Preventing Catastrophe

Congress is negotiating a COVID relief package that, if done right, could prevent an historic eviction crisis during a surge in COVID-19 this winter. If done wrong, or not at all, tens of millions of people could lose their homes. Many will die, government spending will increase and the ripple effects of eviction will harm families, children and communities for years. This tragic outcome is preventable, but only if Congress acts with urgency and determination. The bipartisan bill currently being negotiated must include significant rental assistance targeted to those most in need, protections from eviction and resources to keep people experiencing homelessness safe.

Before the pandemic, eight million of the lowest-income renter households paid more than half of their limited incomes on rent each month. With so little cushion, any financial shock such as a broken-down car, a sick child, or a missed day of work could cause them to fall behind on rent and face eviction and, in worst cases, homelessness. Gaping holes in our social safety net leave three in four households in need of housing assistance to fend for themselves; only the lucky 25% who win our country’s housing lottery get the help they need. Because of systemic racism in housing and other sectors, people of color are most harmed. Black, Latino, and Native households are more likely than white households to have extremely low incomes, to be housing cost-burdened and at risk of eviction, and to experience homelessness.

COVID-19 and its financial fallout has revealed and exacerbated these challenges. Nearly one in five renters have fallen behind on their rent during the pandemic. Others have scraped together whatever they could to make rent each month, using now-expired expanded unemployment benefits, one-time stimulus check, or credit cards, amassing a debt they can never repay. Many forgo other necessities, like food. As a result, food banks are struggling with overwhelming demand and families are hungry. State and local rental assistance programs are overwhelmed by the need; thirty percent of programs have run out of funding, some in as little as 90 minutes or a few days.

The eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extends vital protections to renters and has helped keep stably housed millions of people who otherwise would have been evicted. But it has significant shortcomings that undermine its intended public health protections, and it expires on December 31. At that time, renters will fall off a financial cliff when an estimated $34 billion to $70 billion in back rent becomes due. Without federal intervention 30 to 40 million people in up to 17 million households, predominantly Black and Latino families, could lose their homes this winter.

Evictions put lives at risk and strain our already overstretched public health systems. When America’s lowest-income renters lose their homes, they have few options available to them. Most double or triple up with other families in overcrowded homes, some resort to sleeping in encampments or congregate shelters. It becomes more difficult for them to practice social distancing or to self-quarantine after exposure to COVID-19. Recent research underscores the consequences: expiring eviction moratoriums throughout the pandemic have already led to more than 400,000 additional COVID-19 cases and nearly 11,000 additional deaths.

This crisis is as preventable as it was predictable, but only if Congress acts with urgency and precision. Congress must immediately enact a long-overdue COVID relief package that includes resources and protections to address the health and housing needs of people experiencing homelessness and America’s lowest-income renters. The bipartisan plan being considered includes $25 billion for emergency rental assistance. While this amount is inadequate to meet the overall need, it is an important and urgently needed first step. These scarce resources must be carefully targeted to those most in need and at greatest risk of eviction and paired with an extension of the CDC eviction moratorium to ensure evictions don’t proceed before assistance reaches renters. Congress also must include funding to respond to and prevent coronavirus outbreaks among people experiencing homelessness.

Without immediate action, tens of millions of people could lose their homes this winter. The consequences will be catastrophic: to children, families, communities, and to our country’s ability to contain the pandemic. When our collective health depends on our ability to stay in our home, we all have a stake in ensuring tens of millions of renters don’t lose theirs.