crisis that could affect millions of Americans as key provisions in the federal coronavirus assistance program are about to expire.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which kept many families afloat with supplemental unemployment insurance benefits and suspended evictions in federally supported housing, expires on July 25.

State eviction moratoriums in Texas and Wisconsin expired near the end of May, leaving housing lawyers and organizers in their largest cities — Houston and Milwaukee — scrambling to keep residents housed amid the coronavirus pandemic and huge increases in unemployment.

An order by the Texas Supreme Court halted evictions in mid-March, but they were allowed to resume on May 26. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’s two-month ban on evictions expired on May 27. Tenants still had some assistance, including enhanced unemployment insurance of $600 per week, but Congress has not yet acted to extend the program.

“Based on analysis of the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey by Stout, the number of renters at risk of eviction has consistently increased for the past five weeks, and has exceeded 17 million households including over 40 million people,” said Emily Benfer, chair of the American Bar Association’s Task Force Committee on Eviction and a visiting professor at Wake Forest Law School.

“With the expiration of the CARES Act and no federal intervention in sight, Congress is putting Americans and the housing market in great jeopardy,” Benfer added. “What was an entirely preventable crisis has become a humanitarian disaster of the United States' own making. Americans will be left with the bill and paying for the societal costs of widespread eviction well into the future.”

Evictions have risen sharply in Houston and Milwaukee, but they are not alone: A July 17 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that “filings have almost returned to their pre-pandemic levels in places where local bans have expired or where they were never enacted.” This is supported by findings from the Eviction Lab, a research facility at Princeton University, which tracks filings in markets across the country. Matthew Desmond, the Eviction Lab’s principal investigator, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which focused on two poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

In data provided to Yahoo News by Peter Hepburn, a research fellow at the Eviction Lab, Milwaukee filings were 17 percent above the historical average in June. They’ve dipped below average so far in July, but there have still been more than 500 new filings. In Houston, new filings doubled from approximately 600 in April to more than 1,200 in May, and then doubled again in June to more than 2,5000. Hepburn said the COVID-19 spike in the area likely caused a slowdown in July, but that more than 1,000 evictions have still been filed.

Housing activists
Housing activists at a protest in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“As the moratorium has ended, the eviction process has been in full swing, so the number of cases we’ve been seeing is kind of overwhelming,” said Jon-Ross Trevino, a managing attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid. “The federal moratorium is set to expire on July 25 and I think that number is just going to increase.”

With the federal moratorium expiring Saturday, landlords operating federally backed rentals still have to give tenants 30 days’ notice to vacate.

Outside of the baseline trauma and long-term deleterious effects of evictions, they could be particularly dangerous during a pandemic, as overcrowding can make isolation difficult. The July Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland report also stated that evictions result in “an increased risk of homelessness, mental health hospitalizations, and emergency room visits, situations which could put evicted tenants at a greater risk of contracting, spreading, and suffering complications from COVID-19.”

Zoe Middleton, co-director of Texas Housers, a policy research and advocacy organization, said the problem is compounded by tenants without computers can’t participate in virtual hearings, requiring them to appear in person. Harris County Public Health (encompassing Houston) has been tracking more than 40,000 active cases of coronavirus. Nearly 600 residents have died. Middleton said that once a court date is set, tenants are on the street in seven-to-20 days.

“The ultimate solution has to come from the federal level because the city of Houston doesn’t have money to do endless rent relief,” Middleton said.

Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, has exacerbated the problem by not following the lead of other Texas cities like Austin and Dallas, where grace periods have been put in place to help those who miss monthly payments. In Austin, residents have 60 days to pay back missed rent before eviction proceedings can begin. Residents in Dallas are afforded a similar grace period if they’re able to prove COVID-19 hardship.

In addition, Travis County — where Austin is located — had its own eviction moratorium in place through July 25. According to Eviction Lab tracking, Houston, with a population of 2.3 million, had 1,741 eviction filings over the last four weeks versus 62 for Austin, with a population of 964,000.

“The real cliff that we’re facing now, not having any federal legislation that protects all tenants – that just gets every worse every day that the HEROES Act isn’t passed or [Rep. Ilhan] Omar’s bill isn’t passed or [Rep. Denny] Heck’s bill isn’t passed, so it’s just every day gets a little bit more dire and more evictions are filed,” Middleton said, referring to pieces of legislation that have been passed or proposed in the House that would provide assistance to renters.

Houston did offer a $15 million rental assistance program in May, but it filled up in 90 minutes. When its moratorium ended, Wisconsin launched a $25 million program to help renters whose jobs were affected by the pandemic. As of Friday morning, just over 25 percent of the funds had been paid out to roughly 3,000 households, according to Brad Paul, executive director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program, which provides guidance to the agencies that received the funds from the state. Groups assisting with the distribution of funds said they have received thousands of calls and expect funding to run out before they can clear the list, and Paul said he worried about a “major spike” in homelessness with the federal moratorium set to expire.

“Prior to the pandemic, Wisconsin already had over 300,000 low-income renters paying more than half their income on housing and the local school districts counted more than 18,000 homeless kids across the state,” Paul told Yahoo News. “The economic fallout from COVID-19 is just worsening an already severe housing crisis for those with the lowest incomes. The governor’s rental assistance program is helping a great deal, but the scale of the problem is immense, and unless the CARES Act is extended, there will be significantly less resources to help address this emergency.”

