Alongside the devastating effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on communities, the possibility of facing evictions has been one that has lingered heavily over the past few months.
Due to business shutdowns and productivity standstills, the nation’s economic downturn has caused massive unemployment surges, comparable to the Great Depression. As a result, many families are left unable to pay their rent, forcing landlords to threaten eviction as their debt accumulates.
According to the New York Times, more than 800,000 people nationwide were threatened with eviction each month before the outbreak. However, over the last couple of months, that number has skyrocketed to a projected 40 million by the end of the year.
Princeton University’s Eviction Lab has documented 46,000 cases filed by landlords during the pandemic across 17 cities. As of September 5, over 3,000 had been filed the past week. At this rate, the eviction crisis seems inevitable. In a letter sent to New York Courts Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, housing attorneys are calling for New Yorkers to be protected from evictions.
“Ironically, in the current climate, with unemployment at record levels and with many unable to pay rent for COVID-related reasons, neither housing court judges nor our lawyers will be able to resolve many of these disputes, resulting in evictions, displacement, homelessness, senseless exposure to infection, and more difficulty in containing Covid-19,” they stated in the letter.
In New York City, an estimated 1.3 million New Yorkers have been out of work, setting the record high of unemployment at 20%. Several protests have ignited in response to this budding crisis to call for universal rent relief and cancellation.
“We’re not going to allow a person to be thrown on the street because they can’t afford to pay rent,” Iván Contreras, an organizer with Woodside on the Move, told QNS. “Even if we have to chain ourselves to the apartment of someone who’s at risk, we won’t let them kick them out of their home. Kicking you out of your home now would be the same as sending you to a hospital in the time that we’re living.”
Since July, more than 20 million renters live in households that have suffered job losses due to the pandemic. This has slowly worsened as insurance benefits across the country expire, and federal legislation minorly relieves the financial pressures that threaten their livelihood.
However, unemployment is affecting communities of color at a more significant rate than white populations. According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of Hispanic Americans and 44% of Black Americans reported wage losses in their households due to the outbreak compared to white Americans.
U.S. Hispanics’ unemployment rate rose sharply as well, especially among women — statistics rose from a 5.5% unemployment rate to 20.5% in April. Among the population as a whole, this number increased from 4.8% in February to 14.5% in June. Unfortunately, the reality is that this population was concerned about their financial stability despite record low levels of unemployment even before the pandemic struck.
What’s being done?
In an attempt to mitigate the potential spread of the virus, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention put forward an order to adjourn the possibility of eviction for millions of renters who have suffered financially. The Trump administration signed the order into effect to avoid having tenants in shelters or other crowded living conditions.
Although the order provides for criminal penalties for violations, it doesn’t help tenants with the obligation to pay rent, meaning their debts could continue to rack up and, ultimately, postpone the possibility of eviction. Moreover, ambiguous language in the order still leaves the possibility of forced leaves for some renters, according to housing advocates.
The president of The National Multifamily Housing Council denounced the moratorium stating that “not only does an eviction moratorium not address renters’ real financial needs, [but] a protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” said Douglas M. Bibby.
In New York City, commercial eviction and foreclosure moratoriums were set to expire by August, but Governor Cuomo signed an executive order to extend these until September 20th.
“While we have made great progress in keeping New York’s infection rate low, this pandemic is not over, and as we continue to fight the virus, we are continuing to protect New York businesses and residential tenants who face financial hardship due to COVID,” Governor Cuomo said. “I am extending the State’s moratorium on commercial evictions to ensure business owners across New York will not be forced to close as a result of the pandemic.”
However, the decision on whether or not renters are safe to stay in their homes in the variety of possible scenarios not explicitly delineated by the CDC’s guidelines will ultimately be decided by courts. The national moratorium doesn’t prevent eviction filings, though some landlords could face criminal penalties in some cases.
The CEO and president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition pointed out that the nationwide eviction ban isn’t a permanent solution but rather a tool to postpone the inevitable. “It does not actually prevent evictions — it delays them. It buys some time for the actual solution, which is emergency rental assistance.”
Those most affected
Although eviction moratoriums and stimulus programs have been put in place to relieve families’ financial pressures, the Center for an Urban Future reported that immigrant New Yorkers are confronting unprecedented economic pain from the pandemic but are the ones being helped the least by the government.
Even though most immigrants do not qualify for government assistance, those that do are struggling to access the benefits. Gonzalo Mercado, a board member of La Colmena, told the center that about 99.9% of the community they tend to is not eligible for federal stimulus even though they have children born in the United States.
With unemployment rates at an all-time high since the Great Depression and the eventual expiration of federal benefits, millions of renters are at risk of losing their homes by the end of the year, especially those that comprise communities of color.