Combating Racism – Combating Evictions

A man sits with his son and a sign asking for money near an upscale hotel in downtown Portland, Oregon.
Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

“Evictions?” you might ask. “I thought there was a moratorium on evictions.”

And you would be right. Currently, President Biden and the CDC have extended the moratorium, prohibiting landlords nationwide from evicting tenants, through March 31st. So why am I bringing up this issue on March 7th?

Because despite the moratorium, evictions have continued. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University estimates that more than a million renters have faced eviction during the pandemic, despite government moratoriums.

First, some definitions

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines eviction as: “any action by a landlord, owner of a residential property, or other person with a legal right to pursue eviction or a possessory action, to remove or cause the removal of a covered person from a residential property.” State and local laws with respect to tenant-landlord relations vary, as do the eviction processes used to implement these laws. Eviction does not include foreclosure on a home mortgage.

For purposes of the moratorium, a “covered person” is any tenant, lessee, or resident of a residential property who provides to their landlord, the owner of the residential property, or other person with a legal right to pursue eviction or possessory action, a declaration under penalty of perjury that:

  • The individual has used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing,
  • The individual either a) expects to earn no more than $99,000 in annual income for calendar year 2020 (or no more than $198,000 if filing a joint tax return), b) was not required to report any income in 2019 to the IRS, or c) received an economic impact payment (stimulus check) according to Section 2201 of the CARES Act.
  • The individual is unable to pay the full rent or make a full housing payment due to substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a lay-off, or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses (these are defined as any unreimbursed medical expense that exceeds 7.5% of one’s adjusted grow income for the year),
  • The individual is using best efforts to make timely partial payments that are so close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit, taking into account other nondiscretionary expenses; and
  • Eviction would likely render the individual homeless – or force the individual to move into and live in close quarters in a new congregate or shared living setting because the individual has no other available housing options.

The hard facts

Tens of thousands of people, despite meeting all five of the above criteria, have been evicted from their homes. Because of the wording of the CDC’s order, local judges have room for interpretation and with pushback from landlords, evictions have continued. Judges often side with the landlord, despite renters completing the required CDC forms demonstrating they meet the CDC’s criteria. In theory that’s supposed to stop an eviction if a renter has lost income and has no place else to go.

The Princeton University Eviction Lab has built our country’s first nationwide database of evictions. Before the launch of the Lab's dataset, little was known about the prevalence of eviction in America, so studying its causes and consequences on a national level was impossible. This new dataset gives us the tools to better understand—and effectively address and fight—the eviction epidemic and its consequences. This includes everything from poverty and homelessness to educational disparities—namely, inequality.

According to the Eviction Lab’s research, in the 5 states and 27 cities that the lab tracks, landlords have filed for 251,058 evictions during the pandemic (as of February 20, 2021) including 80,000 in September, October and November, and 2,668 during the week prior to February 20, 2021. The 5 states and 27 cities are listed here: https://evictionlab.org/eviction-tracking/.

In 2020, between March 13th and September 3rd, 27 states lifted eviction moratoriums. To see your state’s position on moratoriums, click here. And some states, for example Ohio, Georgia and Wyoming, never stopped evictions.

According to a study by Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, lifting eviction moratoriums directly increased COVID-19 incidence and mortality. And according to a recent UCLA Study, expiring state evictions between March and September, 2020 led to over 400,000 COVID cases and nearly 11,000 excess deaths in the 27 states studied that allowed their protections to elapse.

Even last month, according to Housing Justice Now, 176 eviction cases were schedule on Feb 15th in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 89 eviction cases were scheduled there for February 19th and another 52 eviction hearings were scheduled on February 22nd. And this is just one city!

Furthermore, food pantry requests have increased by as much as 200% in some states, with nearly 30 million Americans reporting they do not have enough food.

