Combating Racism – Combating Homelessness

On June 29th the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the eviction moratorium could be extended only to July 31st to give the Treasury Department and the states time to disburse cash to landlords to cover back rent owed by tenants during the pandemic. The Court ruled that future extension of the moratorium would require Congressional action. On Thursday, President Biden called on Congress to extend the freeze one more month to avoid a health and eviction crisis in light of the spread of the Delta variant. That did not happen. The moratorium has ended.

Congress’ December 2020 COVID-19 relief package included $15 billion in urgently needed emergency rental assistance for tenants with low incomes and it established the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA) under the Treasury Department. The American Rescue Plan Act (ERA2), enacted in March 2021, provided an additional $21.55 billion for ERA for a total of $46.55 billion in emergency rental assistance to help renters stay stably housed.

As of July 31st, Congress has sent to the states nearly $47 billion in rental assistance to help tenants pay off months of back rent. Treasury Department data indicates that only $3 billion has been distributed to renters by states and localities.

THE PROBLEM

It’s up to state and local governments to distribute the money, and many have been plagued with shoddy programs and backlogs that may take weeks or months to resolve. The flow of cash to landlords and renters provided under the two pandemic relief packages has moved at a snail’s pace. In recent weeks, the White House has hosted public webinars to help local and state government officials start building eviction prevention strategies, in anticipation of the end of the eviction moratorium. The National Apartment Association estimates that 10 million delinquent tenants owed $57 billion in back rent by the end of 2020 and $17 billion more has gone unpaid since then.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nearly half of the states have used less than 4% of the federal relief money as of the end of June.

NBC News contacted all 50 states and the District of Columbia about their emergency rental assistance programs and found that, of the 41 states that responded, 26 of them had distributed less than 10% of their first allocations, although several programs had just begun distributing money in June.

  • As of the end of June, New York has not paid out any funds, according to NBC News. The state has received more than 160,000 applications for its program and expects to send funds for nearly 5,000 request by early August. A spokesman said that, “tenants who have submitted a completed application remain protected from eviction even as they wait for payments.”
  • Florida and South Carolina have given out less than 1% of the ERA and ERA2 money. By mid-July, South Carolina’s emergency rental assistance program had processed only 226 applications.
  • Some states, like Nevada, had only approved a few million dollars by the end of June.
  • As of July 13, the Mississippi Home Corporation, which oversees paying out the funds, had distributed $10 million — or just about 6 percent of the state’s funds. Mississippi started sending money to landlords in May. Although the state has ramped up distributions from less than $133,700 in the first month of its program, to $10 million by mid-July, it has a backlog of nearly 1,000 applications. Mississippi has the second highest percentage of tenants behind on rent and the highest percent who think they are likely to be evicted.
  • According to Georgia Senator Jon Osoff, “The state of Georgia has received a very significant amount of rental assistance funding through the American Rescue Plan and expended almost none of it.” The Senator is working to unlock some of those federal resources.
  • Virginia and Texas have distributed the highest proportions of their funds. Virginia has spent half of its allocation, while Texas has paid out 45 percent.

The reasons aid hasn’t reached the landlords and tenants include everything from the stumbles that come with setting up any new program, to software challenges, to staff shortages, to hesitancy among states to sign off on payments without extensive documentation of need.

According to the Census Pulse Survey Data, approximately 6 million people, or 16% of all renters, are at risk of getting evicted in the coming months. Around one in four Black renters reported being behind on their payments. To see the breakdown of the numbers, click here.

SPREAD OF COVID

States that did not ban evictions in the spring and summer of 2020 likely led to hundreds of thousands of additional COVID-19 cases and thousands of deaths from the coronavirus, according to a new UCLA study.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, looked at 43 states that had eviction moratoriums from March to September 2020, and compared COVID-19 cases in those that lifted moratoriums—allowing renters to be evicted—with those that kept protections in place.

The UCLA researchers found that about four months after evictions were allowed to resume, states saw on average twice as many COVID-19 cases and five times more deaths from the virus. Ending eviction protections, the study estimated, led to some 433,000 excess COVID-19 cases and about 10,000 additional deaths by September 2020.

Evictions disproportionately affect people of color, especially women of color. Black and Latinx people are three times as likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 as White people, and twice as likely to die. The increase in cases and deaths associated with eviction exacerbates existing racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes.

