Michelle Bennett is trying to keep life inside her Waldorf, Maryland, home as normal as possible during Covid-19. Three of her four daughters are learning remotely, while she makes them three meals a day. But outside, the relentless threat of eviction keeps knocking.
She lost her job as a receptionist at a doctors’ office in March and hasn’t been able to collect unemployment because she is waiting to be approved for disability. It’s by the grace of a court-ordered stay that she can remain in her home while she fights the eviction through appeal.
“I’m basically living in fear because I don’t want to be homeless,” said Michelle Bennett. “I don’t really have anywhere to go without an income during the pandemic.”
The eviction crisis is just one of the economic disasters the Biden administration needs to tackle – it’s also staring down massive unemployment and a growing hunger problem. Even with the proposition of a historic $1.9 trillion relief package, President Joe Biden faces an uphill battle to get the economy back to where it was before the pandemic.
Last week, Biden signed an executive order extending a ban on evictions through the end of March. Despite the ban, it doesn’t help Bennett, whose lawyer says her landlord is using a legal loophole that is growing common during the pandemic.
Bennett is a month-to-month tenant and failure to pay rent means she has technically outstayed her lease. Landlords are filing evictions as “tenant hold overs” – when renters remain in a property after the lease expires. Many judges are ruling in favor of the landlords despite the extenuating circumstances and federal and state evictions bans, according to Maryland Legal Aid.
“A loophole has been created that allows landlords to continue evicting tenants that cannot pay rent” said Nicole Portnov, a lawyer with Maryland Legal Aid, representing Bennett. “Ms. Bennett is a quintessential example of this phenomenon, and in Ms. Bennett’s case this has led to the use of a relatively seldom used eviction statute to put people in the street during a pandemic.”
An Emergency Rental Assistance program was created under the Trump administration to help renters like Bennett, but she says she was unable to apply because the funds dried up.
“When you call it’s like – no money. Or call back next month, maybe there’ll be money then. And then you call back the next month is still ‘oh we’re out of money,’” said Bennett.
President Biden proposed about $30 billion in additional rental assistance to renters and small landlords as part of his Covid-19 relief plan. He also wants to extend the eviction moratorium until the end of September.
“I’m not asking for a handout, I’m just trying to keep me and my kids together,” said Bennett, who has not been able to find another job. “We’re in a FEMA like situation – we don’t have a flood or hurricane – but were in a pandemic.”
Women in the hospitality industry hit hardest
Weekly unemployment claims are hovering near 1 million. Last month, the economy shed jobs for the first time since April, and women were hit the hardest: Of the total, a net 156,000 jobs were lost by women, and 16,000 were gained by men.
“It’s maddening, it’s frustrating, it’s defeating,” said Gabbie Riley.
In March, Riley was furloughed from her sales job at the Loews Hotel in Minneapolis, with the hope it would return. The leisure and hospitality industry has lost more jobs than any other US industry since the pandemic began.
“I don’t know how I can describe it. I was the one that put in the work…and to know that I just had to hand that off to the men is a lot to process,” said Riley who detailed her story in op-ed for CNN the day before she found out she was laid off.
As a single mother, Riley can no longer afford health insurance for her and her 19 year-old son. She’s on unemployment, but says her savings is keeping her family afloat.
As part of his Covid-19 relief plan, Biden plans to extend enhanced unemployment benefits, increasing them from $300 a week to $400. But what Riley really wants is her career back.
“Two years ago this week, I was accepting an award in front of 500 people for the ‘Hotel Rep of the Year - East’ - earned from industry client and peer nominations and voting. This year I am unemployed trying to figure out what comes next. A total 180,” she said.
Food banks are out of money
On a recent Friday afternoon, the line for food at The Campaign Against Hunger in Brooklyn, New York, stretched down a city block. The scene repeats seven days a week.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, this Brooklyn food bank alone has served 1.4 million people – made possible, in part, from government funding that is drying up fast.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do because I still have food to buy,” said Melony Samuels, Executive Director of The Campaign Against Hunger. “I need assurance from all our policymakers that listen, you started, we need to finish this thing. We started helping families, we can’t leave them in thin air.”
Last week, President Biden signed an executive order addressing the growing hunger crisis by asking the Department of Agriculture to increase the value of special pandemic food stamp benefits 15%. The extra benefit gives money to low-income families to cover the cost of missing meals in school. But as the need for food grows, many Americans will fall through the cracks.
“Many people are not eligible for SNAP (food stamps), but they’re here because they’re not eligible and they still cannot make ends meet,” said Samuels. “SNAP needs to be fixed and money needs to be in the budget directly to food pantries, food banks that are actually working on the ground.”
– CNN’s Kate Trafecante contributed to this report