Third of a three-part series
While some believe today’s COVID-19 pandemic serves as the cause of the current evictions crisis in the U.S., many housing experts including Matthew Desmond, a professor at Princeton University, contend a crisis loomed on the horizon for certain Americans long before 2020.
“While rents have skyrocketed, wages have remained stagnant and nearly half of all renters are rent-burdened – that is, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent – and a quarter are paying more than 50 percent of their income towards rent,” Emily Coffey, a staff attorney specializing in housing justice with the Shriver Center for Law and Justice, writes in an article titled, ‘An Eviction We Can Stop.’
“What’s worse, only about a quarter of those who are eligible for long-term housing assistance actually receive it. As a result, families are too often one unexpected expense away from eviction court,” she said.
Nationally, as well as in the District of Columbia, there exists a severe shortage of affordable housing. As the National League of Cities [NLC] points out, the pandemic, the economic slowdown and mass unemployment have exacerbated an already troubling problem.
“The anticipated wave of evictions nationwide comes amidst a shortage of seven million affordable rental homes and follows decades of discriminatory housing practices such as redlining, predatory lending and racialized urban renewal and exclusion efforts,” an NLC report said. “More than 40 percent of renters were cost-burdened before the pandemic and roughly 50 percent of those cost-burdened households spent more than half of their monthly income on rent and utilities alone.”
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“Additionally, the risk of eviction – and the subsequent hardships such as the impact on someone’s credit score or difficulty being approved for housing in the future – falls disproportionally on communities of color and Black women in particular who are more likely to be impacted by systems of oppression and subject to housing discrimination,” the report continued.
One assessment of data from The Eviction Lab, a Princeton University-based team of researchers, students and website architects who believe a stable, affordable home remains central to human flourishing and economic mobility, concludes that Black women renters had evictions filed against them at twice the rate of white renters.
As for the current pandemic, the aforementioned researchers estimate that in the next few months, as many as one of every five renters in the U.S. may be evicted from their homes.
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According to research from the Colorado-based COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, about 22 million renter households of the 110 million renters in the U.S. remain at risk of eviction.
Still, Coffey asserts that things can be done immediately as a means of short-term intervention to stem the inevitable tide of evictions including the following:
- Updating relevant city agency websites with consolidated information (relevant rules, programs, and resources in the dynamic policy environment of COVID-19) for renters and landlords.
- Boosting rental assistance either directly or through trusted intermediaries as in Boston and Seattle and King County, where this practice is already in place.
- Modifying or updating local eviction moratoria to extend deadlines, build in provisions to limit the imposition of late fees on past-due rent and allow tenants to use their security deposit to pay off back-rent as in New York. In Chicago, landlords must show the court that they have engaged in good faith efforts to reach alternatives to evictions including mediation or payment plans.
- Piloting new court rules and services that can help tenants and landlords better protect their rights and navigate the eviction process – and to increase the likelihood that they can reach mutually beneficial settlements and prevent evictions.
- Directing governmental financial resources toward legal services for tenants facing eviction such as in Providence, Rhode Island or Richmond, Virginia.
- Using the credibility of elected office to convene landlords, building owners, property management companies and judicial officers involved in eviction proceedings toward the goal of arranging work-outs over past due rent.
One of Coffey’s colleagues, Emily Benfer, says getting a handle on evictions means wrestling with the dearth of affordable housing and dismantling or discarding the diverse policies, practices and procedures that affect it.
“The affordable housing issue is born of the lack of racial equity and support for underserved communities,” she said. “It is directly linked to decades of racially discriminatory housing laws and policies that were left to stand and their aftermath left unaddressed. We can directly attribute the lack of wealth accumulation, the lack of homeownership and the lack of opportunity for communities of color across the country [to racially discriminatory housing laws].”
“The other piece is ensuring that all of these different sectors that have any kind of nexus with housing and community development be engaged, and that we look to unlikely partners, from health care institutions to larger lenders, to really start investing in communities where they haven’t traditionally,” Benfer said.