Point of View: We’re Running Out of Time – By Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO

Congress returns to work today, with very little time left to negotiate and enact the next coronavirus emergency spending bill. Without a significant and sustained federal intervention, between 19 million and 23 million renters may lose their homes in the coming months. The wave of evictions has already begun; Congress must act to prevent it from being a tsunami, and we are running out of time. Please participate in tomorrow’s Virtual Lobby Day to demand immediate action from your member of Congress.

Evicting millions of families during a pandemic is cruel and immoral. It is also shortsighted and senseless. Evictions risk lives, drive families deeper into poverty, further burden overstretched hospital systems, and make it much more difficult for the country to contain the virus.

People of color are most at risk of eviction. While the current crises have heightened the threat of eviction for Black and brown renters, the threat is not new. Structural racism leaves people of color disproportionately low-income, rent-burdened, or homeless. The inequities compound the harm done by COVID-19: Black people and Native Americans bear the brunt of infections and fatalities, and Latinx and Black people bear the brunt of historic job losses. Now, their homes – and with them their family’s ability to stay safe and healthy – are at risk.

Federal, state and local eviction moratoriums provided important protections for some renters – but they are expiring rapidly and landlords and courts are beginning to evict. By the first week of July, twenty nine governors have lifted their eviction moratoriums, and we are now seeing a horrifying confluence of increasing evictions in states where new coronavirus cases are surging.

In Tucson, AZ, for example, a current hotspot for new COVID-19 cases, courts are processing twice as many evictions as compared to this time last year. In Houston, TX, another hot spot for coronavirus, courts are holding over 2,000 eviction hearings via Zoom. In Columbus, OH, they’ve turned their local convention center into eviction court in order to handle the influx. The Denver mayor is making plans for supported campsites to manage the increase in homelessness from evictions.

This is just the beginning. Federal eviction moratoriums continue to protect 30% of renters throughout the country, in every state, but these federal moratoriums expire on Friday. Landlords can file for evictions immediately after, giving renters 30 day notice to vacate.

Some communities have cobbled together resources from the CARES Act to provide rental assistance and avoid some evictions. Today, NLIHC published a new research note and database tracking nearly 200 emergency rental assistance programs that have been created in recent months. These programs offer short-term relief and prevent evictions for some renters.

But many cities and states are having to shut down their rental assistance programs within hours or days after funds are quickly depleted. Last week, the city of Los Angeles opened a one-week application window for its rental assistance program, with enough funding to offer one month of assistance to 50,000 people - over 100,000 people applied the first day. In Indianapolis, the city closed applications for rental assistance after three days when they received twice as many applicants as they have funding to support. The city of Houston shut its program down after funds were depleted in 90 minutes.

The need for rental assistance is extraordinary, and demand is overwhelming resources throughout the country.

The evictions that are already underway and the quickly depleted rental assistance funds are occurring with expanded unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in place. The expanded UI benefits are important, and, together with stimulus checks and eviction moratoriums, are likely what has prevented far more evictions over the last few months. Expanded UI should be continued – but, on its own, it is not enough to prevent a wave of evictions. Millions of people haven’t received unemployment insurance, and millions more find that even with UI funds, they don’t have enough money to pay exorbitant rents as their other expenses - for childcare, healthcare, food – increase.

The imminent tsunami of evictions and all their harmful outcomes are both completely predictable and entirely preventable. Congress should immediately implement a uniform, national moratorium on evictions for the duration of the public health emergency and provide at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance. Together, these essential protections will stem the tide of evictions in our country.

In addition, Congress must provide additional funding to homeless shelter and service providers to respond to and prevent outbreaks among people experiencing homelessness. People who are homeless and contract coronavirus are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die than others in the general public. This has terrible implications for individuals, their communities, and our already overstretched hospital systems.

The House has responded to the urgent need and the public cry for action by passing essential housing and homelessness protections in both the “HEROES Act” and the “Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act.” In the Senate, Senator Brown, Senator Warren and other Democrats have introduced and cosponsored multiple essential bills to provide housing stability during the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to take up any of these bills, or to offer his own.

Senator McConnell will put forward a proposed Senate Republican bill this week, and it will not include essential protections for renters and people experiencing homelessness. This will be the Republicans’ starting point for negotiations with Democrats that will take place over the next two weeks. Democrats must continue to keep protections and assistance for renters and people experiencing homelessness as a top priority in negotiations; Republicans are increasingly recognizing the need for renter protections and are preparing to negotiate on these provisions.

The stakes could not be higher during this public health crisis: Every day of inaction puts more low-income seniors, people with disabilities, families with children, and others at immediate risk of losing their homes. Ensuring that everyone is stably housed during and after the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a moral imperative – it is a public health necessity.

Do all that you can do to advocate for solutions in these next few critical weeks. Contact your members of Congress and demand action. Participate in tomorrow’s Virtual Lobby Day. Call out the need for #RentReliefNow on social media. Use our Media Toolkit to publish op-eds and letters to the editor in your local papers.

Together we can prevent the terrible outcome of having millions evicted during a pandemic – but we are running out of time.

Take action today.

Diane Yentel sig