The ramifications of the anticipated homelessness will resonate for generations. "Eviction is not a single event in a person's life that you just recover from momentarily. It is associated with numerous health outcomes that can haunt a person throughout their entire life, taking years off," said Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University and chair of the American Bar Association's COVID-19 Task Force Committee on Eviction. "At the same time, the eviction itself is a legal record that is searchable and can be used to screen tenants out of safe and decent housing in the future."

SOME PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE

On May 7, 2021, the Department of the Treasury and the White House issued new guidance with major improvements to ensure these critical resources reach the lowest-income and most marginalized people as quickly as possible. Program administrators in the states and localities were expected to apply this guidance to their full ERA program.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition website, several actions are being taken:

  1. Self-Attestation forms can be used in lieu of the previous burdensome documentation requirements. These forms allow applicants to self-attest to experiencing COVID hardship, having income less than 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI), experiencing housing instability or having a tenant/landlord relationship in lieu of a lease. This allows programs to verify eligibility based on readily available information. These forms can be accessed here.
  2. Programs using Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA) funds are now required to offer assistance directly to renters if landlords choose not to participate or are unresponsive. The new guidance allows ERA2 programs to offer direct-to-tenant assistance first and immediately, without previously required outreach to landlords beforehand.
  3. The time to determine whether a landlord elects to participate has been reduced from 14 days to 7 days when reaching out to landlords by mail and from 10 days to 5 days when reaching out by phone, text, or email.
  4. Programs must now report how they will achieve the required prioritization of assistance to renters most in need.
  5. The eviction of renters for nonpayment is now prohibited while ERA payments are being made on their behalf.
  6. ERA funds can be used for moving expenses, security deposits, future rent, utilities, and the cost of a transitional hotel or motel stays.

In April, The National Low Income Housing Coalition, in conjunction with The Center for Law and Social Policy, created a framework of strategies, policies and procedures to more effectively serve priority populations. These populations include households whose incomes are at or below 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI), households with an active eviction status, single-parent households, and households in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Programs can use the Urban Institute’s Emergency Rental Assistance Priority Index and the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index to map neighborhoods where low-income renters face greater risks of housing instability and homelessness.

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According to an article in today's New York Times, "Many states and localities, including New York and California, have extended their own moratoriums, which should blunt some of the effect.  In some places, judges, cognizant of the potential for a mass wave of displacement, said they would slow-walk cases and make more use of eviction diversion programs." And while some federal government agencies are extending their moratoriums to September 30th, the potential for a rush of eviction filings this coming week is predictable and will add to the more than 450,000 eviction cases already in courts in the largest cities and states.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

The United States is on the verge of a homelessness problem which could potentially exacerbate the spread of the Delta variant. It is hard to imagine what 6 million homeless people would look like. When I visit downtown Washington, D.C., I already see areas of homeless people living in tents. This situation requires immediate action.

  1. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a searchable database to find Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance programs across the country. Share this link with those who are in danger of eviction.
  2. If you are a lawyer, or know a lawyer, offer to represent those in your community on the verge of eviction, pro bono.
  3. Work with tenants to help them understand the regulations and the steps they must take to avoid eviction.
  4. Tell stories of the homeless in your community on your Facebook page or other social media. The NLIHC provides a social media toolkit that you can access here
  5. Publish op-eds and letters to the editor in your local newspaper. The NLIHC provides a media toolkit that you can access here.
  6. Donate to Residential Relief, an organization that has helped hundreds of responsible residents remain in their apartments.
  7. Write, call or email your Congressman/woman and/or Senator. Urge them to pass legislation to extend the moratorium until the states and localities can distribute the funds that Congress has already allocated for rent relief for tenants and landlords.
  8. Contact the local agencies in your area that are responsible for distributing rental relief funds. Volunteer to assist with the process of distributing funds.
  9. Volunteer and/or donate to your local homeless shelter(s) which will undoubtedly soon be overrun with people and requests.
  10. Review my newsletter of March 7, 2021 entitled “Combating Evictions” for additional statistics on eviction inequalities and the consequences of eviction.

My heart breaks to imagine the distress of millions of Americans who will soon be evicted or leave their homes prior to being forced out. (This latter action protects them from having an eviction on their record.) Many of these people are unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic, due to no fault of their own. It’s easy to close our eyes to this crisis. After all, how often have we seen someone living on the street and felt uncomfortable as we walked past the person(s) without lending a hand? 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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