Just before she called me one day in late July, Dawn Miller’s phone lit up with calls from one particular number: the management office for her apartment building in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she’s lived since 2009. She hasn’t paid rent in five months. She can’t. Before the pandemic, she worked at a food kiosk at Brooklyn College selling coffee and sandwiches. But then the campus shut down, throwing her out of work. She had to borrow money just to afford food. She didn’t start receiving unemployment benefits until June, and even then the money had to go to paying back what she had borrowed to travel to her home country of Jamaica when her sister recently died. Rent had to wait.
Up until June 20, she was protected from eviction by a statewide prohibition on all evictions issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo. But once that blanket protection expired, Cuomo narrowed who was protected to those who were unable to pay rent because they suffered direct financial hardship due to the pandemic. That means landlords can still take their tenants to court and the burden falls to renters to prove to a judge that they qualify. The city’s courts have also paused eviction proceedings through at least August 5, but without an extension, thousands of renters like Miller may be caught up in the gears of the system when it reactivates.
There were also protections that the federal government put in place. When Congress passed the CARES Act, it included a moratorium on evictions in any federally subsidized housing. Any landlord with a federally subsidized loan through, say, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or who accepts Section 8 rent vouchers, couldn’t legally evict tenants. But those expired on July 27 as Congress failed to pass an extension.
“I’m not certain what’s going to happen,” Miller said. Even if her college campus reopens, she’s not sure they’ll want to have people buying food from kiosks. “I don’t know if I’m going to have a job in the future,” she said.
She’s certain her landlord will try to evict her as soon as he can, so she’s been trying desperately to enroll in the state’s rent relief program, which was launched in mid-July. But the online system kept shutting down before she could complete her application.
Miller lives with her youngest daughter and two grandchildren, and she’s the sole provider; her daughter is in nursing school full-time. “I’m worried about becoming homeless with my family,” she said. “Trust me, I am truly stressed.”
Miller is one of millions across the country facing that stress. When the pandemic first hit and officials ordered businesses to shut down, many also instituted protections to ensure that people weren’t thrown out of their homes just when they were being told to stay inside them to stem the spread of the disease. Many were temporary measures under the assumption that by now the virus would be under control, and yet US case counts keep going up. Even after some states have allowed businesses to reopen, unemployment is horrifyingly high: More than 30 million people are either receiving unemployment benefits or have applied for them. One in five renters was behind on rent at the beginning of July, while about a third of American households missed their housing payment that month.
The disappearance of eviction moratoriums will almost certainly lead to a housing crisis the likes of which the country hasn’t seen in a generation. Estimates vary: One puts the number of households at risk of eviction at 17 million, while another predicts that between 19 million and 23 million people could face eviction by the end of September. Another found that as many as 28 million people could face eviction or foreclosure.
No matter which number proves to be accurate, the potential hardship is vast. In all of 2016, landlords filed 2.35 million evictions. “The courts can’t handle it, the states can’t catch the people who go through the system and end up unhoused,” said Emily Benfer, a visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University. “It’s a really catastrophic situation.”
The country is poised to witness an even worse housing crisis than the one during the 2008 recession. “The United States has never seen this level of housing instability or threat of eviction, especially in such a truncated amount of time,” Benfer said. During that downturn, nearly 10 million people lost their homes to foreclosure in the span of eight years. It seems certain that, without policy-makers’ acting, far more will be displaced by the current crisis. An economist at Columbia University predicts that homelessness could increase by 40–45 percent this year. “We’ll see increases in homelessness the likes of which we haven’t seen in our country since the Great Depression,” predicted Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“This will be a humanitarian disaster of our making if there isn’t intervention,” Benfer.
The eviction moratoriums cities and states put in place at the start of the pandemic varied considerably. Some protected everyone from eviction; others targeted only those who could prove that the pandemic had caused them financial hardship. Some blocked landlords from filing evictions in the first place; others allowed the whole process to move forward but merely barred sheriffs from carrying them out, which could still leave a black mark on a renter’s record. “The only thing they have in common is that they expire,” Benfer said.
