As 2020 ends, millions of Americans will face a new challenge: the risk of eviction in January if the current CDC eviction moratorium is allowed to expire on December 31. By one estimate, as many as 6,471,000 households could be at risk of losing their homes as the pandemic continues to grow.
It’s likely that President-elect Biden will work to put more protections in place when he takes office. But that leaves three weeks for landlords to kick tenants out. “There’s potentially a 20-day gap in protection for renters across the country that could be catastrophic,” says Emily Benfer, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law and chair of the American Bar Association’s COVID-19 Committee on Eviction.
The moratorium, which went into effect in September, lets tenants file a declaration if they make less than $99,000, can’t pay rent because they’ve lost work, have made efforts to make partial rent payments if possible, and would likely end up homeless or living in close quarters with others if they’re evicted. When tenants sign, it’s supposed to protect them in court in an eviction case.
It hasn’t worked perfectly. One problem is that many tenants still don’t know that it exists. “It doesn’t help if the tenant doesn’t know and can’t raise it,” says Caitlin Cedfeldt, an attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska. “And we see that happen a lot.” In some areas, even when tenants have filed the declaration, they’re still getting evicted. “One of the issues with the moratorium is that your protections under it varied depending on what zip code you lived in, and what courthouse you appeared in. Housing courts in some jurisdictions honored the moratorium, and the moment a tenant triggered their rights by presenting a declaration, the judge dismissed the case or froze the case, at that spot,” says Benfer. “And in others, the courts didn’t even acknowledge the CDC authority over them. And so this meant that only some tenants were able to really leverage the rights.”
Biden can learn from what didn’t work to design a better solution, Benfer says. One piece of the solution should be more direct financial support, since the moratorium doesn’t provide any rental assistance. Low-income workers, less likely to have savings, have also been disproportionately hit economically. “The renter population was among the hardest hit from the economic recession and job and wage loss,” she says. “The moratorium itself, while critical, is delaying the rent due. So renters across the country have been accruing, in some cases, months of back rent, and it will be impossible for them to repay that debt to the property owner. And we can’t expect the property owners to shoulder the heavy weight of the economic recession by requiring that they cover the lost rent.”
But though the moratorium is imperfect, the situation will be worse without it. The declaration that the CDC requires tenants sign spells out clearly how disastrous for cash-strapped renters the January deadline will be: “I further understand that at the end of this temporary halt on evictions on December 31, 2020, my housing provider may require payment in full for all payments not made prior to and during the temporary halt and failure to pay may make me subject to eviction pursuant to state and local laws.”
If the lame-duck Trump administration won’t fix the gap, states and cities will need to step in. “In the absence of a federal moratorium, it is critical that state and local governments respond swiftly by issuing comprehensive moratoriums locally to cover that gap,” Benfer says. “There’s widespread evidence that eviction and housing displacement increase the transmission of COVID-19 and results in excess infection and death. And so any state that is fulfilling its duty to protect the public health will do everything it can to prevent eviction in that interim period and beyond.”
One study (which has not yet been peer reviewed) found that evictions lead to a significant increase in infections, as people are forced to live in crowded quarters with friends or relatives or if they become homeless. Across the majority of states, right now, protections are insufficient. A scorecard from the Eviction Lab, a project tracking each state’s housing response to the pandemic, gives most of those states dismal ratings for the effectiveness of their renter protections. “We created this scorecard as a way to provide a resource to advocates and policymakers and renters about what was happening across the country in terms of housing policy and moratoriums during the pandemic, with the idea that people would be improving their response to pandemic housing policy throughout the pandemic,” says Benfer, who worked on the project. “Instead, the peak of protections were really in the spring, and since then they’ve been waning dramatically.” Only eight states, and Washington, D.C., have more than two stars. “The country’s insufficient pandemic housing policy and the harm it perpetuates is unconscionable,” she says.