Connecting state and local government leaders
Moratoriums that allow people to delay paying their rent are keeping tenants who can’t afford their monthly bills safely inside—for now. But policymakers are starting to worry that if tenants can’t pay back rent after the pandemic “a massive crisis” awaits on the horizon.
For the 31% of tenants unable to pay their April rent, a patchwork of federal, state, and local eviction moratoriums largely kept them inside their homes during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. But despite the official reprieves, evictions are still happening in some places—and state and local officials worry that these are just the beginning of a crushing wave to come as soon as states lift restrictions and end moratoriums, leaving millions of tenants on the hook for months of unpaid rent that they don’t have.
In North Carolina, renters are protected by a recently extended eviction moratorium that lasts until June 1. On a call last week with elected officials in the New Deal network, state Rep. Ashton Clemmons said that before the pandemic her county near Greensboro had the highest eviction rate in the state—and she fears the moratorium alone won’t be enough. “What’s going to happen on June 1 when that backlog of rent is due?” she said. “I think it’s going to create a massive crisis.”
Letting moratoriums expire without putting long-term renter support in place would be devastating, said Anne Kat Alexander, faculty assistant at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. “It’s hard to predict what would happen, but it seems clear that if there aren't strong actions taken now, we will see mass evictions, a rise in homelessness, and more people seeking assistance from the social safety net,” she said. “There are so many downstream effects that people don’t think about.”
The Eviction Lab on Monday released a scorecard evaluating states on 21 different types of housing policies that could be enacted during the pandemic. Many states banned eviction enforcement or took the next step of suspending eviction hearings. Alexander said those solutions are “just band-aids” that protect renters today but will lead to a “huge surge in evictions” when courts reopen and all those filings become active at once.
A few states are taking more aggressive approaches and barred landlords from filing eviction proceedings for non-emergency reasons through the end—or even past the end—of the state’s emergency declaration. Massachusetts became one of those states on Monday when Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law halting evictions for the next four months, a proposal that had been debated by lawmakers for weeks. During that time, from March 16 to April 13, almost 800 evictions were filed, according to the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
Some landlords told local news outlets that they were “not surprised” that the state had taken the measure, but complained it is unfair. MassLandlords, a trade association for property owners, said that the bill has “major flaws” and “violates two basic rights that are guaranteed by our state constitution: the right of access to justice and the right to reasonable compensation for public takings of private property.”
Under the law, landlords are still allowed to report missed rent payments to credit institutions if tenants don’t provide documentation of financial hardship brought on by coronavirus. Only Connecticut and Washington state have banned landlords from reporting missed payments to credit bureaus, a measure housing advocates say is necessary to ensure tenants impacted by the pandemic can still find landlords willing to rent to them in the future, as well as avoid the cascading problems that pile up after an eviction is listed on a credit report, like more expensive auto loans.
Once moratoriums end, officials say courts will likely be overwhelmed with eviction proceedings. Zach Klein, the city attorney for Columbus, Ohio, said there will be a “deluge of evictions” that the city might be able to “slow down around the edges” but will not be able to completely contain. “We as policymakers have to figure out how we are going to get ahead of that curve so when that moratorium lifts, we’re prepared,” he said. “If we wait … we’re going to be too late … now is the time to be talking about it.”
Some localities are already preparing for that potential crisis now. In Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors approved a plan to offer emergency rental assistance in the form of $1,000 per month for three months. Supervisor Janice Hahn explained that the program is necessary because “families who were already living on the brink of poverty” are going to really struggle to pick up the pieces after the immediate crisis is over. “The eviction moratorium we have in place has provided some relief, but many families are going to struggle to pay back the rent they owe after this crisis is over,” she said in a statement. “Rent assistance will help keep people in their homes and lessen some of the long-term economic damage this pandemic will have on families.”
Similar initiatives have been proposed or are already underway in New Jersey, Montana, Arizona, Delaware, and Colorado, in addition to a number of smaller efforts at the city and county level. But housing advocates warn that the rental assistance programs offer too little in the face of surging demand, a point that has already been proven in the cities that began handing out cash to struggling renters in early April. In Orlando, Florida, the county government approved a $1.8 million fund intended to help 1,500 renters, but received more than 20,000 applications in the first week. In Boston, the $3 million emergency rental fund received so many applications that the city shifted gears and implemented a lottery system instead of guaranteeing help to anyone who needs it.
Other state and local governments are proposing grace periods that would allow tenants to pay back rent that was due during the coronavirus pandemic over a series of months. Only one state—Connecticut—has officially implemented a 60-day grace period to pay rent for the months of April and May. State Rep. Caroline Simmons said that while the grace period is useful, the state may need to be prepared to provide rental support for much longer. “We need to do everything we can to help protect renters and homeowners from a wave of evictions and think creatively about ways we can provide direct support for affordable housing and housing vouchers for those impacted by Covid-19,” she said.
Some housing advocates, federal lawmakers, and local leaders have called for a complete rent freeze during the pandemic to ensure that tenants don’t have to pay back months of overdue rent when things start returning to normal. Though housing advocates acknowledge that a rent freeze is a long shot, Alexander from the Eviction Lab said that “it’s hard to say anything is impossible” in the present moment. “But,” she said, “It seems the conversation often gets stuck on rent freeze or no rent freeze. That’s not the only option.”
Alexander said that smaller measures, like banning late fees for overdue rent, ensuring tenants have access to legal advice, and moving rental disputes from tenancy court to small claims court so people can stay housed, can also help struggling tenants. “There is a lot that states, cities, and county courts have control over,” she said.
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Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.