When the pandemic began and businesses were abruptly shuttered en masse, cutting millions of workers off from their incomes, many predicted a huge wave of evictions. Instead, the federal government, along with state and local governments, implemented unprecedented bans on eviction, eventually followed by billions in rental assistance, to keep people housed. The bans worked, and eviction filings fell across the country, forestalling at least 1.36 million cases from being filed that otherwise would have in a typical year.
Now, however, the protections are gone and the dam has burst. “Numbers are up everywhere,” said Peter Hepburn, associate director at the Eviction Lab and an associate sociology professor at Rutgers University, Newark. In the 10 states and 34 cities that the Eviction Lab tracks, eviction filings increased by nearly 80 percent last year compared to the year before.
The wave is here, and Hipolita Bernandez is struggling not to be pulled under by it. Her husband, who, like her, is undocumented, was detained two months ago by immigration authorities. That’s left her without his income as a groundskeeper for private homes. Her own income has also taken a hit: She makes food and sells lunch plates to workers, but she made many of those connections were through her husband.
As a result, she hasn’t been able to pay her $890 monthly rent for the two-bedroom apartment in Houston where she lives with her three children for the last two months. Her landlord hasn’t responded just by sending her eviction papers; her electricity is included in her rent, and the landlord cut it off. One day, the landlord sent workers to put a lock on her door, although she threatened to call the cops if they did and they left. To put together enough money to pay what she owes and hold onto her home, she’s been searching for work as a cleaner and going to churches to get food from their pantries.
Bernardez has tried to apply for rental assistance, but the pandemic-era funding is drying up, and she has been thwarted by similar problems faced by renters across the country. Houston’s application was hard for her to complete from her phone, and then the portal closed just two days after it opened in March due to excessive demand. She’s called the city trying to find other resources, but either no one responds or when they do, they only speak English. She’s trying to get the apartment complex manager to let her move to a one-bedroom apartment, which costs $725 a month—which she thinks she might be able to afford—but she has to come up with $250 for a deposit first, money she doesn’t have.
Bernardez has two weeks to either come up with the deposit or pay what she owes; after that, the landlord has said it will move forward with an eviction. “No lo tengo,” she said; she doesn’t have the money. If nothing changes and she’s evicted, she doesn’t have anywhere to go. She thinks she and her children will simply have to live on the street.
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In some places, evictions are now actually higher than they were before the crisis. Filings were above the historical average by the end of last year in 14 of the cities tracked by the Eviction Lab. In Houston, where Bernardez lives, landlords filed about 40 percent more evictions than would have been typical before Covid. States like Connecticut and Minnesota are also well above trend, as are cities including Columbus, Ohio; Las Vegas, Nev.; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Milwaukee, Wis.; and Jacksonville, Fla.
What’s driving these numbers? First is the fact that all the protections against eviction put in place during the pandemic are “basically a thing of the past,” Hepburn said. In late 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned evictions for those who had suffered hardship in the pandemic. The eviction moratorium was far from perfect, but it did help millions of tenants stay housed. It was struck down by the Supreme Court in August 2021. State and local governments enacted their own bans, but by the end of 2021 only three states had retained them. At this point they’re nearly all gone; Los Angeles, one of the few holdouts, let its rules end in March.
Then the federal government allocated $46 billion for emergency rental assistance as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act and American Rescue Plan in 2021, which started to roll out to tenants just as the bans were being lifted. “While the protections aren’t there anymore, there [was] a lot of money that [was] available,” Hepburn said. “That play[ed] a big role in keeping eviction filings down.” But that money has nearly all been distributed at this point, and no more is coming.
The lack of help is now colliding with a red-hot rental market. Rent, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, rose nearly 9 percent in 2022, driven by the preexisting housing crisis—there is a shortage of 7.3 million affordable and available rental homes—and climbing inflation. In a number of American cities, that has pushed eviction filings way above what was considered “normal” before the pandemic. Some of the filings may be cases that were on hold while the moratoria were in place, but not everywhere, especially in a place like Houston or Jacksonville, where the pandemic protections were virtually nonexistent anyway. The number of cases is overloading attorneys, who worry that this will be the new normal.
Jason Brown has never paid his rent later than two days. He moved into his two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Jacksonville, Fla., two years ago after a divorce, and, despite problems with mold and a leaky dishwasher, he likes it. It’s on the first floor, which helps with lingering injuries from when he was hit by a truck, doesn’t have carpeting that could bother his respiratory condition, and has a nice patio. He’s not far from his job in a hospital kitchen or his school where he’s studying to be a respiratory therapist. The rent is also affordable for him: $864 a month. “Everything was actually great,” he said. “I could go to work and go to school believing that my plan of action for my future was in motion and there would be no hiccups. Lo and behold, a huge hiccup followed.”
Last March, he came home to find eviction papers on his door. “It was an absolute shock,” he said. He was so surprised that he asked the apartment management if it was a mistake, but it was no mistake: His landlord was claiming he hadn’t paid his rent for two months and had no written lease. Brown responded by showing the court receipts for his rent payments, and a judge dismissed the case. But the landlord filed eviction paperwork against him two more times. Eventually, Brown and the landlord reached a settlement, agreeing that the landlord would pay him damages and give him two months’ rent free. But it also stipulates that he must move out by the end of April.
