The moratorium provides no funding for rental relief, meaning unpaid rent and late fees will continue piling up for those who had been expected to slip into eviction proceedings in the coming months. In Virginia, Maryland and the District, advocates say an estimated 1.15 million to 1.64 million people are at risk of losing their homes.
“Eviction has always been seen as a problem for low-income people, but I think there’s an extent to which this is now impacting people who are middle class,” said Palmer Heenan, an attorney with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Increasingly I’m seeing folks like nurses, firefighters, police officers and accountants."
Housing advocates and landlord associations say rental relief is the real key to stabilizing the market. That would require a major outlay of public funds, just as city and state governments are seeing revenue severely squeezed by the pandemic.
“Really in terms of our local resources, we have put in what we can,” said Polly Donaldson, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development in the District, which allocated $14 million in local funds for rental assistance for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. “Any additional rental assistance is going to have to come from the federal government.”
In March, after the coronavirus pandemic dropped the economy into low gear and threw millions into unemployment, proposals began floating through state capitols and city halls about how to cushion the financial blow for the estimated 110 million American households in rental properties.
Some called for an eviction moratorium, freezing all efforts to shove people from their housing as the pandemic raged. Some called for rent-relief programs. In March, the federal Cares Act enacted a four-month moratorium on evictions from rental properties that receive federal subsides or other government financial backing.
The pandemic hit a national housing market that was already unforgiving for low-income renters. In the past decade, 4 million affordable-housing units have dropped out of the market; the National Low Income Housing Coalition says 20.8 million renter households were cost-burdened in 2018 — meaning that tenants were spending more than 30 percent of their total income on rent.
In recent months, more renters are borrowing money or using credit cards for their housing, and more are failing to pay at all, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
“They are pulling out all the stops to stay where they are, including selling plasma or borrowing money from loan sharks,” Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, said before the new eviction moratorium was announced. “There are going to be millions of evictions this fall without more government action.”
The federal moratorium — issued through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — differs from some local moratoriums, including in that it requires renters to apply for the protection. The policy is for Americans who make under $99,000 or couples earning below $198,000 annually. Applicants have to prove they attempted to pay rent and also sought existing federal housing aid. The moratorium does not waive late fees or other penalties.
With rent relief currently left to local authorities, what those government actions entail in the Washington area varies across the region’s three jurisdictions.
In August, the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project released a report in conjunction with the National Low Income Housing Coalition. By analyzing pre-covid eviction trends and the projected job losses tied to the pandemic, the report sketched the possible size of the problem in all 50 states and D.C. According to the findings, as many as 57,000 D.C. households are under threat of eviction by the end of the year.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council have halted evictions and late fees during and 60 days after the mayor’s public health emergency for the coronavirus. The city has also moved forward with a number of proposals to relieve the economic pressure, setting aside aside $30 million for local rent relief and eviction prevention for this fiscal year and next. Combined with federal funding, the city has $40 million to combat the crisis.
“We have stepped up for a rent assistance program using our current federal dollars to do tenant-based rent assistance, and that is working with tenants in smaller affordable house buildings, where we are assisting with up to six months of rent assistance not only to stabilize the tenants but the building,” said Donaldson, the DHCH head. “We are also providing rent assistance under the Cares Act funding via HUD, and that is providing up to six months of rent assistance and rent arrears coverage.”
Additional programs provide grants and funding to local housing nonprofits and eviction diversion programs. But Donaldson emphasized that more federal help is needed.
“The rent is still due after this moratorium ends," she said.
In Maryland, where the August report predicts as many as 274,000 households are teetering toward eviction, an initial freeze on evictions and foreclosures was tied to the state of emergency declared in March by Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
The state also devoted $30 million of Cares Act money for housing assistance, with $20 million going to cities and counties for programs and $10 million to help state-financed rental units. But without a large-scale state effort, the setup creates a balkanized approach, with jurisdictions running their own programs with different requirements, application windows and paperwork requirements, according to C. Matthew Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center.
“There are very limited programs available, and they’re almost all at the local level,” Hill said. “I’m seeing the need every day. But as a state, we don’t seem to be understanding the problem.”
On Monday, Maryland Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) and 77 other state lawmakers sent Hogan a letter urging him to expand the relief funding.
Michael Ricci, Hogan’s director of communications, said that the moratorium will remain in place for the “foreseeable future” and that the governor is exploring other relief options.
“We previously applied to use additional Cares Act funding for eviction prevention, but the federal administration denied the request, so we are looking at other ways to further enhance housing relief,” Ricci added.
With the largest population in the region, Virginia also has the largest number of households at risk of eviction: 384,000, according to the August report.
An initial eviction moratorium issued by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) expired in June. At the governor’s request, the Virginia Supreme Court then issued its own halt on evictions. That action froze courts from issuing new writs of eviction for nonpayment until Sept. 7. It did not stop those cases from moving forward — meaning evictions are piling up.
“On September 8, an absolute deluge of lawsuits are going to be filed,” said the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society’s Heenan. “It’s going to be a double or triple whammy.”
The state has moved $50 million of federal Cares Act money to fund the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program in response to the pandemic. But activist groups charge that the funding has not been available long enough for distressed renters to know about the program or access it.
“We’ve discovered that the money is not getting to people,” said Tom Berlin, a member of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. “Tenants need to know about that program, and tenants and landlords need to be able to reach the staff to implement that money.”
On Monday the governor’s office announced a new $4 million plan to provide more legal services for Virginians facing eviction. The Virginia Apartment Management Association said that funding should go to rent relief “thereby making the lawyers unnecessary to begin with."
“There’s no question economic impact is larger than $50 million. We think that number should be up to $200 million,” said VOICE’S Berlin, a pastor at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Va. “This is all about time. The clock is ticking in people’s lives, so the lack of urgency from the state government seems out of place.”