Still, overall, Benfer said, “the moratoriums worked.” Where they are in place, eviction filings are still low. “There is no doubt that the federal, state, and local eviction moratoriums prevented evictions,” Yentel agreed. “That we can say with certainty.” But where they’ve lifted, evictions have quickly jumped.
New Orleans offers a glimpse of what’s in store for other places as protections expire. The state’s eviction moratorium was lifted on June 15. Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a community land trust and housing rights organization, estimated that about half of all tenants in the city were still protected by the CARES Act moratorium. To enforce that, Breonne DeDecker, the group’s program director, and her fellow organizers posted flyers in buildings they knew were supported by federal money. But landlords don’t want the information to be shared; they kept taking the flyers down. “It’s not uncommon for organizers to go into common areas and put up fliers,” DeDecker said, “only to watch the property manger come by five minutes later and rip everything down and throw it away.”
Now that federal protection has lapsed, “we really expect the deluge to start,” DeDecker said. Landlords had already moved to evict more than 230 city residents by the end of June, before the federal protection expired. Legal aid attorneys say they’re fielding triple the number of eviction cases as compared to last year. DeDecker’s group used to meet once a month; now they’re meeting twice a week, trying to produce strategies to stem the tide. They’ve sent hundreds of letters to local and state judges asking them to halt eviction court, as well as contacting the governor asking him to reimpose the eviction moratorium. On July 30, a group of activists blocked access to the courthouse to protest the resumption of eviction cases.
The disappearance of these protections is colliding with the expiration of the extra unemployment benefits Congress passed in response to the pandemic, money that many say has allowed people to keep paying rent. “That’s really been the only break wall stemming the tide here,” Benfer said. Those in dire straits seem to have turned to assistance for food—requests for food pantries doubled in March—in order to use their limited resources to pay rent. They’re “putting a priority on staying housed,” Benfer said. “Which makes sense. The primary response to Covid-19 is to shelter in place, so housing is literally preventative health care.”
As the pandemic rages, with cases increasing in 15 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C, and the prospect of businesses’ returning to any semblance of normal months, if not over a year, away, Congress still doesn’t have a deal to extend benefits. Democrats want to keep them at the same level, while Republicans have proposed cutting the extra benefits from $600 a week to $200, which would cut Americans’ benefits by a cumulative $10 billion a week.
The current outbreak has many governors reimposing lockdowns on different businesses, including in California, Louisiana, and Texas. Even in states that have allowed businesses to reopen and, in the best-case scenario, many of these renters were able to return to work, they have still likely accrued months of back rent that they owe. “Getting a job is not enough to help pay that off,” Benfer noted. And without the pandemic under control, allowing businesses to reopen doesn’t mean they can keep their doors open safely or that customers will feel safe enough to return. Many will still remain out of a job.
In New York, 279,400 low-income renter families will be at risk of not being able to pay rent and facing eviction when unemployment benefits expire. Another 111,500 families have experienced job loss without receiving unemployment benefits and are at immediate risk of eviction. Even though proceedings to evict people have been on hold, landlords have still been able to file the paperwork on new cases by mail. “We don’t have any idea really how many,” said Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society. Last year during the same period, she said, there were about 50,000 cases filed, so she thinks that’s a baseline—likely a vast undercount—of how many people will face eviction once the system is up and running.
“There is the possibility that tens of thousands of cases, maybe more than 100,000 cases, could be brought,” she said. “Landlords are chomping at the bit to bring these cases.”
Housing advocates are baffled by the rush to evict. “I don’t see how [landlords] are going to get blood from a stone,” Goldiner said. Even if they’re able to push nonpaying tenants out, there are not likely many who can take their place and make rent when so many are still out of work. Initially, Goldiner advised clients to try to negotiate with their landlords, given the circumstances. “Over and over people told me, ‘No one responds,’ or they say, ‘No, we won’t do anything for you,’” she said. “It’s crazy to me they wouldn’t be trying to work something out.”
