Rental Eviction Crisis Will Test Joe Biden as His Presidency Begins

Date: 2020-12-22 18:43:51

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The latest pandemic relief package includes $25 billion for rent support, but falls well short of what’s needed for a burgeoning class of long-term underemployed and unemployed Americans who have slipped into poverty during the pandemic.

Many of them are renters teetering on the verge of homelessness, even as large swaths of the U.S. economy have rebounded and coronavirus vaccines raise hopes for a brighter 2021.

The looming rental crisis, the result of a lopsided recovery that has largely spared white-collar workers while pushing many hourly and gig workers to the brink, is among the most urgent that President-elect Joe Biden will face.

Even as unemployment has declined by more than half from its pandemic peak in April, the poverty rate shot up 2.4 percentage points from June, the fastest pace in records that date back to 1960s. It hit 11.7% last month, with 7.8 million Americans added the to the ranks of the poor since midyear, according to a monthly Covid poverty tracker devised by three economists.

Many landlords also are struggling to keep up with their bills, especially small property owners renting to the low-wage workers who have borne the brunt of Covid-19 layoffs.

Democrats and Republicans broke a months-long stalemate to pass a $900 billion pandemic relief package on Monday night. Yet even that, which extends the federal eviction ban through January and earmarks $25 billion for renters, is dwarfed by the magnitude of the need.

Tenants owe landlords more than $70 billion in back rent, utilities, and additional fees, according to an estimate by Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. The long-predicted flood of evictions has been slowed by government aid and a patchwork of temporary tenant protections, but the two parties have yet to agree on a long-term solution.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction ban, enacted in September, was set to expire on Dec. 31.

“Congress should enact this compromise legislation immediately, then get back to work in January on comprehensive solutions,” says Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Extending the CDC’s eviction moratorium through January provides time for emergency rental assistance to be distributed, and for President-elect Biden to improve and further extend the moratorium immediately after being sworn into office.”

Despite the various bans in place, the pace of eviction filings already is accelerating across the country. In New York City, where a state law protects people facing Covid 19 hardships as long as the pandemic lasts, landlords filed more than 7,300 evictions in November, nearly quadruple the number in July, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. And property owners filed more than 2,600 cases last month in both Phoenix and Houston, where there are fewer safeguards.

Tenants, who rarely can afford legal representation, often move out before their case ever reaches a judge in order to avoid the trauma of being ejected and the black mark of eviction that will make it harder to find a willing landlord again. Many then enter a precarious existence of sleeping on friends’ couches, in cars, and in homeless shelters, which is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus.

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