Between harsh covid coughs, Sabrina Williams tells the story of a poor family whipped in the pandemic’s vortex.

The coronavirus took her mother, infected Williams and left her unable to pay the rent. Now she fears the constable will put her and her family out of their New Orleans home when a federal eviction moratorium expires Dec. 31.

After her mother succumbed to the coronavirus earlier this year, the funeral and burial expenses left Williams behind, since September, on the apartment’s $1,440 monthly rent. Then the virus grabbed Williams, 42, who already had a heart condition, leaving her unable to continue working at Walmart and Waffle House.

Covid-19 sickened her daughter, too. Williams, her daughter and her daughter’s two children generally live together in an Algiers neighborhood apartment. To protect the kids, they have been separated from the infected adults. It’s tough. The stress led Williams to the hospital with a minor heart attack.

The only thing keeping the family from the streets is the moratorium the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) implemented in September. If it’s not extended, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” Williams said by phone. “I just hope that day don’t ever come.”

So do 30 million to 40 million renters across the country, who collectively owe billions in back rent that has piled up since the pandemic began, according to Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Noting a surge in evictions after a limited covid-relief moratorium expired in August, Yentel said that if the current halt is allowed to expire, “we’ll be facing the possibility of tens of millions of people losing their homes in the middle of winter during the worst spike in covid-19 yet. And the consequences of that would be catastrophic.”

It’s a catastrophe that would hit Black renters particularly hard.

Not only are Black people more likely than White people to suffer and die from the coronavirus, but nearly one-third of African American tenants, such as Williams, are behind on their rent, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s more than twice the White rate.

The CDC did not respond to questions about extending the eviction ban. While pushing for an extension, housing activists such as Yentel also are pursuing other remedies. They are urging Congress to include a moratorium in covid relief legislation. They also are seeking emergency rental assistance, so tenants won’t face immediate eviction when the moratorium ends. State and local officials are being urged to implement moratoria regardless of what the federal government does.

“It’s very unclear,” Yentel added, “whether any of these entities will act in time to prevent this tremendous wave of evictions just on the horizon.”

The CDC implemented the moratorium after President Trump suggested it in an August executive order on fighting the pandemic’s spread. Under Trump’s leadership, America’s coronavirus death toll approaches 300,000, far more than any other nation, and the U.S. death rate per 100,000 people is greater than in many poorer countries.

Whatever the benefits for tenants, eviction moratoria are tough on landlords, including small-time property owners with few units.

“Eviction moratoria saddle the apartment industry solely with the responsibility of offering a service without compensation, all while operating at a potential deficit,” National Apartment Association president and chief executive Bob Pinnegar said in a statement.

Instead, the association favors direct rental assistance to tenants, calling it “the only policy that keeps people housed and directly addresses the needs of owners and operators alike.” No direct assistance, along with the eviction moratorium, the association said, “devastates the industry in the short-term and furthers the housing affordability crisis, to the detriment of the broader economy in the long-term.”

Tenant advocates like the direct rental assistance idea, but they also want the moratorium strengthened if it is extended. Housing advocates have urged President-elect Joe Biden, who hasn’t announced a position on the eviction halt, to issue an Inauguration Day executive order that would improve the current CDC directive.

In a set of recommendations sent to Biden, the housing coalition said it wants the moratorium to apply automatically, rather than making tenants responsible for understanding federal policy.

Now, renters first must know about it, then file a declaration stating they cannot pay the rent and would likely be homeless if evicted. The CDC allows landlords to seek court-ordered evictions, even if the actual evictions are postponed. Such court action “serves no purpose other than to mislead, pressure, scare, or intimidate renters into leaving sooner,” the recommendations said.

With eviction orders in place, renters could face quick eviction when the moratorium ends.

Hannah Adams, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said her organization has hundreds of clients, including Williams, who are “going to be subject to an immediate removal by the constable” when the moratorium expires.

“We’re terrified,” she added. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s just going to be like a massive wave of evictions. I don’t know where people are going to go.”

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