Only Federal Intervention Can Prevent the Looming Eviction Crisis 

Interview with Peter Hepburn, assistant professor of sociology, Rutgers University and research fellow at Eviction Lab, Princeton University

America is facing a looming and devastating eviction crisis linked to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic decline that brought record unemployment. On July 24, the federal moratorium on evictions in properties with federally-backed mortgages and for tenants who receive government-assisted housing expired. Under the CARES Act, the moratorium covered some 12.3 million rental units nationwide.  At the same time, city and statewide eviction moratoriums are also expiring, which has already triggered a flood of new eviction proceedings in more than 30 states.

While the current national unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, the extra $600 in federal weekly unemployment benefits are set to end on July 31. Although Congress is now attempting to negotiate an extension of eviction protections and a continuation of some level of unemployment support, both President Trump and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate have opposed the $3 trillion Heroes Act legislation with a $3 trillion price tag approved by the House in mid-May.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Peter Hepburn, assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Newark, and research fellow with The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Here he examines the possible policy solutions to the pending evictions of as many as 28 million people across the U.S. that would deepen the nation’s already dire economic crisis and severe personal hardship.

PETER HEPBURN: This is both potentially an economic catastrophe, a very serious public health concern and then a personal hardship on a scale that’s really hard to imagine. To take the first as an economic issue, the current expansion of unemployment insurance – the additional $600 a week that many people who have lost their jobs are now receiving — is all certainly the thing that is keeping rent paid for many households. That additional money exceeds income replacement for lower income individuals, so people who are more likely to be renters than homeowners, this is what’s keeping the rent paid and is holding off at least part of this wave of evictions.

So starting to roll that back is going to be less rent being paid, which means more landlords who are having difficulty paying their mortgages, which could lead to a wave of foreclosures, which in turn triggers its own financial crisis that would quite possibly make the Great Recession look quite minor by comparison.

As a public health concern, the issue is really that you have the potential of many households losing their homes in relatively short order. Many of those households will then end up moving in with relatives into sort of these what’s called “double-dip housing” in which they’re living in more densely packed households, with social distancing functionally impossible. We know that the coronavirus spreads extremely well in those sorts of circumstances. And then the more extreme outcome would be homelessness. And to put people at risk of homelessness right now displays a callous disregard for human life and also increases the risk of this virus spreading more rampantly.

And then on the individual scale, eviction has been linked to a whole host of negative repercussions. This hurts your credit. It hurts your ability to find future housing. It tends to lead to job loss. It leads to material hardship, financial hardship, greater levels of stress, depression and suicidal ideation. I mean, the list goes on here. It’s a severe hardship for individuals and for their families. And we know that doesn’t affect just the individuals, the lease holders that are being evicted, but it also affects their kids. And we know that the kids are a risk factor for eviction and those kids are going to suffer as a result of this.

SCOTT HARRIS: The House of Representatives actually passed an extension of the federal moratorium and the Senate has not yet come up with a package that would cover evictions. It’s possible that new legislation may not be viable in the coming weeks. But from your perspective, what could or should the federal government be doing to try to stem this avalanche of evictions that, as you just said, won’t just affect the individual families. It’ll affect the entire economy and may bring us to a point of collapse we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.

PETER HEPBURN: So I think there are three key priorities. The first is an extension and ideally an expansion of the federal eviction moratorium. I think we saw Larry Kudlow signaling willingness on the part of the White House to extend that moratorium this weekend – we haven’t seen that translate into any sort of concrete legislative action at this point. The second point is maintaining some sort of expansion of unemployment insurance. As I said, the additional money that is flowing to unemployed individuals and their families right now is absolutely critical for keeping rent paid. And then the third thing that is going to be important is going to be some sort of federal emergency rental assistance. There have been city and county level efforts to provide this sort of emergency rental assistance. And those have been noble efforts, but they are simply incommensurate to the scale of the problem.

There has to be a major investment at the federal level to provide some rental assistance at this point. The Heroes Act called for $100 billion in emergency rental assistance. And I think the negotiations over the coming weeks to get the Republican proposal and the Democratic proposal on the same page, we certainly hope that emergency rental assistance is part of that. That’s critical because these eviction moratoriums do not amount to a cancellation of rent. What they entail is that if rent is not paid this month or next month and the moratorium goes until September, then on Oct. 1, you owe all of that back rent and that’s going to be a major hurdle for a lot of households to catch up on the rent that they may have missed because of the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic.

For more information, visit The Eviction Lab, Princeton University at evictionlab.org.

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