Surge in evictions on horizon across US

Housing crisis looms as renter protection­s end

- Michael Braga

Elizabeth Anderson goes out of her way to help people in need.

Old folks stuck at home? She’ll clean their bathrooms and vacuum their carpets. Neighbors with hungry kids? She’ll share what she has left in her kitchen. A woman standing at a bus stop with small children late at night? She’ll offer them a place to stay.

Now the 57-year-old Charleston, South Carolina, resident needs help herself. When the spread of coronaviru­s shut down her bed-and-breakfast cleaning business in March, she lost her income and was unable to pay the rent on her house. That put Anderson among thousands of Americans staring at the abyss of homelessne­ss as states lift moratorium­s on evictions that have been in place since the start of the pandemic three months ago.

Twenty-four states are processing evictions again, and that number is likely to climb to at least 30 states by the end of June.

Not all renters in those jurisdicti­ons are vulnerable. Nearly 30% continue to be protected by a federal moratorium under the Coronaviru­s Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that will remain in place until July 25. The rest – like Anderson – live in properties that are either not subsidized by the federal

government or are owned by landlords with loans that are not federally backed.

For these unprotecte­d renters, the threat of eviction is very real – especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Tens of millions of workers are unemployed, and the economy is likely to remain shaky until there’s a vaccine and consumers feel safe enough to travel, dine out and go to theme parks and movies again. Homelessne­ss could come at any time.

Communitie­s of color face disproport­ionate risk.

“Back rent is coming due, and renters are no more able to pay it now than they were at the beginning of the crisis,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing. “We are very concerned about a wave of evictions and a spike in homelessne­ss unless there’s some sort of federal interventi­on.”

Yentel points to the HEROES Act, which calls for $100 billion in emergency rental assistance, as the best solution, saying the money is needed to keep people in their homes and to keep landlords from losing their investment­s. The $3 trillion bill, which passed the House of Representa­tives last month, is unlikely to win approval in the Republican­led Senate, and things could get a lot worse when the federal moratorium on evictions expires at the end of July.

“Even before COVID, we were in the middle of a severe housing crisis,” Yentel said. “We had 8 million of our lowestinco­me renter households spending at least half of their income on rent. And when you have such limited income to begin with, you’re always one financial emergency away from not being able to pay.

“COVID is that emergency,” she said.

“When you have such limited income to begin with, you’re always one financial emergency away from not being able to pay. COVID is that emergency.” Diane Yentel, National Low Income Housing Coalition

‘I know he has a plan for me’

Consistent­ly able to generate about $500 a week from her cleaning business, Anderson made more than enough before the crisis to cover $975 a month in rent for the three-bedroom ranch house she lives in with her 29-year-old son, her granddaugh­ter, her niece and grandniece, who were evicted from their own home.

After the crisis hit, Anderson had only $600 in savings. She said she blew through it pretty quickly, adding that she never expected any relief from her landlord. He told her he understood about the pandemic but still wanted his money – and as soon as the moratorium lifted, he was going to file an eviction notice.

True to his word, he filed to evict May 15.

Contacted by USA TODAY, Marvin Fuzz said Anderson owes him four months’ rent, and he can’t afford to let her live there for free.

“I have a mortgage to pay, homeowners insurance and taxes,” he said. “If I don’t collect any money, the bank will own the house, and it won’t let her live there for free either.”

Anderson said she has not been able to collect unemployme­nt insurance because of glitches in South Carolina’s system. She didn’t receive a coronaviru­s relief check in spite of having applied.

The only way her family has been able to survive, Anderson said, is thanks to the generosity of food pantries and “by the grace of God.”

“I know he has a plan for me,” Anderson said. “I pray every morning, every day. I pray for God to pull me out of this, to pull us all out of this, cause it’s not just about me.”

One eviction every 7 minutes

Rental property experts said the eviction crisis – or the affordable housing crisis – has been going on for a lot longer than three months.

It dates back to the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s, when the federal government slashed funding for public housing, according to Yentel. A slight surplus of affordable housing quickly turned into a deficit.

Then came the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when millions of homeowners defaulted on their home loans and moved into rentals. Throw in baby boomers downsizing from homes to apartments and millennial­s too burdened by student loans to make a purchase, and soon there were too many renters chasing too few rental properties coast to coast.

Since the 1960s, rental costs have spiked 61%, while the wages of renters have stagnated – increasing by only 5%, Yentel said. Renters pay a greater percentage of their income for shelter, putting them in an increasing­ly precarious position. They weren’t able to save for a rainy day.

“Before the pandemic, there was one eviction every seven minutes – 300,000 every month,” said Alieza Durana, who studies evictions with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “There were more evictions annually than there were foreclosur­es at the height of the Great Recession.”

