Combating Racism – Good News and Bad News

THE GOOD NEWS!

This past Monday, President Biden’s administration extended the federal eviction moratorium through June 30, 2021. The moratorium had been scheduled to end this past Wednesday, March 31st. The extension and enforcement of the moratorium will help keep millions of renters stably housed during the pandemic and prevent further spread of and deaths from COVID-19.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a joint statement reflecting their commitment to use their authorities to help renters as they face the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic.

“Staff at both agencies will be monitoring and investigating eviction practices, particularly by major multistate landlords, eviction management services, and private equity firms, to ensure that they are complying with the law. Evicting tenants in violation of the CDC, state, or local moratoria, or evicting or threatening to evict them without apprising them of their legal rights under such moratoria, may violate prohibitions against deceptive and unfair practices, including under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act. We will not tolerate illegal practices that displace families and expose them—and by extension all of us—to grave health risks.”

Additionally, among many other provisions in the American Rescue Plan—the $1.29 trillion stimulus package passed in early March—more than $20 billion has been set aside in emergency rental assistance and other relief for the homeless.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the University of Arizona's Innovation for Justice Program have created a Cost of Eviction Calculator, a free, online tool designed to help users estimate community costs of some of the major downstream effects of eviction-related homelessness (see 1. Monetary costs below). The Calculator is available to any community wishing to estimate the costs of homelessness associated with the anticipated increase in evictions during COVID-19. By making these costs more transparent, the Calculator can help promote systemic shifts toward eviction prevention. The tool provides a detailed report breaking down the calculations for each major cost, which users can then use in their own advocacy efforts.

The Cost of Eviction Calculator does not measure all community costs associated with eviction, but it provides users with a starting point to understand how the eviction crisis impacts many social systems and creates far-reaching harm to households and communities. Access the Calculator here and the University of Arizona Innovation for Justice project page here.

Finally, seven states have passed legislation so far this year providing right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction: Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Washington State. And local governments of three large metropolitan areas—New York City, San Francisco, and Newark, New Jersey—have provided a right to counsel in eviction cases. Data from the Housing Justice Project, the main legal services provider in Seattle, shows that 52% of represented tenants in Seattle have been able to stay in their homes, compared to only 8% of unrepresented tenants.

THE BAD NEWS

According to various studies, between 8.8 and 12 million tenants are behind on rent. These tenants at risk of homelessness are disproportionately people of color, primarily Black and Hispanic families. According to John Pollock of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, current surveys show that 18.4% of all tenants owe back rent. Those surveys also revealed significant racial disparity: the percentage of Black tenants behind on their rent was 32.9%.

Failures/Weaknesses of the Moratorium

Unfortunately, there are reports that major multistate landlords are forcing people out of their homes despite the government prohibitions or before tenants are aware of their rights. Depriving tenants of their rights is unacceptable. Many of the tenants at risk of eviction are older Americans and people of color, who already have heightened risks from COVID-19. The moratorium order, which applies to individuals earning less than $99,000 annually, or $198,000 for couples, has failed to protect people for several reasons.

1.   Inconsistent application

There is significant variation in the ways the moratorium is being applied. The order’s wording gives local judges room for interpretation. Some state supreme courts have issued their own guidance to local judges on how to interpret the order. Where the state Supreme Court has not issued guidance, each jurisdiction is free to enact the order however it wishes. Some counties are continuing judgments while others are dismissing all eviction cases outright.

2.   Tenants must be proactive

Currently, tenants have to actively take steps to invoke the ban’s protections, which can lead to exploitation of those who don't know their rights or don't understand the process.

Also, some jurisdictions have allowed landlords to initiate the eviction process in court, a tactic that scared many families into leaving, rather than having the eviction proceedings, even unfinished ones, on their records.

3.   The declaration’s wording can be confusing or frustratingly ambiguous.

4.   Challenges to the declaration

Currently, property owners can challenge the truthfulness of a tenant’s declaration. In addition, judges also have discretion to “interrogate tenants about the veracity of their statements in the declaration,” said Ben Carter, the senior litigation and advocacy counsel at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. Some judges accept the declarations. Others question the renters in court under oath.

