The prospect of evicting renters during a public health crisis while unemployment soared was horrifying enough to spur governments to pass temporary protections in the pandemic’s early days. The March Cares Act included an eviction moratorium through July 24 on all properties with federally backed mortgages. Many states added their own emergency rules, some of which went beyond the federal protections. Several states, including Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois, have banned utility shut-offs for nonpayment, recognizing the importance of having a livable home while sheltering in place.
But not all of the more than 100 million American renters are protected. The federal protections only applied to about a quarter of rental units. And while some states passed robust, if temporary, protective measures, many others — especially across the South — adopted only weak measures, if any.
Even when protections are on the books, they often fail in practice to protect tenants who must fight eviction proceedings in court. Because evictions aren’t a criminal matter, tenants aren’t guaranteed a right to counsel in most states. While 90 percent of landlords in eviction lawsuits have counsel, only 10 percent of tenants do — a particularly worrying imbalance as tenants try to navigate the maze of their temporary rights, some of which they may not even be aware of. This is to say nothing of informal or illegal evictions, which are still occurring around the country, thanks in part to weak enforcement of moratoriums.
A summer surge of evictions could have devastating long-term consequences, especially for African Americans and Latino Americans, populations already disproportionately burdened by the pandemic’s health and economic effects. In addition to the psychological toll, evictions can trap families in a painful cycle in which the stigma of eviction records makes it difficult to find safe housing in the future.
The majority of poor renting families in America already spend over half of their income on housing. Even for those who avoid the fate of eviction, low-income families are in danger of accruing unpayable debt, which could ensnare families in a poverty trap long after the present crisis has passed.
We were already deep in a housing crisis before the pandemic, with the rate of eviction filings at an alarming four per minute. With expiration dates of early-pandemic stopgaps looming, states must extend and expand eviction protections. Unemployment benefits, which have helped tens of millions keep up with rent payments, should be extended in the next round of federal coronavirus legislation. Congress should also explore solutions for those small landlords who rely on rental income. Preventing a wave of evictions should be a high priority.