As coronavirus displacement moratoriums reach their expiration dates, many renters are facing a harsh reality: pay up or get out.
July 1, 2020
By early July, thirty states are expected to begin eviction proceedings against tenants who have fallen behind in their rent. This is thanks to the expiration of coronavirus-triggered displacement moratoriums throughout much of the country.
The results may be dire.
“In this day and age, profits, market rate housing, and ending homelessness cannot go together.”
In Los Angeles, California, the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy at the University of California-Los Angeles estimates that 365,000 renter households in the city—including 558,000 children—will be in imminent danger of losing their homes unless state and national officials pass legislation to reclassify rent arrears as consumer debt. If enacted, this will make money owed to a landlord collectible but also protect tenants from immediate removal. Practically speaking, this means that renters can pay their arrears over time rather than having to pony up the full balance to remain housed.
And if they don’t pass this legislation? The Luskin Institute warns that the United States will experience “a humanitarian disaster of hunger and homelessness on a scale not seen in any urban area of any industrialized country in the past ninety years.”
Other researchers and activists are sounding similar alarms. In New York City, housing organizers caution that the communities that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus are likely to experience the city’s largest surge in evictions: East Tremont in the Bronx; Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights in Queens; and Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn.
Similarly, Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates that 120,000 families stand to lose their homes in what it is calling an “eviction tsunami.”
Once the eviction floodgates are opened, urban areas are expected to take the hardest hit, but rural and suburban residents will not be spared. Even more disturbing, housing activists predict that the brunt of evictions will be felt as schools start to re-open.
Diane Nilan, founder and executive director of HEAR US Inc., a fifteen-year-old group that “gives voice and visibility to homeless children and youth,” finds this confluence particularly unsettling. “I’ve been pondering this every which way for a while,” Nilan says. “My big fear is that families that have been living doubled up with family or friends will be put out when the prime tenant gets evicted for not paying the rent. The numbers will likely be enormous, higher than anyone expects.”
Nilan highlights this concern—and others facing families that were homeless before the pandemic—in “Changing the Paradigm of Family Homelessness,” a report—coauthored with Yvonne Vissing, a professor at Salem State University—that was published at the end of June in the Journal of Children and Poverty.
“Homelessness is totally preventable,” Nilan and Vissing argue, but its eradication will necessitate a new paradigm, one that pairs affordable housing with social services that “integrate public health, human rights, human dignity, and trauma prevention.”
The article’s practical recommendations are geared toward both government entities and community activists and start with the necessity of acknowledging the scope of the problem. At present, they report, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development drastically undercounts those without housing, ignoring people who are doubled—and sometimes tripled—up, living in cars, camping outdoors, or seeking shelter in abandoned buildings.
Once the magnitude is understood, they continue, other programmatic shifts need to take place. “It is essential to dismantle the view that homelessness and poverty are intergenerational,” they write. “They don’t have to be. Homelessness is a product of social construction and it is particularly detrimental to children.”
What’s needed, Nilan and Vissing explain, is affordable, available, and accessible housing for everyone. But that’s just for starters. Low-income people also need access to jobs that pay a living wage, good, trauma-informed, physical and mental health care, educational opportunities, high-quality childcare, and reliable transportation. Additionally, they recommend that support services, such as fully stocked food pantries and safe shelters for those fleeing domestic abuse, be readily available.
The manner in which services are provided can make a huge difference, Nilan tells The Progressive. “People need to be treated like adults and each household needs to be looked at individually. If you want to help homeless families you need to get to know them and their needs. Mom may have childcare issues, a disability, a child with special needs, language or literacy deficits, or be facing a health crisis. Band-Aids don’t work—neither do cookie cutter solutions.”
Nilan also warns against quick fixes, such as short-term rental subsidies. “Many programs offer a few months of rental assistance, and then the family is on its own,” she explains. “Most people need solid support to get their feet on the ground. The notion of time limits needs to be radically rethought.”
What’s more, she says, “in this day and age, profits, market rate housing, and ending homelessness cannot go together.”
Nilan’s bold assertion is a direct call for robust federal programs to ameliorate poverty, something the Poor People’s Campaign, which she actively supports, has demanded. In addition, she would like to see a nationwide system of rent controls and new zoning regulations to allow the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units, new housing on land originally designated for single-family homes.
“There have to be creative approaches to the housing crisis, but model programs that have made a difference in the lives of low-income families already exist and can be replicated by other towns and cities,” Nilan says. “In Lincoln County, Oregon, for one, the Safe Families Program is evidence that a concerted effort can be made to give people shelter, food, and other practical support. If it’s done right, these things can change a family’s circumstances.”
As Nilan and Vissing conclude in their report, “We know what works: investment in the future, in prevention, in services, in equality, and in our children.” With eviction moratoriums looming throughout the United States, there could not be a better time to apply this wisdom.