Eviction Inequalities – Some sobering statistics

Researchers at the Eviction Lab found that “landlords file for eviction against Black and Latino renters—especially Black and Latino women—at higher rates than against their white and male counterparts.” Furthermore, Black individuals make up about 21% of all renters, but they make up 35% of all defendants on eviction cases, according to a research fellow at the Eviction Lab.

For example, across the state of Wisconsin, the normal share of eviction filings against Black people is 35.4%. Since March, 2020, that share is up to 37.2%. But Black people make up only 12% of all renters in the state.

Black families are more likely to rent than to own their homes, and to pay a larger share of their incomes when they do rent. They also tend to have a smaller financial cushion to cover emergencies. Plus, during the pandemic, Blacks are more likely than Whites to have lost their jobs and three times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Being evicted only increases those risks.

In a report compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) entitled “The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis: An Estimated 30-40 Million People in American Are At Risk,” communities of color are hardest hit by the eviction crisis.

Communities of color are disproportionately rent-burdened increasing their risk of eviction. ”Rental burden” is defined as households who pay over 30% of their income towards rent. People of color are twice as likely to be renters and are disproportionately likely to be rental cost-burdened. Studies from cities throughout the country have shown that people of color, particularly Black and Latino people, constitute approximately 80% of people facing eviction. Examples include:

  • In Milwaukee, women from Black neighborhoods made up only 9.6% of the city’s population but accounted for 30% of evicted tenants.
  • In Boston, 70% of market-rate evictions filed were in communities of color, despite the fact that those areas make up approximately half of the city’s rental market.
  • Researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Washington found the number of evictions for Black households in Baltimore exceeded those for white households by nearly 200%, with the Black renter eviction rate outpacing the white renter eviction rate by 13%.
  • In New York City, a sample of housing court cases indicated that 70% of households in housing court are headed by a female of color, usually Black and/or Hispanic.
  • In Virginia, approximately 60% of majority Black neighborhoods have an annual eviction rate higher than 10% of households, approximately four times the national average, even when controlling for poverty and income rates.
  • A report co-authored by City Life/Vida Urbana and Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that in the first month of the Massachusetts state of emergency, 78% of eviction filings in Boston were in communities of color.

These numbers do not take into account those renters whose leases have not been renewed – something many landlords are allowed to do without cause.

Flaws in the system

Many of the moratorium’s provisions are vaguely worded. Because it is ultimately enforced in local courts, individual judges in different localities have varied greatly in how they have interpreted it. For example, some judges have held that it does not extend to “holdover evictions” in which a tenant’s lease ends and the landlord refuses to renew.

Second, in some cases, judges have required tenants to prove that they suffered substantial economic hardship and that they made “best efforts” to obtain government assistance and pay rent, a process that can be overly burdensome for tenants.

After the CDC published additional guidelines on October 9th saying that landlords could challenge the veracity of a tenant's declaration, some landlords and their lawyers began grilling tenants about their spending habits, questioning their efforts to obtain financial assistance and even trying to subpoena their bank statements. The organizer for Housing Justice Now in Winston-Salem, North Carolina reported that "some magistrates are...essentially turning these into perjury trials."

Third, the moratorium does not require landlords to inform tenants that they are protected, leading some to leave their homes because they are unaware of their rights, sometimes without even going to court.

Another major flaw in the CDC moratorium is that, even when it keeps tenants in their homes, it still allows landlords to file for eviction, which initiates the process of removing a tenant. Between January 10 and January 16, 2021, there were 4,901 new eviction filings in just the 27 cities across the country tracked by Princeton’s Eviction Lab. Because these records are often public, the impacts of an eviction filing can follow people for many years, making it significantly harder for them to find housing. In some cases, landlords will use the threat of filing for eviction to coerce tenants into leaving their homes.

According to an article published by CNBC, tens of thousands of people have been evicted since September, 2020 because the CDC’s policy has been applied inconsistently across states and some landlords have ignored or challenged their tenants’ attempts at using the protection.

