Point of View: End the Shutdown, Stop Eviction Threats – by NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel

The senseless government shutdown is wreaking havoc on the lives of low income seniors, people with disabilities, families with children and others throughout the country.

Patrick and Karen called me two weeks ago, worried about what the government shutdown would mean for their affordable home. They live in senior housing in Montgomery, Alabama, surviving on an income of $1,500 per month. If the landlord raises the rent, Patrick said, he and his elderly wife will need to cut back on food and medicine. To save the $5 he pays his neighbor to drive them to Walmart, they’ll walk the mile instead. Last week, Patrick’s landlord told Patrick that she would soon raise rents because of the partial federal government shutdown.

After eleven years on a waiting list, Joyce received — just before the shutdown — her much-needed Section 8 voucher. Despite her best efforts, she hasn’t yet found a landlord in San Diego willing to rent to her. Several have told her they won’t rent to voucher holders for as long as the government is shutdown, out of concern that HUD will not pay them what’s needed to cover their costs. Joyce told us she is “sick” about possibly having to return her voucher, unused, back to the housing authority.

Jessica, a Section 8 voucher-holder in Largo, Florida, contacted NLIHC to tell us her landlord is refusing to renew her and her neighbors’ leases because of the shutdown. The landlord put a three day “notice to vacate” on their doors to ensure he had time to re-rent the unit to a market-rate tenant by February 1. Jessica told us, “So now I’m forced to find housing for my child and I with no money. There are many tenants here on section 8, some disabled, who will face the same issue. I have never had an eviction on my record, but I will soon because I don’t have the means to move that quickly. Please help!”

Patrick, Karen, Joyce and Jessica are among thousands of the lowest-income seniors, people with disabilities and families with young children in at least six states that have already been threatened with impossible rent hikes and eviction. Last week, a property manager in Arkansas threatened tenants in 40 USDA Rental Assistance (RA) developments throughout the state, putting notes on each door saying, “due to the shutdown . . . you are responsible for ALL of your rental amount. Your complex is not in the business of furnishing free rent.” A few days later, another USDA RA property manager told her tenants in 28 buildings in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri that “as of February 1, all tenants will be responsible for full basic rent.” She told a reporter she is preparing to begin eviction proceedings on her tenants.

When NLIHC learned of each threatened eviction, we shared the stories with national press, mobilized on social media, and, with the help of our partners and members of Congress, shone a spotlight too bright for the owners and landlords to withstand. Eventually, the owners all backed away from their threats, at least temporarily.

Unfortunately, we can be sure that other threats and evictions are occurring across the country because of the shutdown. As a guest on CSPAN’s Washington Journal yesterday, I heard the stories of several callers — who have since followed up with me- about their threatened evictions from HUD-subsidized housing. An NLIHC partner, cautioning against some saying evictions aren’t a risk during the shutdown, emailed me, “tell that to the immigrant family who is low-income and works in the cafeteria or as janitorial staff. They are already scared in this environment, and oftentimes don’t have formal leases or the ability to fight a process.”

Indeed, risks to low-income renters grow by the day. As of this week, over 700 HUD-funded Project Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) contracts, responsible for housing nearly 70,000 deeply poor seniors and people with disabilities, have expired. About forty percent of a subset of the owners are mission-driven nonprofits that will do all they can to maintain affordability for their residents. These nonprofits are using available reserve funds to cover costs and contemplating taking loans when their reserves are depleted. More than half are owned by profit-driven companies, whose patience with a prolonged shutdown may wear thin faster. In all of these properties, lease agreements expire along with the contracts. State and local laws may offer protections for some residents, but their vulnerability to potential eviction grows by the day. USDA contracts are also expiring, and the Department says it lacks sufficient funding to make payments on 700 USDA RA contracts, impacting about 17,000 households.

People living in transitional housing funded through HUD Continuum of Care grants – survivors of domestic abuse, people who were formerly homeless — also find their homes at risk due to the shutdown. Local nonprofit groups and shelters that manage these programs can’t access necessary HUD funding during the shutdown and have little-to-no savings to fall back on. Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, an NLIHC state partner, told us and the New York Times that her available savings will be quickly depleted, at which time she’ll have to stop paying landlords. To minimize evictions, she’s compiling a list of landlords who might be willing to go without payment during the shutdown.

And then there are the federal workers and contractors who are not getting paid. The lower on the federal pay-scale they are, the more untenable it becomes to not have cash on hand to pay the rent. While some of them will get back-pay when the government reopens, government contract workers — who sort mail, clean offices, serve food, do janitorial work, and much more — likely won’t. These lowest-income workers are at immediate risk of evictions and other negative outcomes from missing work and pay for a prolonged period.

The challenges faced by low-income renters were severe prior to the shutdown. Now their housing vulnerabilities, and the country’s housing crisis, are exacerbated. It is unconscionable for Congress and the Administration to risk the homes of tens of thousands of our country’s lowest-income and most vulnerable renters over a political battle that has nothing to do with the programs that keep them housed. It is irresponsible to suggest that the shutdown isn’t harming low-income people or threatening the stability of their homes with eviction. People are being displaced by the shutdown today and, if we don’t act, more will be displaced tomorrow.

It is time to end this disgraceful shutdown, before the harm to Patrick, Karen, Joyce, Jessica and tens of thousands more low-income people, and to the crucial programs that serve them, become irreversible.

Today’s Memo shares the latest information on the shutdown’s impacts on low-income renters and the programs that serve them. Please read and share widely. Tomorrow, look out for our national sign-on letter demanding that Congress and the president immediately reopen the government.

Thank you for all that you do in these challenging times, and for your advocacy and perseverance.