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A 'tsunami of evictions' is coming, warn housing advocates

“You can’t expect people to not work and still pay their bills,” said one parent facing eviction. “If the state is making it so people can’t work, they should help them.”
A protester holds a sign against evictions in Brooklyn, New York, on July 5, 2020.
A protester holds a sign against evictions in Brooklyn, New York, on July 5, 2020.Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images

Vickie Gonzales’ next paycheck from her reduced work hours at McDonald’s will just be enough to cover gas and temporary storage for whatever items in her home she can’t fit into her SUV.

“People don’t realize these landlords are like, ‘We want our money or you have to leave,’” said Gonzales, who owes roughly $5,000 in back rent and fees on her Pueblo, Colorado, apartment, according to documents reviewed by NBC News. “These landlords, they don’t care.”

Along with roughly 28 million people across the country, Gonzales and her family are facing homelessness as states lift temporary eviction moratoriums put in place to protect people who fell behind on rent because of the coronavirus.

At the same time, 30 million unemployed workers will lose their $600 a week in pandemic unemployment assistance, a benefit that is set to expire at the end of the month if Congress does not agree to extend it. Across the country, landlords are filing eviction orders with courts, leading some jurisdictions to hold eviction proceedings over Zoom or at large convention centers as social distancing measures are still in place.

The country is on the cusp of a “tsunami of evictions” that could exacerbate already high homeless rates in states such as Colorado, according to John Parvensky, president of the nonprofit organization Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“We see more and more people turning to us for help,” he told NBC News. “We will likely see more people unable to pay rent and end up being evicted and turning to the streets.”

The homeless population in the Denver metro area alone is expected to increase by about 30 percent from roughly 6,000 people who were reported homeless in January, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless point-in-time survey. Homelessness could increase nationally by between 40 to 45 percent this year compared to January 2019, according to a Columbia University study.

“Before the coronavirus even came to our country, we were in a housing crisis and had a shortage of 7 million homes available to low-income renters,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The longer the crisis, the deeper in the hole they fall.”

Jackie Shahan lost her job as a cafeteria worker at a high school in New Orleans in March, putting her behind on rent for the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her two children with disabilities. Shahan said she set up a payment agreement with the property management company to pay back any missed rent. But on July 6, she said she came home from the doctor’s office to an eviction notice and court date taped to her front door.

“There is nowhere to go,” she said. “I don’t know what is going to happen.”

Shahan lost her eviction trial and is now mandated to pay $3,199 in back rent and leave her home by July 25. She’s now scrambling to gather attorney letters and documentation to find a home suitable for her children.

“You can’t expect people to not work and still pay their bills,” she said. “If the state is making it so people can’t work, they should help them.”

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which represented Shahan in her case, said it has seen its eviction intake triple between 2019 and 2020. Currently, evictions make up about 66 percent of its intake, compared to 47 percent last year, the organization told NBC News in an email.

“All we can do is try to work out a repayment plan with a landlord if there are no other defenses,” said Amanda Golob, a managing attorney with the housing law unit at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “It’s not easy, so a lot of our folks do end up homeless.”

As renters facing eviction are scrambling, legislators in Washington, D.C., are stalling on passing legislation and doling out funding that could provide some relief. A Democratic proposal to set up a $100 billion rental assistance program is stuck in the Republican-controlled Senate, while a separate piece of legislation that would extend eviction moratoriums to March 21 faces a steep battle from the landlord lobby.

About 40 percent of renters live in a home backed by a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage, which makes those landlords eligible to take additional time to pay back their mortgages, the Federal Housing Finance Agency announced in late June. But it is difficult to enforce, as eviction proceedings are done on a local or county level and tenants often don’t know who backs their property manager’s mortgage, according to Yentel with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has advocated for a uniform national moratorium on evictions.

“Eviction moratoriums on their own aren’t enough,” she said. “We don’t want to create a financial cliff for renters who owe and then can’t pay.”

Gonzales is deciding on whether she should stay in her home and fight the eviction in court or start packing. She has little recourse because there is nothing to prevent her landlord from evicting her family.

“We’re losing our home,” she said. “But I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave my house.”