The process

Landlords initiate the process, sometimes without the knowledge of the renter. Renters are served notice to appear in court. Almost everywhere in the United States, evictions take place in civil court, where renters often have no right to an attorney. For this reason, and others, many renters never appear in eviction court. When this happens, they receive a default eviction judgment, provided that the landlord or a representative is present. Renters who don’t appear in court can also receive an eviction judgment ordering them to vacate their home by a specific date.

Tenants must complete a declaration under penalty of perjury that they meet the criteria listed in the order. To see a copy of the declaration form, click here or here.

One problem is that renters don’t know what steps to take to avoid eviction and even if they do, many can’t afford the legal help to navigate the court system. According to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, the vast majority of renters don’t have a lawyer. “There’s a massive imbalance of power.”

Eviction cases can be solved in other ways also. For one, the case can be dismissed or ruled in favor of the defendants, allowing renters to stay in their homes. Or, a mediated agreement can be established between a renter and a landlord. In the event that evicted renters don’t leave their homes by the specified date, the landlord can file a “writ of restitution” that allows law enforcement officers to forcibly remove a family and their belongings.

Some landlords have been reported to employ physical or verbal harassment or intimidation techniques to force tenants from their homes.

Consequences of Eviction

The most obvious is homelessness. Eviction causes a family to lose their home. This means they are often expelled from their community and their children have to switch schools. Families lose their possessions, which are piled on the sidewalk or placed in storage, which can only be reclaimed after paying a fee.

A legal eviction comes with a court record, which can prevent families from relocating to decent housing in a safe neighborhood because many landlords refuse to rent to those with eviction filings on their records, whether the eviction actually took place or not. Having the filing on record makes it nearly impossible for the renter to find another apartment.

But the risks do not stop there. Eviction is a public health problem, especially during a pandemic. Those facing homelessness often resort to sleeping outdoors or staying in crowded shelters. Others move in with family or friends, leading to more crowded dwelling and less social distancing, and consequently, a greater risk of transmitting or catching COVID-19.

Studies also show that eviction causes job loss, although in this pandemic, it is the job loss that is contributing to the rise in evictions. And evictions affect people’s mental health. One study found that mothers who experienced eviction reported higher rates of depression two years after their move.

Evicted tenants are more likely to get ill, have a harder time in school, drop out of school more often, and are more likely to get involved in criminal activity. On a broader level, emergency shelter costs increase and emergency health care costs from increased hospitalizations also skyrocket.

When moratoriums are over

When the moratoriums are lifted, we can anticipate massive evictions. Estimates are that 30-40 million people are at risk of eviction at the end of this month. Of this number, 80% constitute Black and Latinx renters.

According to the Urban Institute, nearly 10 million people in the US won’t be able to afford their rent this month. The average delinquent renter owes approximately $5,600 in back rent—a national total of $57 billion in back rent and utilities, according to estimates.

How can they ever repay months of back rent? How do we expect these people to pay the accrued debt?

In addition, landlords, especially small ones, are also suffering. Small landlords, mostly mom and pop landlords, need to be given financial support from state and federal governments. Moratoriums are not a solution for landlords.

Just a few of the many stories

Imagine if you would, that you were:

A 24-year old Black mother of two in Richmond, Virginia lost her shift at an Amazon warehouse when daycare and schools were closed because of the pandemic. She was able to avoid eviction with the help of a lawyer and emergency rental assistance which covered all of the back rent, plus future payments. Nevertheless, she was told that her lease would not be renewed and she had to vacate her apartment on February 28th . . . just a few days ago.

Or a woman who is working from home in Queens, NY bringing in $1,200 per month. She had to leave her job as a home health worker after her mother’s anticipated death from coronavirus. Her mother miraculously pulled through. This woman, who never missed a rent payment before the pandemic, now owes close to $20,000 in back rent. After her roommate lost her job due to the pandemic, the two were unable to afford the $1800/month rent payments. She was denied food stamps because she makes too much money. The landlord took her to eviction court.