The pain of eviction won’t be felt evenly. Black and Latinx New Yorkers were already more likely to face eviction before the pandemic, a trend that the crisis has only exacerbated. Half of Black renters and nearly a quarter of Latinx renters in New York State fell behind on their rent between late April and early June, compared to just 6 percent of white ones. It’s the same case nationwide: 30 percent of Black renters and about a quarter of Latinx renters are behind on their rent, compared to 13 percent of whites.
Those who are covered by the federal eviction protections in the CARES Act should, in theory, have been protected until they expired toward the end of July, and will have 30 days to pay rent after landlords file a notice. But it’s been very difficult to enforce. “The burden is on the renter to know whether or not they have any protection,” Yentel said. And they’ll struggle to figure it out. “Tenants certainly don’t know,” Goldiner said, whether their landlord has a mortgage backed by the government. There are also no penalties for landlords who flout the rules and move to evict tenants anyway. ProPublica found landlords moving to evict in April despite being barred by the federal moratorium in four states.
“The main thing tenants are experiencing in this exact moment is a lot of confusion,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All in New York. “People are really scared. They’re scared because of the uncertainty and scared because of the lack of protections.”
In mid-July, New York Governor Cuomo announced the creation of an emergency rental assistance program for low-income state residents who lost their income during the pandemic. But the $100 million he allocated only covers a small portion of the estimated $2 billion rent shortfall in the state, and applications were only open for two weeks. He “either doesn’t understand this is a crisis, or he doesn’t seem to care,” Goldiner said. “It’s just boggling to me that there’s been so little coming from him.”
“We’re still in Covid,” Miller argued, frustrated at how little assistance she has been able to get to stave off her eviction. “So come on, do something for the people. What has he done? Nothing.”
Many other states and cities have also created rent relief programs and have seen their resources vastly outpaced by need. Thirty percent had already been shut down after running out of funding by late July, according to Yentel. “In some places they were having to shut down within hours or days,” Yentel said. Louisiana’s program ran out in three days. Houston’s program was depleted in 90 minutes
“Congress must act,” Benfer said. “The states have done everything that they can. They’ve depleted the funds that they have.” States are facing down enormous budget shortfalls due to a drop in tax revenue and a greater outlay in assistance.
Extending moratoriums is not a solution but a bridge, advocates stress. Many want to buy time until Congress passes substantial rental assistance. Democrats included $100 billion in emergency rental assistance in the HEROES Act, which passed the House, along with a 12-month eviction moratorium for all renters who can’t pay rent. The Senate hasn’t taken it up, even though Democratic senators have introduced stand-alone bills to extend a moratorium and offer significant rental assistance. Republicans are instead offering their own package that doesn’t include an eviction moratorium and has far less assistance for renters.
Other advocates just want to see rent canceled. “Every time [organizers] have to fight for an extension of a moratorium, it’s like a yo-yo,” said Pam Phan, national field organizer with the Right to the City Alliance. Renters bounce between the security of knowing they won’t face immediate eviction to having that security stripped away. In Florida, for example, the governor keeps extending it month by month, forcing advocates to fight for it over and over again, all the while bracing for evictions as they near the expiration. In June the governor extended it four hours before it would have elapsed.
“It’s becoming clear the visionary solution is actually the most logical one,” Phan said. That visionary solution is, for her, Congress passing a bill introduced by Representative Ilhan Omar and cosponsored by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Pramila Jayapal, and Ayanna Pressley in April that would cancel all rent and home mortgage payments throughout the duration of the pandemic while offering a relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders to cover losses. Right to the City’s network of local advocates is trying to put pressure on state and local lawmakers to demand Congress actually pass it. Even as each state tackles the problem in different ways, “it’s a larger systemic problem, because it’s happening to all of us at once,” she said. “The message to Congress is they need to act.”
But all advocates are united in one thing: Something must be done, or unimaginable suffering will follow. “The one positive is that this is entirely preventable. We can stop this,” Benfer said. “It doesn’t have to end with all of these catastrophic outcomes.”