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The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped Landlords From Evicting Tenants—And It’s About To Get Much Worse

Landlords have continued forcing renters out of their homes, despite a patchwork of protections from federal and local governments. Now, with the CDC moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of Americans could be evicted.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

One woman got into a car accident, lost her job, and fell behind on rent. Another said she is stuck at home with her children while schools are closed and tried to work out a payment plan with her landlord but never heard back. A man said he had applied to Marshalls, Costco, and Bath & Body Works, but struggled to find work and fell behind on rent. All were told they had to be out of their homes by Dec. 22.

One after another on Wednesday, a judge at the Country Meadows Justice Court in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and 4.5 million residents, ordered dozens of people to leave their homes within five days or be forced out by a constable. Landlords filed for evictions against over 2,300 people in the county last month alone, and nearly 20,000 since the pandemic began, according to data collected by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

Landlords across the country have continued to evict tenants throughout the pandemic, despite a patchwork of protections put in place by federal, state, and local governments. While eviction moratoriums have helped keep millions of people in their homes, loopholes in orders like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s have allowed landlords to continue filing evictions and actually remove people. Now, with the CDC’s moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of people could soon be forced out of their homes during another wave of the pandemic, increasing their risk of infection or death from COVID-19. Public health experts have linked an estimated nearly half a million COVID cases and roughly 10,000 deaths to evictions nationwide.

In any given year, roughly 1.5 million evictions occur across the United States. Between 2.4 million and 4.9 million households could face eviction once the federal moratorium expires, according to data collected by the Census Bureau.  

“Having that many happen all at once—you could see entire neighborhoods empty out of people,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. “Instead of a handful of homeless people pitching tents together, you could see developing world style favelas or developments cropping up in the U.S. because of the sheer number of people who could be displaced.”

In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which included an eviction moratorium and a requirement that landlords give renters 30 days’ notice before moving ahead with an eviction. The moratorium expired July 26, but the 30-day notice helped keep some people in their homes for roughly another month after that, until Aug. 26. On Sept. 4, the CDC issued a temporary order to stop evictions, recognizing that losing one’s home “increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19.”

To use the protection provided by the CDC’s moratorium, tenants must sign a declaration stating they cannot make full rent payments due to loss of income or extraordinary medical expenses, have made their best efforts to obtain rent assistance and make timely partial payments to their landlord, earn less than $99,000 and would likely become homeless if evicted. 

While the order has helped keep many people in their homes, it left many others unprotected from the start, and was further weakened by an additional guidance issued by the CDC.

“One of the most significant flaws is that the moratorium is not automatic, renters need to know it exists, know they are eligible, and know what steps they need to take in order to get the protection,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And the federal government “hasn’t done anything to enforce the steep penalties in the order against landlords who illegally evict. Landlords are getting away with illegally, in some cases, evicting tenants.”

Renters need to be aware of the CDC’s moratorium—and show up to court—in order to take advantage of the protection. At the Justice Court in Maricopa County on Wednesday, only a handful of the 30 or so renters with evictions filed against them were present, and of those, even fewer tried to use the CDC protection to contest the eviction. Most of the evictions were for nonpayment of rent. The judge ruled against almost everyone who did not show up and signed a judgment against them stating that they need to move out of their home by Dec. 22.

In October, the CDC released guidance allowing landlords to contest declarations from tenants and begin eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent, so long as they do not actually evict tenants protected by the order until Jan. 1. The guidance placed an even greater burden on renters, and created a situation where as soon as the order expires, people may be forced out of their homes. From the beginning, the order only barred landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent, meaning so long as landlords said they were evicting tenants for another reason, they could still proceed. And ultimately the rent is still due: Once the moratorium expires, renters will still be on the hook for mounting debts they cannot afford.

In Houston, landlords have filed for over 18,000 evictions since the pandemic began. Over 1,600 tenants in California have been evicted between March and July, despite state and federal protections. Nearly 3,000 writs of possession were ordered in seven Florida counties in October, meaning sheriff’s deputies have been given permission to remove people from their homes in all of those cases. Landlords in Maricopa County wrongfully moved to evict over 900 tenants who were protected under the CARES Act, according to the Arizona Republic. Overall, in the 27 cities that Princeton’s Eviction Lab tracks, landlords have filed for over 150,000 evictions during the pandemic. In Oregon and California, police have been authorized to forcibly remove people occupying homes. Just before Thanksgiving, California Highway Patrol officers were caught on camera using a battering ram to open the door of a “reclaimed” vacant home and dragging people out of another residence as they screamed in protest.

To prevent people from losing their homes en masse during the pandemic, the CDC could extend the moratorium. Congress could pass a bill that includes $25 billion in rental assistance and a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium. Waiving late fees and court fees accrued by renters would also help, as would passing some form of relief for those who have already been displaced, like limiting a landlord’s ability to deny people housing if they were evicted during the pandemic. And even if the federal government doesn’t step up, state and local governments can still pass their own measures to protect renters and keep people housed.

“The solutions aren’t complicated, they just require the powers that be to have the right priorities,” said Dunn from the National Housing Law Project. “We need eviction moratoria to stop the problem of more people being displaced and put out on the street. Then we also need significant rental relief funding, so [tenants] can apply for grants and use that money to pay their landlords, who have maybe been under financial pressure to pay their mortgages.”