5.   Landlords have no obligation

Landlords have no obligation to tell tenants about the CDC protection or the declaration. Many qualified renters are unaware of the legal steps they must take to be protected, and as a result, some landlords are moving quickly to file evictions before renters can make use of the moratorium’s protection. Since the moratorium is only effective if renters are aware of its protections, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the National Housing Law Project (NHLP) are urging federal agencies to require federally supported rental property owners and housing authorities to provide tenants written notice of their rights under the moratorium and what they must do to be protected.

6.   Landlords can initiate eviction proceedings

By permitting landlords to initiate eviction proceedings—even when covered renters cannot be evicted until the moratorium ends—landlords can intimidate tenants who are behind on rent and pressure tenants to vacate their homes sooner. A single eviction filing creates a long-term mark on a renter’s record, hindering their access to future housing opportunities. Some renters, fearing that mark on their records, vacate their homes before the formal eviction proceedings occur. Other renters, especially the most marginalized renters, cannot participate in court proceedings due to accessibility issues.

In addition, in eviction lawsuits nationwide, an estimated 90 percent of landlords have legal representation, while only 10 percent of tenants do. Without representation, the majority of tenants lose their cases and are ultimately evicted.

Costs of COVID-19 Evictions

1.   Monetary costs

According to a report entitled “Costs of COVID-19 Evictions,” published by the NLIHC and the University of Arizona’s Innovation for Justice Program, the public costs of homelessness due to evictions includes five elements:

2.   Increased COVID-19 transmission

As the chart below indicates, evictions substantially contribute to increases in COVID-19 transmission and increased infection and mortality.

Furthermore, an analysis of observational data from state-based eviction moratoria in 43 states and the District of Columbia showed the incidence of COVID-19 and related mortality rates was 1.6 times greater in states that lifted their moratoria compared with the rates in states that maintained their moratoria. This percentage, at 10 weeks post-lifting the moratoria, grew to 2.1 times larger at 16 weeks post-lifting. The CDC report, published on February 3, 2021, also estimated that, nationally, over 433,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 10,000 deaths could be attributed to lifting state moratoria.

In early September, University of Pennsylvania researchers studied how evictions might affect the infection rate of a city of 1 million residents and found that even a low eviction rate of 0.25 percent per month was responsible for around 15,000 new coronavirus cases and 150 deaths.

The behavioral and physiological responses to eviction also heighten the spread of COVID-19. The mere threat of eviction can increase stress levels, anxiety, and depression—all of which can weaken the immune system. Because of the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, individuals facing eviction can quickly boost transmission across a large segment of the community. Eviction may also lead to lower access to COVID-19 testing and medical attention by driving families to poorer, under-resourced neighborhoods, and medically underserved geographic areas with fewer medical facilities and providers, in addition to decreased care affordability. Eviction is associated with decreased access to primary and specialty medical care.

In short, evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19 as they force people to move, often into close quarters in shared housing settings with friends or family, or congregate in settings such as homeless shelters. The ability of these settings to adhere to best practices, such as social distancing and other infection control measures, decreases as populations increase.

3.   Challenges to Children

Eviction is particularly traumatizing to children and affects emotional and physical well-being and development for years, if not for lifetimes. Eviction increases the likelihood of emotional trauma, food insecurity, and academic decline for children. Eviction is also strongly associated with adverse childhood experiences, which have long-term negative health impacts, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and pulmonary disease in adulthood and decreased life expectancy. Children whose mothers are evicted during pregnancy are more likely to have adverse birth outcomes, such as low birthweight or pre-term births. The evidence is clear: Child health and housing security are closely intertwined.

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CONCLUSION

As mentioned above, the good news is that The American Rescue Plan includes more than $20 billion for emergency rental assistance and other relief for the homeless. The administration must work to ensure that this emergency rental assistance quickly reaches the lowest-income and most marginalized renters who face the greatest risk of eviction.

The process of applying for the money varies state by state, and the rollout of the programs hasn’t been quick. While the first round of $25 billion in rental assistance was passed more than three months ago, just 15 states have begun giving the money out, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Tenants who need to access state and local rental assistance can find more information here.

Evictions risk lives, drive families deeper into poverty, and strain our already overstretched public health systems. When our collective health depends on an ability to stay in our homes, we all have a stake in ensuring that tens of millions of renters do not lose theirs.

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