Housing advocates fighting evictions during COVID are eager for the new president to take office

Renters without jobs during the coronavirus pandemic face eviction, while landlords going unpaid are millions of dollars in the red. This group in Virginia marched to draw attention to the housing crisis. In Florida, hundreds of thousands are facing eviction, for which $1.4 billion in federal aid is in the pipeline. Credit: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury/States Newsroom

Millions of American renters living month to month in fear of being evicted have some protection until the end of this month, but their best hope for avoiding homelessness during the pandemic is, in a word, Biden.

“Biden has said, as soon as he comes on, he will enact a substantial moratorium. … We need a program that’s going to be effective at solving this crisis in the long run and, right now, Florida doesn’t have one,” said Stephanie Johnson, senior attorney with Legal Services of North Florida.

Johnson and other housing specialists say President-elect Joe Biden has a history of advocating for affordable housing and has signaled ahead of his inauguration that he will act quickly to keep Americans in their homes regardless of inability to pay.

While COVID-19 infections and deaths set new records daily, at least 7 million households in the United States and maybe twice that many are dealing with eviction, according to an analysis by Stout, a global advisory firm that specializes in investment assessments.

That represents families who owe between $13.2 billion and $24.4 billion in overdue rental payments (so far) that they are still expected to pay, while landlords are missing out on that revenue and taking housing inventory off the market.

Other analyses set the damage estimates higher.

In Florida, the estimated number of households facing imminent eviction ranges between 537,000 and 1.1 million, carrying between $1 billion and $1.9 billion in rental debt, the Stout analysis says.

After distributing $4 billion in federal rental assistance in the fall, Congress in late December approved another $25 billion — of which $1.4 billion is allocated for Florida, the third-most in the country — and issued a federal moratorium on evictions through the end of this month.

Crisis upon crisis

Things could be worse, but not by much, say lawyers pushing back on evictions already under way against renters and home buyers — most of them poor, minorities and/or women — unable to pay rent and mortgages as direct results of the coronavirus catastrophe.

That includes people whose jobs were eliminated or whose work hours were slashed. People who are sick or are caring for sick people at home. People who have health problems that make it potentially deadly for them or members of their households to return to jobs in the infected world.

“The evictions haven’t slowed down, I can tell you that,” Johnson said. “We are definitely swamped.” There recently were some 7,000 eviction proceedings in Leon County alone, she said.

Sarah Saadian, vice president for public policy at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said poor households headed by women and minorities already paying half their income just for housing also are at highest risk of losing their jobs and of having underlying health problems. Now they face possible homelessness in the presence of a deadly, widespread disease that has killed 375,000 Americans, nearly 23,000 of them in Florida, and new variants that are emerging.

“It’s a crisis on a crisis on a crisis,” Saadian said.

Moratoria come and go

Johnson, Saadian, and other attorneys who specialize in housing crises say they are relieved that Biden will soon be in charge.

“The very first step should be to extend the moratorium on evictions, at least through the duration of the pandemic,” Saadian said.

“Biden is much more focused on housing needs than [outgoing president Donald] Trump. He ran on a really strong housing platform that includes long-term solutions, too, so we know how to better address the next disaster that happens. We’ve learned there are really big gaps in our safety-net systems.”

A moratorium on evictions ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expired on Dec. 31. A series of month-to-month moratoria in Florida first ordered in April by Gov. Ron DeSantis ended when the CDC moratorium began in September.

Congress extended the federal moratorium until the end of this month in its $900 million COVID stimulus package, part of the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act passed in late December, which included rental assistance, stimulus checks, $300 weekly unemployment benefits, Paycheck Protection funds, and defense spending.

The moratorium extension gives Biden time to take office and take action to block evictions before even more delinquent renters and home buyers face evictions and foreclosures.

Huge numbers’ of evictions

But meanwhile, the $25 billion in the December spending package may not be sufficient to help every American who needs it, Saadian said. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates the  delinquency load to be far greater than Stout’s estimate — more like $34 billion to $70 billion.

There is no central database tracking eviction filings and actual evictions, so it’s hard to define the scope of the need, Saadia said.

“It’s hard to get data on how many evictions are in play. But we know huge numbers of people are being evicted in spite of the moratorium,” she said. “This is a very urgent problem.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, tracking just five states, reports 209,000 evictions have been filed (but not necessarily completed) during the pandemic, including 3,125 the week of Jan. 2. It cites Tampa and Jacksonville as having high rates of evictions among the cities it tracks. Tampa has seen more than 8,000 eviction filings since March 15 (as many as 450 per week, in November), and Jacksonville has had nearly 5,000.

Most clients at Legal Services of North Florida, lacking legal know-how or assistance, have already been evicted, often because their leases expired during the pandemic and their landlords refused to renew them, hoping to find a tenant who could pay, Johnson said.

Without a job, and with an eviction branded to one’s credit report, it is hard for those people to find new housing, she said.

In addition, although landlords are not allowed under the moratorium to evict a tenant based on inability to pay, court records in sampled counties show a trend of landlords filing evictions for “damages” — alleging the non-paying tenants damaged the property, for which eviction is still allowed.

Saadian, Johnson and scores of legal-aid attorneys in Florida and elsewhere said Congress, under the Biden administration, is likely to pass another substantial COVID relief bill that will include an extended moratorium on evictions and financial relief for distressed landlords as well as renters.

They said housing has always been connected to public health and the economy, and is so now more than ever.

“Evictions are not just a symptom of poverty. They cause poverty,” Saadian said. “Even outside the pandemic, it is so much cheaper to help people with housing assistance than to wait until they are homeless.”