Editor’s Note: Sabiha Zainulbhai (@SabihaZ) is a senior policy analyst at New America’s Future of Land and Housing program. Previously, she worked for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development and NORC @ the University of Chicago. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Last month, approximately 7.7 million renters across the US were behind on rent, according to the most recent data from the US Census Bureau. Also, last month, the Supreme Court struck down the federal eviction moratorium that has been protecting tens of millions of renters from eviction since it was enacted last year.
The federal moratorium, combined with the distribution of emergency rental assistance, served as twin pillars of federal government protection to keep evictions at bay during a pandemic that led to record job losses almost overnight.
These measures were supposed to work hand-in-hand. If you lose your job and can’t afford your rent, then your landlord is prohibited from taking immediate action, and after filling out a simple application with a local non-profit, you receive your allotment of rent relief, making both you and your landlord whole again.
The plan wasn’t a bad one, but it was also unlikely to work. That’s because those who were on the brink of losing their home during the pandemic were in such a state of precarity that any eviction protections that offered only temporary relief and didn’t operate flawlessly were nearly guaranteed to fall short.
So how are renters expected to stay afloat amid a nationwide housing shortage and crumbling federal protections from evictions?
Unfortunately, the answer is not clear. And what’s more, we can’t actually speak to the collective impact of these crises. Research by New America found that one-third of all US counties don’t track eviction data, and the vast majority of other counties don’t track where evictions are happening and who is most at risk. Without this data, local governments can’t effectively distribute rental assistance or legal aid, nor can policymakers lay the groundwork for longer-term solutions that offer protection in a housing market stacked against renters.
Here’s what we do know. Despite some major loopholes, the federal eviction moratorium succeeded in keeping eviction filings at historic lows. Researchers at Eviction Lab estimate that 1.55 million fewer eviction cases were filed in 2020 than in a normal year. But with the federal moratorium gone, renters in a majority of states are left with no protection.
Meanwhile, the distribution of emergency rental assistance has been mired in its own challenges. By the end of July, only $5 billion of the $46.5 billion in rent relief given to state and local governments had reached the renters or landlords who applied. The distribution of rental assistance was always a race against a ticking time bomb of the eviction moratorium either expiring or being struck down. Time effectively ran out.
Given the logjam in the distribution of rent relief, there’s diminishing hope that aid will reach renters’ doorsteps before eviction notices will. Despite federal guidance, the distribution of this aid has been too slow and ineffective to meet the scale and the pace of the need.
The outlook for renters is not good. Goldman Sachs estimates that 3.5 million households could be evicted because of crumbling federal protections, and the National Equity Atlas Project estimates the number is closer to 6 million. Black and Latinx women, who experience eviction at rates higher than any other demographic, will likely bear the brunt of this. This scale of housing loss could be nearly impossible to recover from, trapping renters in generational cycles of poverty, homelessness and instability.
While the end of the moratorium and the slow distribution of aid will lead to a spike in evictions, the truth is that many renters were barely holding on even before the pandemic. For many, it was this pre-pandemic precarity that put them in such a dire position once disaster struck.
This is in large part due to a severe housing shortage decades in the making. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, only 37 out of every 100 homes for rent were affordable and available for renters at the bottom of the economic ladder prior to the pandemic. And nationwide, workers earning minimum wage needed to work two full-time jobs (or 79 hours a week) to afford a one-bedroom apartment in good condition.
The lack of affordable homes not only forces families to spend more on rent than they can afford, but it also pushes many renters to double up, often in worse condition homes. This offers a prime example of how the pre-pandemic housing crisis intensifies vulnerability: housing instability and overcrowding are major factors in the spread of Covid-19.
If the housing market continues to fail to provide affordable, safe and quality housing, one solution may be stronger renter protections that help keep rising rents and landlord abuses in check. But many local governments are constrained by state laws that limit the extent or availability of renter protections.
The pandemic may not be the direct cause of the housing crisis, but it has made nearly every aspect of it worse. And that’s because disasters – whether a pandemic or extreme weather patterns brought on by climate change – will latch onto what’s already broken and exacerbate them. This is exactly what we’re seeing now, and what we will continue to see, until we acknowledge the fact that our housing system is fundamentally broken and there are no quick fixes.
But building more affordable housing, strengthening renter protections, and helping cities and states track evictions through better data infrastructure are good places to start. Offering federal funding could incentivize states and cities to improve their collection of eviction data – so would providing robust technical assistance and establishing uniform standards for data collection. These improvements are critical to achieving what’s most needed: building capacity for local governments to collect, analyze and incorporate eviction data into their policy decisions. This would allow cities and states to assess the housing crisis with the urgency it demands, and apply lessons learned from one disaster to another.
But in the end, we need to acknowledge that renters living in a constant state of insecurity are not OK – not now and not prior to the pandemic. And as long as this is the case, not even the best laid recovery plans will be sufficient.