Five Key Findings About Evictions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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As we all try to help slow down the spread of COVID-19 (commonly known as coronavirus) during this pandemic, many of us have adjusted to new schedules and realities by washing our hands more frequently, social distancing, working from home, and more.

But with unemployment on track to reach Great Depression levels, what about people struggling to keep their homes right now?

Matthew Desmond is a sociologist and 2015 MacArthur Fellow whose research is showing the impact of eviction on poor families, and the role of housing policy in sustaining poverty and racial inequality in large American cities. In his research he has studied evictions and argues that eviction is a cause, rather than a symptom, of poverty. He is also the founder and principal investigator at The Eviction Lab, a group that has published the first ever data set of evictions in America, and was kind enough to give us a snapshot of the escalating eviction crisis.

His piece comes just as some places in the United States begin to actively resume evictions:

A Snowballing Crisis

Eviction, homelessness, and foreclosure are devastating to families and communities under normal circumstances — from ruining credit, making it difficult to find new housing, disqualifying renters from public housing, and triggering job loss. Housing instability has always been a pathway for poor health, including respiratory diseases, increased mortality, suicide, and long-term mental and physical health issues. Eviction also traumatizes children, setting them back emotionally and academically.

During a pandemic, the effects of eviction and foreclosure are compounded, since an evicted person or family could be forced to double up with family or move to a homeless shelter. In both of these scenarios, physical distancing and CDC-recommended hygiene practices may not be feasible.

Gaps in Policy

Federal, state, and local governments are implementing eviction and foreclosure moratoriums to stop the eviction process and prevent families from losing their homes during the crisis. However, these policies vary greatly across the United States. Though governments have the authority to protect Americans from homelessness during the pandemic, too many communities remain unprotected, vulnerable to eviction, and at risk of the resulting poor health outcomes.

Here are our key findings about gaps in state and local policies:

● In many states and territories, landlords can still file to evict renters even if law enforcement won’t remove them from their apartments. If all of these eviction cases become active at once, courts may be overwhelmed, and we could see mass evictions occur across the country.

● In some states, local courts have been given leeway in how they treat eviction cases. As a result, some tenants might be protected from eviction and the harm it causes on a local level, while tenants in other cities or towns have no such protections.

● In a growing number of states, courts are considering remote hearings to try and prevent an avalanche of eviction cases. However, for many tenants who do not have access to a reliable phone or dependable internet service, being heard is not an option. When a missed call could be the equivalent of failing to appear, remote hearings may amount to a loss of basic rights.

● In a growing number of states, a tenant must prove that their inability to pay rent is due to hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Placing the burden of proof on tenants reduces the number of them protected from eviction, since tenants need know how to raise and prove an affirmative defense to eviction.

● To date, no state has provided rent forgiveness, legal counsel for all tenants facing eviction, or mandatory mediation in advance of an eviction filing. These and other measures are key to helping lessen the fallout of the pandemic.

What Can Be Done?

To assess what your state is doing to protect renters and homeowners, The Eviction Lab and housing law expert professor Emily Benfer have assembled a COVID-Housing Policy Scorecard for each state and the District of Columbia. We are updating the scorecard daily as states issue new orders and as old orders expire. Our scorecard illustrates the importance of freezing all stages of the eviction and foreclosure process, as well as supporting tenants and property owners, in order to prevent mass evictions and homelessness.

Every person in America needs a safe and secure home, particularly during a public health crisis — and especially when the primary intervention is to stay at home. Robust eviction moratoriums are one immediate step that can enable all people to safely shelter and help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic has already decimated the economy and increased poverty. To ensure that this outbreak does not result in mass homelessness and permanent financial ruin for an untold number of American families, lawmakers must act now to ensure safe housing for all — no ifs, ands, or buts. Until they adopt these lifesaving measures, we will all be hard pressed to stop — let alone recover from — this pandemic.

Learn more about how the MacArthur Foundation is responding to the COVID-19 outbreak and supporting nonprofits during the pandemic. We have also shared guidance that we have provided with regard to COVID-19 to protect the well-being of our staff, visitors to the Foundation, and people participating in MacArthur convenings. You can also review updates on the CDC website for more general information regarding the situation.

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