'Eviction crisis': Housing advocates fear waves of homelessness as moratoriums expire

"It’s really unfathomable that we would put low-income, already marginalized groups through even greater uncertainty," one legal aid provider said.

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By Dartunorro Clark

The crippling economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic could force a wave of evictions across the United States as a federal ban and a patchwork of state moratoriums quickly expire, fair housing advocates and legal experts warned.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that Congress passed in March provided a temporary moratorium on evictions, but it was for a fraction of the nation’s tenants and some homeowners — applying to those in federally subsidized housing or in housing with federally-backed mortgages. That is set to expire within the next month.

This has left courts and local governments in many places to create a patchwork of policies and ever-changing guidance around evictions, creating greater uncertainty and confusion amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic, 42 states and the District of Columbia had statewide moratoriums on evictions in place, covering millions of renters, but presently, a little more than a dozen states have some kind of eviction protections in place, Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University, said.

"So now, less than half the country is covered by an eviction moratorium that isn't federal in nature," she said. "And as the unemployment insurance expires at the end of July, along with the majority of the remaining eviction moratoriums, we can expect to see a severe eviction crisis in the United States."

She added, "And if they lift before federal financial support is in place, the United States will plummet into a major eviction crisis that will have negative consequences for all of society — because when the rent isn't paid, mortgages and property taxes go unpaid, so states, cities, school districts, landlords, banks, the housing market, entire communities suffer as a result."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are at loggerheads over legislation to ease what experts fear is a widespread housing crisis in the middle of historic unemployment and a rising U.S. death toll from COVID-19.

The Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion relief bill in May, called the HEROES Act, but hit a roadblock in the Republican-controlled Senate. Another bill sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., which recently passed the House, is expected to meet a similar fate. That bill specifically targets housing by extending the eviction moratorium put in place by the CARES Act through March 2021, placing $100 billion into the coffers of COVID-19 rental assistance programs and creating a $75 billion relief fund for homeowners.

President Donald Trump has also signaled he wants to see a "generous" second round of relief payments to Americans, but nothing has materialized.

"There is growing distress," said Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, which represents around 81,000 property owners, developers and other professionals in the apartment industry. "If we get past July, those stimulus dollars will be gone and what we're hearing is we're not going to get any real movement from Congress until they get to the eleventh hour, so it's still crystal ball time."

Pinnegar recently told NBC News that the group's members were not broadly affected by the rent strike that was staged across the country in May, but his members are worried about the future. More protections are needed, he said, particularly for smaller landlords.

Paula Cino, a vice president at the National Multifamily Housing Council, which also represents the apartment industry, said that despite various moratoriums expiring, there are still protections and financial assistance available through the CARES Act. However, she added, her organization recognizes the need for a permanent fix from lawmakers.

"We supported a temporary eviction moratorium to overcome the immediate uncertainty — they were only appropriate as a short-term option," she said. "Now that we found ourselves in a longer-term position, we need to look for longer-term solutions."

George Gardner III, an attorney at Legal Services NYC, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to low-income New Yorkers, called it a "preventable crisis" that needs more clarity from lawmakers and judges.

Gardner said that in his experience in New York City housing courts, he has seen judges attempt to hastily work through eviction backlogs, language barriers and confusion around pandemic-related housing protections in the law.

Regarding public health concerns in courtrooms, which are often hearing cases from members of the Black and Latinx community he said: "People are trying to save their homes in the middle of a pandemic and people will go to the courts in panic."

"It’s really a harrowing situation as a practitioner," he added. "It’s really unfathomable that we would put low- income, already marginalized groups through even greater uncertainty."

With dwindling federal support, some states and cities have taken the lead on creating rental assistance programs and other measures to provide relief to struggling renters and landlords.

In Los Angeles, the city council in June approved a $100 million rental assistance program, which is expected to give 50,000 households up to $2,000 for two months of rent paid directly to landlords.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, won a legal challenge against a group of landlords fighting his eviction moratorium, which was extended until late August. The New York Legislature also codified the order in a bill called the Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which provides greater eviction protections to tenants facing COVID-19 financial hardships.

In Louisiana, however, tenants are facing the possibility of homelessness.

Cashauna Hill, the executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, said the state could be an eviction hot spot.

Roughly 31 percent of renters and homeowners in Louisiana either missed last month’s rent or mortgage payments or fear they will not be able to pay it the next month versus 25 percent nationwide, according to a survey by the Census Bureau.

"Even in 'good economic times, we have failed as a state to provide any sort of protection," she said. "And so we, unfortunately, haven't stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide any sort of protection for renters. And so what we're seeing is that renters are really staring down a cliff."

Hill said local judges have been working with residents since the eviction moratorium expired in June. However, she stressed the need for federal financial intervention and protections, particularly for the state's many low-income and minority residents.

"We know that many people, in staying home as a result of the pandemic, lost jobs and lost income, which of course severely impacted their ability to pay rent," she said. "And so what we really are left with at this time — since Congress hasn't stepped up since our governor hasn't yet provided a plan for any sort of rental assistance — is grappling with the fact that we're going to be forcing people into homelessness for just doing what they needed to do to keep themselves and all of us safe."