The Political Fight to Avoid an Evictions Catastrophe

    The next crisis is fast approaching: one of evictions. On July 24, the federal four-month moratorium on evictions expired. It was enacted in March, as part of the CARES Act, to protect renters from being thrown out of their homes as COVID-19 precipitated historic levels of unemployment and business closures.

    The federal moratorium specifically applied to renters living in single- or multi-family homes financed by federally backed mortgages, as well as those in federally-assisted housing. But many state and local governments also enacted their own evictions bans that have since expired, or are about to.

    In Maryland, for example, a statewide evictions ban expired on July 25. The state’s attorney general is joining housing advocates in calling on his own governor, Larry Hogan (R), to extend it until January 31. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) is facing pressure to extend an evictions ban due to expire August 1. And in Indiana, a ban is expiring on July 31. Governor Eric Holcomb (R) is facing both a lawsuit from three property owners, and pressure from lawmakers like South Bend Councilwoman Rachel T. Morgan, who warns of a “tsunami of evictions”.

    The expiration of the federal moratorium came just before a weekly $600 payment in expanded unemployment benefits is due to expire at the end of July. About 12 million rental units protected by the CARES Act—around three out of 10 rental units in the US—are now at risk of eviction. But that’s still just a fraction of the total. An estimated 19-23 million American renters, or one in five, could face eviction by September 30. Black and Latinx renters, as well as those who are disabled, formerly incarcerated, undocumented or LGBTQ, will be hardest hit, according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.

    Two months after House Democrats passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act to expand on the CARES Act’s economic relief and funding, Senate Republicans have finally responded with a bill of their own, the HEALS Act. But it notably does not extend the evictions moratorium, while also slashing the weekly expanded unemployment benefit to $200.

    The Republican bill provides over $3 billion in rental assistance to tenants—but housing advocates say that Congress actually needs to provide at least $100 billion. House Democrats already passed a bill on June 29 that included that amount, plus $75 billion for homeowner assistance.

    “Without immediate action, millions of people in America will be evicted from their homes during a pandemic,” states the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Senate Republican proposals would do next to nothing to avoid this predictable and preventable disaster. This funding [$3 billion] is a drop in an ocean of need among unsubsidized renters and people experiencing homelessness.”

    Democrats’ latest move in this fight is the HELP Act. On Tuesday July 28, Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced the Housing Emergencies Lifeline Program Act.

    The bill has three main components. First, it would allocate $10 billion to state and local governments to fund legal representation for tenants at risk of eviction. Simply giving people an attorney could help avoid many evictions, but many tenants face housing courts without representation. A New York City study found that over 80 percent of eligible tenants won their eviction cases after the city guaranteed an attorney to everyone.

    The bill would also limit the impact of evictions cases on tenants’ credit scores. Credit scores would only be affected in cases where the judge awards the landlord back rent, and the information would be reported for no more than a year.

    Finally, the bill would also direct the federal housing agency to compile a database of all evictions in states and cities that receive federal housing assistance.

    If passed, the HELP Act wouldn’t solve the root problem: people not having enough money to pay for housing and profit-driven landlords eager to throw them out. Nor would it extend the evictions moratorium, so that people would keep their homes in the immediate future and root problem could be ignored for a little while longer. But it would give tenants a fighting chance in court, so they aren’t evicted just for not understanding their legal rights.

    In the face of an unprecedented housing crisis, Congress has planned a vacation starting August 7. Federal lawmakers have about a week to do something about this.

     


    Image by Chris Goldberg via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

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