Opinions

‘Our government is gambling with human life’

Renters and experts brace for an ‘unprecedented’ eviction wave as federal relief bill stalls
Mostafa Rahim lost his job as a driver due to the pandemic. He has spent most of his savings and is going through eviction proceedings. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

Without federal intervention, housing experts and advocates warn of an unprecedented wave of evictions in the coming months, and one far more devastating than the round that came after the 2008 foreclosure crisis.

Last month, according to the Census Bureau, nearly 25 million people reported they had little to no confidence they would be able to pay rent in the next month, and almost 30 million people said they didn’t have enough to eat. Meanwhile, talks to pass a second relief package have stalled in Congress as a lifeline for 30 million Americans — $600 a week in extra federal unemployment benefits — expired.

“Our government is gambling with human life,” says Sami Bourma, a Virginia renter who lost both his jobs as an Uber driver and as a cook for the National Institutes of Health in March. “I’m going to be on the street with my kids.”

Bourma received an eviction letter from his landlord in July.

Sami Bourma, a Virginia renter who lost both his jobs in March, received an eviction notice in July. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post) (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

“In many ways, the [eviction] wave has already begun in places where eviction moratoriums have lifted,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Mostafa Rahim, a Virginia renter, was given an eviction notice after the state’s moratorium on evictions expired in June. Rahim lost his job and filed for unemployment benefits three months ago, but says he has yet to see a check. He says he has depleted almost all of his savings.

Like Bourma and Rahim, most renters across the country fell outside the federal moratorium on evictions, which lapsed on July 24. The ban covered about one-third of rental households in the United States who lived in federally subsidized properties.

Landlords must file a court complaint before a tenant can be legally evicted. Following the expiration of Wisconsin’s state moratorium in May, eviction filings in Milwaukee County rose by 26 percent in June compared to the same month last year. Statewide, filings skyrocketed by 42 percent in the first two weeks of June. In Tucson courts were processing almost twice as many eviction orders per day. In Michigan, the state’s Supreme Court estimated 75,000 eviction cases could be filed once the state moratorium lifted.

“I think any city that’s running anywhere near historical average is cause for concern,” says Peter Hepburn, a researcher at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “I think we should be alarmed almost everywhere at this point.”

In June, an analysis by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a coalition of researchers and legal experts, estimated 19 million to 23 million renters were at risk of eviction by Sept. 30.

“That number may actually be understated,” says Sam Gilman, co-founder of the group. “We’re starting to see signs that the economic recovery that we modeled into our initial numbers is not going to happen.”

Broader economic trends are not helping. On July 30, the U.S. economy notched its worst economic quarter in recorded history, and for the 19th consecutive week, at least 1 million people applied for unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, assistance through state and local programs has dried up. In Houston, a $15 million rental assistance program suspended services after 90 minutes because of overwhelming need. Thirty percent of the 200 state and local rental assistance programs tracked by the National Low Income Housing Coalition have already exhausted their resources, says Yentel.

“The scale of this problem is beyond the capability of local officials to really respond to it,” says Hepburn. “There has to be some sort of concerted state and, ideally, federal-level intervention.”

Mostafa Rahim holds court documents from his eviction hearing. Rahim owes $3,480 in back rent. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)
Sami Bourma is worried that if evicted, his daughter and the rest of his family will end up living on the street. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Mostafa Rahim holds court documents from his eviction hearing. Rahim owes $3,480 in back rent. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Sami Bourma is worried that if evicted, his daughter and the rest of his family will end up living on the street. (Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

In May, House Democrats passed the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion bill that among other provisions included $1 trillion for state and local governments, $175 billion in rental assistance, an extension of the $600 per week unemployment bonus and another round of stimulus checks. But the passage of a second federal relief bill reached an impasse as Senate Republicans failed to come to the negotiating table until the 11th hour, even as multiple studies showed the $600 a week in benefits did not decrease employment, as they argue.

At least 150,000 Americans have died, and at least 4 millionhave tested positive for covid-19. Many experts have argued that the economic recovery will not occur until the virus is controlled. But for countless Americans, the economic damage is already done.

After attending eviction court in Alexandria, Va., Bourma received a 60-day extension to pay his back rent. But without a job, extended unemployment benefits and a countdown to eviction, he is crippled by the fear that his family will become homeless.

“In 60 days, disaster is coming,” he says.

Watch and read more:

Video: Opinion | 'Eviction is a death penalty': Renters demand Va. governor stop evictions

Video: Opinion | This essential worker is sleeping in her car to avoid exposing her family to covid-19

Lavar Edmonds: Want to help kids weather this school year? Keep them from getting evicted.

Alieza Durana and Matthew Desmond: A massive wave of evictions is coming. Temporary bans won’t help.

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