He always planned to leave Jacksonville, but not for years, and not until he had completed school and started working as a respiratory therapist. He’s planning to move to Orlando, and all of the rents he’s seeing are above $1,000. He can’t afford to pay much more than $1,200. When he has found apartments he can afford with the things he needs—first floor, no carpeting—they’re unavailable for months. “It’s difficult,” he said. “The idea of possibly finding myself homeless is terrifying.” He thinks it’s likely he’ll have to put his belongings in storage and possibly sleep in his car until he can find something that works. He’s had to put his education on hold in the process. “I may have won the case, but I’m still suffering greatly,” he said.
In 2019, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid had 683 clients seeking assistance with their eviction cases. Unlike in many other cities, the numbers kept rising during the pandemic, to 1,202 in 2020 and1,534 in 2021. That trend has yet to abate: there were 1,779 clients seeking assistance in 2022. Jim Kowalski, the organization’s president, attributes the latest increase to two phenomena colliding: The end of federal rental assistance and “a dramatic increase in rents.” Rental assistance “was critical,” he said, especially in a state with all the laws stacked against tenants. After a landlord files an eviction, a tenant has five days to either deposit all of the rent the landlord says it’s owed or file a motion to determine the rent if they disagree with the amount. With the promise of rental assistance, Kowalski and other lawyers were able to persuade landlords to slow the process down.
But when those coffers ran dry and rents started to increase “it was a perfect one-two punch,” he said. Even now, he’s encountered landlords who refuse to accept rental assistance because they know they can raise the rent if they get the tenants out of their units. And so the number of evictions in the city “just goes up,,” he said. “It’s both a heavier load and there’s less we can do to help.”
In Las Vegas, there are so many eviction cases that the courtrooms are overrun. Before the pandemic, said Elizabeth Carmona, senior attorney at Nevada Legal Services, there was one hearing master overseeing eviction cases out of a single courtroom in the afternoons, and she never had to wait long for her cases to come up. Now, “there are so many hearing masters I’ve honestly lost count of them,” she said, brought on to handle the volume of cases. They hear cases on multiple floors of the courthouse at all times of the day. “You never know what you’re going to get,” she said.
Things are similarly over-stretched in North Las Vegas. While there are still only three hearing masters there, the courtroom was so crowded when Carmona went last month that every seat had been taken and she had to sit in the jury box. Others simply had to stand.
One cause of the sharp increase in evictions is that Nevada changed its rules for rental assistance. Tenants are supposed to be protected from eviction while their applications are pending, and before the changes many of them were able to qualify by simply attesting that they had been financially harmed by the pandemic. But now tenants have to find ways to prove that they lost pay or income due to Covid. “They have made it harder for people to get that assistance,” Carmona said. She sees clients rejected from assistance every day. “It’s really common, unfortunately, for people to be denied.”
Las Vegas residents have long struggled to afford rising rents in a hot housing market that predated the pandemic. That trend has only continued. “Tenants can’t afford the increase in rent and really don’t have any rights if the landlord wants to increase rent once the lease expires,” she said.
There’s a similarly heavy load of eviction cases in the Houston area, and Dana Karni, litigation director of Lone Star Legal Aid, has also experienced landlords’ rejecting rental assistance money because they know they can jack up rents or even simply collect more security deposits from other tenants, deposits tenants forfeit if they get evicted. There is no “right to cure” in Texas, which means that even if a tenant comes up with all the rent they owe before the trial date, the landlord doesn’t have to accept it, and it doesn’t stop a case from going forward.
Evictions keep rising thanks to a “severe shortage of affordable housing,” Karni said, and rents that are outpacing wage gains. One source found that rents were 9.6 percent higher in Houston in January than the year before. “It’s bad and it’s ugly and it’s not going away anytime soon,” she said. “It’s likely to get worse.”
It could be worsened, in fact, by the Texas legislature. Lawmakers are considering some bills, such as a statewide opportunity to cure, that would give tenants more rights. But they are also considering reversing some eviction protections that Texas cities adopted during the pandemic and banning them from passing any in the future.
The predicted eviction tsunami that seemed for so long not to materialize has, essentially, now arrived, although Karni objects to likening it to a natural disaster—something the people of Houston have plenty of experience with. “This is not a natural disaster. This is a manmade disaster,” she said. “This is greed.”
Worse, it may not be a passing storm. “Whether this establishes a new normal that is worse than the status quo that we had before the pandemic is an unfortunate possibility,” Hepburn said. Some places have taken lessons from the pandemic and made permanent changes. Before the pandemic, five cities had passed the right to legal counsel in eviction proceedings; since then, three states—Connecticut, Maryland, and Washington—and a handful of other cities have passed it. Philadelphia has created an eviction diversion program, while some advocates, such as in New York, are fighting for just-cause eviction rights.
But Hepburn worries that such programs will be mostly enacted in blue states that already had more tenant-friendly laws, while no additional help will be offered to tenants in other places that desperately need it. “What I worry about is that divide is only going to grow wider [between] the places where tenants are protected and places where they aren’t,” Hepburn said. It’s possible that, long into the future, eviction cases will remain depressed in some places that put protections in place and will keep skyrocketing in others.
Even a return to the trends that existed before the shock of the pandemic would be a failure. “The status quo was terrible before the pandemic,” Hepburn said. Landlords filed 3.6 million eviction cases in a typical pre-pandemic year. “That’s not where we should be aiming to end up,” he said.