Christine Donahoe, housing priority coordinator for Legal Action of Wisconsin, told Yahoo News their clients hadn’t been able to take advantage of the program, noting there could be a backlog of applications. She added that the crisis is likely to intensify racial segregation in Milwaukee, already one of the American cities with the starkest racial divide. An analysis from the Urban Institute found the pandemic is also widening that racial gap, exacerbated by housing discrimination and a slow recovery from the 2008 recession.

“Milwaukee is a majority-minority city, it’s highly segregated and we know that the impact of the pandemic has been disproportionately on people of color, especially Black people,” said Donahoe. Milwaukee (population 592,000) has had 1,126 filings over the last four weeks versus 10 in Boston (population 694,000), which has a moratorium in place.

(Yahoo News Graphic)
(Yahoo News Graphic)

Tenants not covered by local or state edicts have been protected by a national moratorium on evictions from rental units that were built with federal subsidies. This represents about 12 million units, 28 percent of the total market, per an Urban Institute analysis. Protection for renters ends on July 25, along with supplemental unemployment benefits.

“A lot of the tenants I see rely on federal money to help pay their rent, so a number of people who are current or not too far behind on their rent I know they are relying on the unemployment,” Trevino said. “I think the stimulus is already gone.”

The rent moratoriums are helpful in the short term, but they have limits: The rent isn’t canceled, simply deferred, meaning that at some point tenants have to pay it. If they have no source of income and the federal government stops issuing payments, they cannot put aside money to cover back rent. There will be ensuing eviction waves as those moratoriums expire unless Americans are able to safely return to work or continue receiving expanded unemployment payments.

“If key provisions within the CARES Act are not extended or expanded moving forward, there is every reason to expect a large increase in new eviction filings across the country,” said the Eviction Lab’s Hepburn. “The expansion of unemployment insurance has been critical to supplementing income and insuring that rent gets paid. The federal eviction moratorium, while not comprehensive, offers significant relief to a large set of renters, probably in the neighborhood of one-third of all renter households. ... If both provisions expire in the coming month, a large number of renters will be at greater risk of being evicted.”

Protesters in San Diego rally in favor of a bill that will prohibit landlords from evicting tenants because of unpaid rent due to the pandemic. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

With personal finances depleted and credit ratings damaged, those who lose their homes are left with limited options.

“There’s really no place for them to move. In order for them to move you need two months’ rent, the credit requirements are getting increased by a large number, so it’s getting harder to qualify to live somewhere so you end up with a large down payment, a lot of which our clients don’t have,” Trevino said. “The lucky ones have families they can go to but if they don’t have family, a lot of people will start living in their cars.”

With the cliff looming, it seems unlikely legislation will be passed before the weekend, and even Senate Republicans and the White House are at odds on the details. The Washington Post reported Friday morning that the discussion between Republicans is whether to lower the $600 per week to a flat $200 per week or a percentage of pre-pandemic income.

Last week, there were 1.4 million new unemployment claims, the first week-over-week rise since March. A Census Bureau survey found that 33 percent of renter households in Texas had little or no confidence in their ability to pay rent for July.

In May, the House passed the HEROES Act, which would provide an additional round of stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits, as well as additional testing and tracing for the virus. That bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

At the end of June, the House also passed legislation introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., that would provide $100 billion to emergency rental assistance programs and create a $75 billion relief fund for homeowners. The Senate hasn’t acted on that bill either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday, "We hope to be able to pass something by the end of the next few weeks.”

A proposal from Omar, the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, that would cancel all mortgage and rent payments while creating a relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders to cover losses from the canceled payments has not been voted on in the House. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has proposed a bill that would impose a nationwide moratorium through the duration of the pandemic, but that also has not been put up for a vote.

“The federal eviction moratorium had the effect of keeping hundreds if not thousands of families in Wisconsin housed that would have been evicted because it applied to about 25 percent of renters,” said Donahoe. “A huge portion of the rental market was protected and had stability this entire time from mid-March to end of July. They knew if they lost their job or income or had unexpected medical costs, they were still going to be housed and their children were going to be housed.”

Donahoe added that eviction is “an extremely destabilizing event” and families will likely face long-term consequences due to unemployment caused by the pandemic.

“As Matt Desmond explains in “Evicted,” eviction only propels people further into poverty and they move from worse-to-worse-to-worse conditions and neighborhoods, so we expect people to face more violence and worse schools,” said Donahoe. “It’s often the cause, not the result, of poverty. Eviction is an expensive process to go through because you’ll be assigned court fees, you’ll lose a lot of your personal property in the process, you might have to incur moving expenses and you might have to pay more in rent than you did before because you’ll have to find someone who will rent to a tenant with an eviction record.”

As bad as things are at the moment in some areas, Middleton noted that the future is far grimmer should federal protections and payments lapse while the economy remains stalled and pandemic continues.

“You’re going to have people falling into the federal categories of homelessness, which is living in your car, couch surfing, sleeping outside — we’re doing triple-digit heat here in Houston right now and it’s hurricane season, so you’re going to see a city that’s 57 percent renters with no protections becoming homeless,” Middleton said. “Because there’s no federal policy on this issue, there’s also not more money being directed to homelessness prevention or homelessness program management. And then the spread of the virus intensifies and we are stuck in this position for an indefinite amount of time until we are able to figure out a better way of managing it or a vaccine or better treatment.”


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