In the Atlanta area, thousands of eviction filings have piled up in court, ready to be processed. In New York, renters are waiting months for rental assistance to arrive and running out of time. In North Dakota, a legal aid nonprofit has 10 attorneys to cover 70,000 square miles, and evictions are already far outpacing lawyers’ ability to help.
Similar scenes are playing out across the United States, but this waiting game for millions of Americans could soon end.
A new Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday night is unleashing a rapid and uneven torrent of evictions across the United States, leaving the fate of millions of Americans in the hands of local judges, sheriffs and political leaders.
In some communities the decision — coupled with agonizingly slow rental relief programs — has left thousands of people who are behind on their rent immediately exposed. Some local judges are restarting cases that had been held up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction ban the Supreme Court struck down.
In areas with hot housing markets and thin renter protections, tenant advocates braced for judges to finalize stacks of nearly completed evictions and order the local marshal or sheriff’s office to remove scores of people from their homes in short order.
“I don’t know if they’ll have time to process them today but certainly by next week. There are going to be thousands,” said Lindsey Siegel, director of housing advocacy at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, on Friday.
Siegel said of the five counties in and around Atlanta only one, DeKalb, still has any pandemic protections in place. She said landlords have been eager to see more evictions approved after filing thousands of notices during the pandemic.
“We have this combination of a tight rental market, eviction laws that are friendly to landlords and this culture of serial eviction filing where landlords are quick to go to court the moment the tenant is late on their rent. Even the day they’re late,” she said.
In other jurisdictions — including at least eight states where some protections remain in place — tenants still have time to catch up on their rent. The office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) reassured tenants in a tweet late Thursday that “California renters will NOT be impacted by this news” because the state has its own protections in place until Oct. 1.
But renters in places with eviction bans in place may still lose their homes if rental relief continues to be slow to arrive. Less than 11 percent of the $46.5 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program, first approved by Congress and then-President Donald Trump in December, had been given to renters by the end of July.
New York’s program has been one of the slowest states in the country to issue funds, according to Treasury Department data. Edward McCarthy, a home builder and handyman in a small town north of Saratoga Springs, said he was making enough before the pandemic to cover the rent for the single-family home he shares with his two adult daughters, a teenage daughter, and two grandchildren.
“I was doing really good. I wasn’t making a ton of money, but I was building a business for myself and I could literally do anything. I could build a house in my sleep,” he said.
Shortly before the pandemic, McCarthy, 56, said he required medical procedures for his heart. He and his adult daughters have only been able to pay rent 11 of the past 18 months as he goes in and out the hospital. He has applied for rental aid from New York but said he was told the program couldn’t get him funds until the fall.
Although New York has its own eviction ban in place, McCarthy now plans to move to a home much further from his work in November. If forced to leave before then, he says he’ll live in his car and send his daughters to live with family. He said it would have been different if he could have gotten rental relief months ago when he started falling behind.
“Now I think they’re going to put a few million people out on the street,” he said. “I think the government is wrong — how they handled the whole pandemic was wrong. People didn’t have a choice. People got shut down.”
Housing officials and legal advocates in New York, Atlanta and other areas say they are doing all they can to get aid to renters quickly. But experts said that in too many cases the state and federal aid programs have not moved fast enough to get money to renters before the Supreme Court’s decision, leaving many people in a perilous situation.
“We’re really facing a tragedy of monumental and historic proportions,” said Ronald S. Flagg, president of the Legal Services Corporation, a legal aid group.
“It’s quite akin to people starving with enormous caches of food sitting at food banks near them, but for whatever reason the food not getting distributed,” Flagg said. “It’s really a sad commentary on the country.”
Unfortunately for tenants, the ruling comes at a time when finding an apartment has never been harder as rents are hitting record levels in many parts of the country and landlords are enjoying near-record occupancy rates. In June, the average rent for an apartment in America’s 150 biggest metropolitan areas hit $1,513 — the highest ever recorded by the National Apartment Association. Advertised rents increased 6.3 percent compared to the same time last year, the largest increase since 2001, the group said.
The CDC ban was issued as a health measure to keep people who cannot afford their rent because of the pandemic, and who would face homelessness if evicted, from contributing to the spread of the virus. Many people who are evicted either move to shelters or squeeze in with family or friends — outcomes that could accelerate the infection rate.
Those concerns did not slow lawsuits brought against the ban by landlords, which led a number of federal judges to issue rulings against the CDC and culminated with Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh writing in June that further extensions of the ban would require “clear and specific congressional authorization” through new legislation.
After Kavanaugh’s statement, advocates for low-income tenants feared the writing was on the wall.
Biden administration officials, anticipating that the CDC ban would not last much longer have been scrambling to work with state and local governments to shore up protections and accelerate emergency rental assistance as much as possible.
The Treasury Department held a Thursday roundtable with state and local administrators of emergency assistance programs, encouraging them to work with their local court systems to deliver aid to tenants at imminent risk of eviction.
On Friday three top Biden officials, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge, wrote to governors, mayors, county executives and state court leaders urging them to prevent evictions by enacting local bans, requiring that landlords apply for emergency rental funds before evicting and using other pandemic aid dollars to provide legal services to tenants.
“The [Emergency Rental Assistance] program and the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds have provided state and local governments tens of billions of dollars to support renters and landlords; it is critical that renters be given the chance to receive that aid before being subject to eviction,” the officials wrote.
There remains disagreement among experts about how widespread the fallout from the court’s decision will be, particularly because there is no nationwide data on evictions.
Fewer renters are in trouble now compared with last winter, when covid-19 was ravaging the country and vaccines were not readily available. About 6.7 million renters were behind on rent in July, according to Moody’s Analytics, down from more than 8 million in February.
Some housing and legal aid experts said they were skeptical the court’s decision would have a dramatic effect because many evictions were already proceeding in some jurisdictions even with the ban in place, either because tenants weren’t aware of their rights or because judges were allowing landlords to put tenants out for non-pandemic reasons.
“A lot of times landlords would just find a way around the ban,” said Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather.
Richard R. LeMay, executive director of Legal Services of North Dakota, said in an email that he didn’t think the CDC ban had done much to protect renters in the state in the first place. He said he has 10 staff attorneys who have exhausted themselves representing tenants but that because judges enjoy discretion to interpret the CDC ban how they see best, efforts to protect tenants have sometimes gone for naught.
“The short of it is North Dakota hasn’t waited for the Supreme Court,” he said. “The North Dakota court system has been evicting tenants all along.”