Or a mother, living in a two-bedroom apartment in Rural Hall, NC, with three children ages 12, 10 and 7. Her rent is $550 per month. After her hours as a housekeeper at a nearby hotel were cut last February, it became a struggle to come up with that money. Every time she had any money, she gave it to her landlord. When she heard about the CDC announcement, she filled out the declaration and gave it to her landlord. Still, he moved to evict her and her three children in September. On October 7th, she showed up to the courthouse for her 9:00 a.m. hearing. She'd forgotten her mask, ran back to her car to get it, and by the time she returned, the judge had ruled against her. On November 11th, a sheriff came to remove the family from their home. She recently got a job at McDonalds which she hopes will help her to pay for the motel where she and her children are currently staying.

What can we do?

It’s easy to ignore the distress of 10 million folks who aren’t able to pay their rent or utilities. It’s easy to close our eyes to this crisis. How many times have we seen someone living on the street, feel uncomfortable, and walk right past the person(s) rather than offering to lend a hand?

There is much we can do to avoid many of the evictions that lead to homelessness:

1.  Educate tenants. Help them understand the criteria of the CDC regulations and the steps they must take to avoid eviction.

2.  Help those on the verge of eviction to contact local legal aid offices.

3.  If you are a lawyer, or know of a lawyer, offer to represent those in your community on the verge of eviction, pro bono.

4.  Set up GoFundMe accounts to assist those who are facing eviction or who have already been evicted.

5.  Use your social media to spread the word about the importance of including housing provisions and resources in the next coronavirus relief package. You can find a social media tool kit from the National Low Income Housing Coalition here.

6.  Tell stories of the homeless in your community on your Facebook page.

7.  Write, call, or email your Congressman/woman and/or Senator (You can find their contact information here). Urge them to:

  • provide debt relief to both tenants and landlords,
  • expand rental assistance (which will also help landlords),
  • expunge eviction filings from a tenants’ records,
  • enact and enforce fair housing laws,
  • introduce legislation to prevent mass evictions,
  • re-introduce rent control in large urban areas,
  • expand eligibility for housing vouchers (even though some landlords will not accept them),
  • require landlords to provide notice to renters of their rights under the CDC and President’s moratorium,
  • prohibit landlords from filing or advancing eviction proceedings unless they attest that they have not received a signed declarative statement from tenants,
  • rescind the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document issued on October 9th that creates loopholes in the moratorium’s protections, making it more difficult for struggling renters to remain stably housed,
  • create a mechanism for renters to file complaints against landlords who violate the moratorium, and
  • propose extending the moratoriums until the end of the pandemic.

8.  Establish county-wide initiatives to push for racial equality in county social services, including for Black people who have been homeless in the past.

9.  For those with difficulty understanding the declaration form in English, help them find the form which appears in 20 different languages at https://bit.ly/3ilIB0R.

10.  Join the National Low Income Housing Coalition's call on coronavirus, housing and homelessness every Monday from 2:30-4:00 ET for an in-depth discussion on the federal eviction moratorium and critical steps renters must take to ensure they are protected.

11.  Publish op-eds and letters to the editor in your local newspaper. The NLIHC provides a media toolkit here.

12. Donate to Residential Relief, an organization that has helped hundreds of responsible residents remain in their apartments during this crisis.

Finally, if you see someone living on the street, instead of walking past, find out what you can do to help. This national crisis disproportionately impacts Black and low-income Americans. This pandemic’s evictions are not just a condition of poverty, they are a cause of it.

Remember, once again, that our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. This is the time for each of us to extend ourselves.

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This newsletter used data from The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, a project directed by Matthew Desmond and designed by Ashley Gromis, Lavar Edmonds, James Hendrickson, Katie Krywokulski, Lillian Leung, and Adam Porton. The Eviction Lab is funded by the JPB, Gates, and Ford Foundations as well as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. More information is found at evictionlab.org.

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