(CN) — After a last-minute Congressional scramble on Friday failed to extend the federal eviction moratorium, the measure is set to expire Saturday, ending protections that have helped millions of Americans keep a roof over their head during an unprecedented medical emergency.
“It’s like the worst thing that can happen to a family,” said Zach Neumann, an attorney in Colorado, describing the toll of evictions on his clients.
After losing housing, families generally move into a vehicle or short-term living arrangement, like a hotel or shelter. The renters’ credit is often ruined, making it “impossible to rent on a normal lease cycle” thereafter, since landlords don’t want to lease to someone with an eviction record.
The debt of unpaid rent follows renters post-eviction. “So you’ve got debt collectors calling you, who are saying ‘Hey, you owe $5,000, $10,000 — and if you don’t pay us, we’re going to sue you.’”
Civil court judgment can then lead to even more collection calls, “and the whole time, you’re trying to juggle the balls of sending your kids to school, making it to work yourself.”
“It’s really hard to show up to work on time when you don’t have a home,” Neumann said.
As the executive director of the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, Neumann offers legal aid to people facing evictions, as well as landlord and tenant financial assistance and policy advocacy. He estimates he’s served around 2,000 people in Colorado.
More than 6 million American households were behind on rent at the end of March, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That translates to roughly 3.6 million people facing eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
Some estimates are even higher, though, extending into the tens of millions. There is no central registry tracking evictions, making it difficult to pinpoint trends and exactly how many Americans are dealing with the fallout of getting evicted from their homes.
Financial help is available through the federal government’s Emergency Rental Assistance program. But the process of disseminating that money has been slow, and — mirroring the pandemic response at large — greatly varied state-by-state.
“The number one thing that solves a nonpayment eviction is money. And the biggest problem in the U.S. right now is that the money takes too long to get out the door to clients,” Neumann said.
Changing federal guidelines to make it easier to process aid, then, would help to alleviate some of that lag, as would hiring more staff to ramp up the process “adding capacity to the system,” as Neumann put it.
As the much-needed funds slowly roll out, the temporary ban on nonpayment evictions — put in place last year in response to families’ increased financial strain during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the increased risk of virus spread associated with evictions and homelessness — had been staving off the potential for families facing the worst.
With its hands tied by a recent Supreme Court decision, and even as the delta variant causes a worrisome rise in coronavirus cases, that protection will slip away in a matter of hours.
Courts and the eviction moratorium
When it extended the eviction ban a month ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said it would be the last time for the extension. It would later become bound to that decision by a split ruling from the highest court.
In the 5-4 vote over a challenge by the Alabama Association of Realtors, the Supreme Court allowed the eviction ban to continue through the end of July.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion that, with the moratorium ending on July 31, “those few weeks will allow for additional and more orderly distribution” of rental assistance funds. But he said he would strike down any additional extensions unless there was “clear and specific congressional authorization.”
“The problem with the Supreme Court decision from Kavanaugh is that, basically, extending the CDC order again isn’t really an option,” explained Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project.
“Kavanaugh has basically said that if they do that again, he’s going to decide that it’s unconstitutional. It’s kind of a bizarre thing for a judge to do.”
Citing that opinion, the Biden administration on Thursday — two days before the ban was set to expire — asked Congress to approve another extension of the ban “without delay.”
But a push on Friday by a group of Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote on the Protecting Renters from Evictions Act of 2021 went nowhere.
Democrats spent the day working out whether the measure had support, and when they reconvened around around 6 p.m., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer offered a unanimous consent request to pass the bill. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, objected, killing the request.
As of Saturday afternoon, Congresswoman Cori Bush was still at the Capitol, where she said she spent the night, along with Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. The three pushed for their colleagues to return and extend the moratorium.
“Many of my Democratic colleagues chose to go on vacation early today rather than staying to vote to keep people in their homes. I’ll be sleeping outside the Capitol tonight,” Bush tweeted. “We’ve still got work to do.”
On Saturday, it remained unclear whether other members of Congress would take up the charge.
That leaves the charge of extending or reinstating the eviction ban up to individual states.
“State and local governments have broader authority to enact eviction moratoriums,” said Sarah Saadian, an attorney and vice president for public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. While federal governments have to look for a “jurisdictional hook,” it’s assumed that states have a built-in authority.
Indeed, challenges to state bans have been largely unsuccessful in court. Taking New York as an example, landlord lawsuits against the state have been dismissed in federal and appellate court.
In the Eastern District of New York, one judge cited a smallpox-related Supreme Court ruling to demonstrate that public health needs eclipse individuals’ challenges to legislative acts.
“Courts are equipped with microscopes, while other branches of government have binoculars,” wrote U.S. District Judge Gary Brown, saying the court should not weigh in on the legislative eviction ban.
States should also work to spend down emergency rental relief, Saadian said.
“Some states and localities are doing a great job of distributing aid,” Saadian said, “but many more need to be doing a lot more to get that money out the door.”
Covid-19 evictions part of bigger housing trends
The post-eviction struggles that Neumann described — families living out of cars or in shelters, dealing with debt collection while trying to work or attend school — take their toll, perhaps for generations.
“People often talk about eviction as being the result of poverty, but in a lot of ways, it’s the cause of poverty,” Neumann said, “because what solves an eviction is even worse than what comes before it.”
What’s to come for families facing non-payment eviction after the temporary ban expires may not be an immediate windfall, with millions of people losing their homes next week. It’s more likely to be an ongoing struggle in the coming weeks and months.
“It’s almost an unfathomable event,” Neumann said. “It’s hard to imagine.”
That’s not to say the situation is entirely unexpected.
The U.S. already had a housing security problem before March of 2020. For most Americans, wages have remained relatively stagnant for decades, while housing costs have soared, even during the pandemic.
For Cheryl Hunter of Revere, Massachusetts, that has meant getting priced out of her area.
Hunter, 60, has lived in the same building for 10 years. But issues with flooding, bedbugs and other safety hazards have pushed her to want to move, along with her 68-year old boyfriend, a disabled veteran, and her 32-year-old daughter.
However, Hunter has been unable to find a new place, despite repeated searches on websites like apartments.com, Zillow and Craigslist.
“We went on a couple of them, and we put in our price range. They said ‘nothing available,’” Hunter said.
Hunter’s daughter lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic, and without additional rental help or income, the family remains stuck.
“If anybody had pity and just wanted to give us a place to live,” Hunter said, “we’d move the next day.”
Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Saadian pointed out, 10 million renter households were spending at least half of their income on rent — “which meant that any sort of a financial crisis, like a broken down car or a couple days missed of work, would mean that they were at risk of falling behind on their rent and facing eviction.”
“For millions of households,” she said, “the pandemic was that financial shock.”