Eviction – In September of 2020, Emily found a notice on her front door. She was being evicted. Emily – “In April, I lost my job due to Covid. So I’m waiting on unemployment, I can’t pay. I’m a mother of a five-month-old. And then the eviction date came. It was just a really, really scary time.” Since the pandemic took millions of US jobs in March and April, most workers who make more than $20 an hour have been able to keep working, or have returned to work. But low wage workers, the people most likely to be renters instead of homeowners, are also the least likely to have gotten their jobs back. Which means that many have started to lose their homes.
America is in an eviction crisis.
In the middle of a pandemic, America is in an eviction crisis. But also in the middle of an election. So what can the US do about it? Even before Covid, the US had much a much higher eviction rate than similar countries. 1 in 40 renters in the US have been evicted at some point, compared to 1 in 89 in the UK, 1 in 227 in Denmark, and 1 in 25,000 in France.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that we were already in the midst of a housing crisis before Covid-19 hit the United States. Alieza Durana collects data on evictions for a Princeton University research project called the Eviction Lab. When we think about the difficulty in finding an affordable place to live, one factor is that wages have stagnated for the last several decades.
Since 2001, rents across the US have soared. But the average household income has barely increased at all. This gap represents millions of Americans struggling to pay rent. And that was before they lost their jobs. When the pandemic hit the UK, France, Denmark, and many similar countries, their national governments kept workers afloat while businesses were closed by directly paying everyone a portion of their salary.
In the US, Congress approved temporary extra unemployment money back in March. In some states, Republican lawmakers made that money really hard to get. But for those who got it, that money made it possible for people who’d been laid off to keep paying their rent. Then, in July, the payments stopped. Without that extra cash, lots of unemployed people couldn’t pay their rent and landlords across the country started filing evictions.
Democrats tried to help
Over the next few months, Democrats in Congress kept trying to pass extra relief. And Republicans kept saying no. In September, amid damaging headlines and sinking poll numbers, President Trump asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a “temporary halt in residential evictions.” But it wasn’t quite that simple. For the order to protect you from being evicted, you had to fill out a form, certifying under penalty of perjury that you’d tried to get government assistance and make partial payments, among other things. And you’d have to find out about that form on your own: Landlords, and housing courts, weren’t required to tell tenants about it.
Emily filed out the form, and brought it to her eviction hearing. “They didn’t even ask for the declaration. They looked at my landlord and said, What would you like to do? And they of course said, We would like to move forward with the eviction.” In an interview on Snapchat in May, former vice president Joe Biden said this: “There should be rent forgiveness, and there should be mortgage forgiveness now, in the middle of this crisis.”
Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Bill
Since then, some Democrats in Congress have put forward a “Rent and Mortgage Cancellation” bill that would accomplish what Biden described. It would relieve tenants of the burden of any rental debt accumulated during the pandemic. Instead, their landlords could apply for reimbursement from the federal government. As a longer-term fix to the affordable housing crisis, Biden has also proposed expanding vouchers that help people pay rent.
Right now, about 5 million households receive the vouchers. Under Biden’s plan, about 16 million would. Evictions don’t affect all groups of Americans equally. Black and Latinx Americans are more likely than White Americans to rent. And more likely to be paid poverty wages for their work. The CDC moratorium on evictions is set to expire on December 31. After that, if nothing changes, millions of renters could be right back where they started. In our current historic moment, we should really question why this is happening. And reevaluate the idea of housing as a human right, and how we can put that into practice.