The heaviest concentrat­ions of evictions were in the South and the Rust Belt, Durana said. Virginia and the Carolinas – where Anderson lives – are among the hot spots. As migration increased rapidly, communitie­s sought to block the constructi­on of housing for lower-income neighbors in their back yards, which kept the stock of affordable housing from growing.

According to the Eviction Lab, South Carolina has the highest eviction rate in the country. Charleston evicts more people each month than some states.

“If you listen to the Chamber of Commerce, we have 55 people moving to the region every day,” said Otha Meadows, president and CEO of the Charleston Trident Urban League. “But those who go to work here every day – teachers, policemen, firemen – can’t afford to live here because of the lack of affordable housing.”

Meadows said his organizati­on tries to save as many people as it can – including Anderson – from losing their homes. “But there are not a lot of options for people who cannot afford their rent,” Meadows said.

Dakota Ewing, who used to make $18 an hour at a Charleston pain management company – more than double the minimum wage in South Carolina – said his income wasn’t sufficient to cover expenses. He took a job in January with a trucking company, and he spends most of his time driving from one end of the country to the other, hauling everything from bottled water to beef.

The new job didn’t save him when the pandemic hit. Ewing’s employer had to shut down for a couple of weeks. He got behind on his bills, and his landlord was quick to evict in May. Ewing, 26, worked it out with a phone call. His realtor set up a payment plan. The eviction got dropped, as did the late fees.

“But it’s crazy that they didn’t even wait for the 30-day mark,” Ewing said. “It would be one thing if I was notorious for not paying on time, but I’ve never been late in my life.”

Hardest hit by COVID-19

There’s some disagreeme­nt among rental property experts about how many people might be evicted as states lift their moratorium­s.

Andrew Rybczynski, managing consultant with Costar Group, a commercial real estate research and analytics firm based in Washington, said there will be a spike in evictions, but it might not be as large as people expect because a lot of renters are in good shape thanks to government pandemic aid.

A survey by the National Multifamil­y Housing Council, which advocates on behalf of the apartment industry, shows 93% of renters are making full or partial payments.

Rybczynski said he does not expect a major increase in homelessne­ss because – as in the Great Recession – people will move in together or move back with their parents.

“That said, we do anticipate American households coming under strain toward the end of the year,” he said.

Rental property analysts agree that people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum – especially people of color – will suffer the most.

“The groups most at risk before COVID and the ones being hardest hit by the crisis are minority groups,” said Robert Pinnegar, president and CEO of the National Apartment Associatio­n, which represents owners of apartment buildings across the USA. “From an economic recovery standpoint, many were working in hotels and restaurant­s that were closed and are just now starting to open, but they won’t return to full employment for a long time.”

Pinnegar said he keeps a special watch on apartments rented to the lowest-income tenants.

“The next round of stimulus will be critical to maintain their lifestyle and their ability to buy food,” Pinnegar said. His organizati­on advocates for the $100 billion in rental assistance in the HEROES Act languishin­g in Congress.

Solomon Greene, a fellow at the Metropolit­an Housing and Communitie­s Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that studies cities and neighborho­ods, pointed to a survey involving 133,000 participan­ts conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Greene said, “About a quarter of black and Latino renters put off paying rent in May, compared with 14% of white renters. And while nearly half of black or Latino renters were nervous about paying rent in June, only a quarter of white renters expressed similar concern.”

A Pew Research Center survey revealed Hispanics and blacks were more likely to have experience­d or to know someone who experience­d job loss because of coronaviru­s than whites. Members of the two groups were far more likely than whites to report not having enough emergency funds to cover three months of expenses.

Joel Roberts, chief executive of PATH, a Los Angeles organizati­on that serves homeless population­s in California, said minorities are far more likely to live in the streets. African Americans represent only 6.5% of the state population but 40% of those experienci­ng homelessne­ss.

Roberts said homelessne­ss in America had been trending slowly downward before COVID-19. The total number of people living on the streets or in homeless shelters had dropped from 650,000 to 500,000 since the Great Recession. Roberts said the ranks are poised to swell.

“With unemployme­nt at around 15%, homelessne­ss is predicted to increase by 250,000,” Roberts said.

“This is not a time to force people out of their homes,” said Gina Chiala, executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, an organizati­on that advocates on behalf of low-wage workers in Kansas City, Missouri. “It will deepen their poverty. It will take them two years to get back to where they were when they had a house.”

 ?? SPECIAL TO USA TODAY ?? “I pray for God to pull me out of this, to pull us all out of this,” Elizabeth Anderson of Charleston, S.C., says. She faces eviction.
SPECIAL TO USA TODAY “I pray for God to pull me out of this, to pull us all out of this,” Elizabeth Anderson of Charleston, S.C., says. She faces eviction.

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