By Jenny Manrique/Ethnic Media Services
THE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the federal moratorium on evictions until October 3, while President Joe Biden’s administration provided $47 billion in assistance for renters and small landlords.
Yet, barriers to low-income and communities of color accessing those federal dollars continue, as rent delays and mental health impacts for those facing eviction increase.
“Eviction is to Black women what mass incarceration is to Black men,” said Dr. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, Principal Investigator of the Social Epidemiology to Eliminate Disparities (SEED) Lab at Ohio State University, during a press briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services.
“The cost of housing is increasing while the income in black and brown communities, which are the most impacted by both this eviction crisis and the pandemic, is decreasing, stagnant or eliminated,” she added.
The CDC issued this moratorium to curb the spread of the coronavirus and the aid is available to those “who are experiencing elevated and substantial levels of community transmission of COVID-19.”
According to the Urban Institute, this applies to 99% of renter households, but still 300,000 households may not be covered.
Those who want to apply for rent relief must show that they are unable to pay their rent due to loss of income or that they are at risk of being evicted.
However, Sealy-Jefferson noted that “there is very strong evidence” that some of these evictions are due to racism and not to non-payment of rent. For example, African American mothers and victims of domestic and interpersonal violence are at the highest risk of eviction compared to other racial and ethnic groups, because under nuisance laws, landlords can be fined if the police are called repeatedly to a residential unit.
Evicted families not only lose their possessions such as furniture, clothing, important documents, and things that cannot be replaced as sacred items, but they are at increased risk of acute and chronic illnesses as a result of the trauma of losing their home.
“Eviction has been associated with multiple things like financial hardship, insecurity, powerlessness, depression and even suicide,” Sealy-Jefferson added. “Children of color whose families are evicted often have to miss school…This traumatic experience they face may impact their future disease and mortality risks.”
A history of eviction makes families ineligible for affordable housing action, and in recent years there have been drastic cuts to federal housing assistance. Today only one in four low-income residents who qualify for affordable housing receives such assistance. People should spend up to 30% of their income on rent, but one in four of these families typically spend over 70% of their income on just rent and utilities.
“Even before the pandemic, evictions were not going through the court which is 100% illegal,” said Sealy-Jefferson. “We know that illegal evictions are less costly and more efficient for landlords. It is estimated that they represent almost half of all evictions.”
This number is uncertain because the only way to have real data on evictions is through court filings.
“Even this data is difficult to obtain in many states,” said Juan Pablo Garnham, Audience and Community Engagement Editor at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which has published an eviction tracking system, with data from 31 cities and six states, whose courts do provide this information.
In a typical year, homeowners file 3.7 million evictions in court – the equivalent of 7 evictions per minute – a trend fueled by the 2016 housing crisis long before COVID. During the pandemic, 480,456 eviction cases have been filed by landlords in court.
“When we talk about irregular or illegal evictions, or what some people call self-eviction … it’s an invisible problem in the data,” Garnham said.
“Getting access to people telling us their stories and making their problems visible is a huge challenge. A lot of people are scared of landlords or (due to being undocumented) of immigration authorities,” he added.
In another study in June of nine cities, the Lab found that where there were higher eviction filing rates there were also lower COVID vaccination rates. “This reflects the racial disparities in both eviction enforcement and vaccination access… Black and women renters are overrepresented in eviction filings, both prior and during the pandemic.”
On the other hand, the distribution of the $47 billion in aid approved for renters has been uneven in the country. States like Texas and Virginia have distributed more than 50% of those funds, while others do not even reach 10%.
“Many of these governments have to create programs from scratch and deal with several problems like lack of information and outreach, crushing websites, paperwork, and technological language barriers,” Garnham explained. “Landlords do not necessarily cooperate or have problems fulfilling the requirements. Sometimes funds can take weeks to get to the landlord. That is why it is important to apply now.”
The Lab has created a series of resources for tenants in both English and Spanish, highlighting three messages: tenants have the right to fight an eviction order in court, there are millions of dollars available in rental assistance in the country, and there is also the possibility of finding a pro bono lawyer to assist them, something that can substantially change the outcome of a case.
“What we worry about is that if tenants don’t know about the rental assistance, they probably don’t know about these protections in court,” said Francisco Dueñas, Executive Director of Housing Now! California, a statewide housing justice advocacy coalition. “Many tenants will just move out, they will forfeit their homes because they don’t want an eviction on their record,” he added.
Dueñas said that there are cases of tenants in California who have applied for assistance since March and have not yet received any funds. In the state, funds are allocated using general population numbers, not the numbers of low-income renters, which has caused some jurisdictions such as Los Angeles to be distributing just $500 million, way below what is needed to solve the eviction crisis.
“In California, as well as across the country, there is a reallocation opportunity. The federal government can send more money to the states that need more and take it from the states that don’t need it, ” said Dueñas. Advocates are pushing for a second chance for tenants who may not have heard about the program.
“There are very strong corporate interests and lobbies, at the state and federal level, that fight us, because there are corporations that make money off of the status quo of the current system,” added Dueñas. “In California those are the California Apartment Owners Association and the California Association of Realtors, those organizations do a lot of lobbying.”
Housing Now! created a plan called “The Roadmap Home” which outlined the three P’s of housing justice: protection for low-income tenants and homeowners; preservation so that homes are not demolished; and production of more affordable housing.