As COVID further exposes national housing crisis cities seek solutions

By KATE COIL

With millions of Americans filing for unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are expecting to see large-scale evictions as emergency orders end, also putting an end to moratoriums on utility and rental payments.
Many states, counties, and cities included halting collection on rents and utilities as part of their emergency orders, but as those orders are lifted these collections can resume. As a result, those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic are also struggling to keep a roof over their head in addition to finding new employment. By the end of June, an estimated 30 million Americans remained jobless as a result of the pandemic with the nation reporting its highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.
To address concerns that the pandemic might lead to a housing crises in communities across the country, the National League of Cities conducted a webinar titled „Keeping Families Housed: How Cities Can Help Renters Navigate the Eviction Cliff“ on June 25.
Denise Belser, program director for NLC’s Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, said the pandemic has exacerbated the already fraught national housing situation.
“We know that housing is a basic necessity, one of just a handful we as humans need to survive and thrive. It’s considered an essential human right, yet it’s become unaffordable for many,” Belser said. “Unfortunately, housing instability has already been an issue long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit for nearly half of U.S. renters and it is escalating as more Americans file for unemployment benefits. The number of renters paying half of their income toward housing costs continues to increase. Many Americans are just one unexpected expense away from disaster and say they are not able to cover a $400 emergency.”
Belser said cities can expect to see a wave of evictions when the moratorium on rent and utility payments expire as renters have to pay months of overdue rent. This “eviction cliff” may also impact homeowners who cannot make mortgage payments and are forced into foreclosure.
“With the unexpected crisis from COVID-19, it is even more important that cities plan ahead to mitigate long-term effects on household and family security and keep as many people, especially the most vulnerable, in their homes,” she said. “U.S. renters are increasingly rent-burdened, especially the extremely-low income households. Data says that 10.9 million people of the nation’s 44 million renters are extremely-low income. Of that nearly 11 million, 71% severely housing-cost burdened and these families spend more than half of their income on rent and utilities. What is important for us to see is that people of color are impacted even more and fall off this cliff even faster.”
Dr. Stephen J. Sills, director of the Center for Housing and Community Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said his department’s study of Greensboro reflects many of the same struggles faced by medium-sized cities across the American Southeast.
Following the 2010 foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession, Sills said Greensboro saw the average price of rent increase 55% as those who had their homes foreclosed upon entered the rental market, driving up demand for rental property. A lack of new, affordable housing being developed in the area also contributed to why more residents are renting over owning. Despite this 55% increase in rent, Sills said the average income in the area has only increased by 5% in the same period.
“This has led to a staggering number of individuals and households who are cost-burdened,” he said. “If you are spending more than 30% of your income toward housing or housing related costs like utilities, you are spending more than you should be. About 48% of those we have been renting in our community are cost-burdened. There is no good source of national data for this. Greensboro is nationally ranked at No. 7 in the number evictions per renter households.”
Sills said some landlords use the eviction process as a personal debt collection service, burdening renters with even more costs.
“We are in a pro-landlord state with very few protections for tenants, a 10-day adjudication period for tenants, and a situation where about one in four tenants facing eviction actually have the representation to go to court,” Sills said. “A tenant falls behind a few days on rent, the landlord files a summary ejectment, a fee is assessed, a court fee is assessed, the tenant has 10 days to make up that deficient and pay back the rent but then find themselves short on the next month’s rent. They are then trapped into a cycle. They aren’t evicted, but their situation becomes more and more precarious.”
During their study, Sills said his group found that evictions do not impact all neighborhoods or parts of a city equally. Evictions are typically higher in high-rental neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color, high-poverty neighborhoods, and historically disenfranchised neighborhoods.
One study found that the neighborhoods with the highest eviction rates in modern-day Greensboro are the same neighborhoods that were red lined by the federal government, a practice begun in the 1930s that made it more difficult for residents of largely minority neighborhoods to gain mortgages, retain family homes, and receive private-sector investment.
In the past three years, Sills has been working on an eviction resolution project that wraps additional services around the individual facing eviction. Often times, Sills said eviction is a symptom of other issues such as medical emergencies or unemployment.
“We are establishing a tenant-leadership academy and a tenant rights education program to help tenants prior to evictions learn about the advocates and organizations that are available to them in the community, about strategies such as abatement in the case of poor-quality housing, and what they can do proactively to avoid ending up in eviction court,” Sills said. “We are using community-based navigators or tenant leaders within low-income apartment communities. This method has shown to be highly-effective in connecting people with services. We are also linking those facing eviction with long-term resources like SNAP, WIC, food banks, Section 8 programs, and utility assistance in order to reduce that cost burden.”
Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis of Maplewood, N.J., has worked in housing policy and homelessness prevention efforts and also has experience in landlord-tenant law. Dafis said that his community is “ground zero” for the housing crisis with one of the highest levels of housing unaffordability.
“The households heading toward the eviction cliff first, the most impacted, are the asset-limited, working poor families that have been denied economic mobility,” Dafis said. “These low-income, historically-disenfranchised communities who have been systematically kept in poverty and criminalized for their poverty are headed to the cliff first. We can clearly see that poverty and housing instability are inextricably linked.”
Based on current information, Dafis said the state of New Jersey can anticipate a “tsunami of displacements” in September when present moratorium ends. However, many proposed solutions to this crisis and the ongoing housing crisis in general have met with political opposition.
“The courts must do more to ensure long-term solutions by way of greater access to justice and fairness in court to tenants,” Dafis said. “We need a guaranteed right to cancel, and notice and answer requirements to eviction nonpayment actions. Our challenge is our state legislature, our governor, and the courts are facing massive opposition from the landlord lobby that is very powerful and influential in our state. New laws that would really provide long-term solutions and real relief are facing a lot of heat. This kind of pressure has been successful and delayed real cures to our housing crisis. It is because, at the root of our consciousness here in New Jersey, housing isn’t a right; it’s a privilege, a transaction. We have to change that way of thinking in order to overcome this beyond just the short-term pandemic we are dealing with.”
Another challenge to finding solutions to the housing crisis is the lack of data collection on the subject.
“The U.S. government tracks foreclosures, but it doesn’t track eviction data and most governments don‘t either,” Dafis said. “How are we to fashion best practices and solutions to the housing crisis without data? Granted, some county court systems keep such data but such data is difficult to access and its collection isn’t uniform.”
On the local level, Dafis said cities can employ a variety of strategies such as rent control ordinances, code enforcement of those ordinances, local affordable housing wards, and the implementation of zoning of “intergenerational, inclusive and diversely affordable multi-usage housing” over the traditional single-family zoning.
Khabirah H. Myers works with the Newark Office of Tenant Legal Services in New Jersey, a quasi-right-to-council initiative launched in June 2019. The office was created to help create housing stability and affordability and is part of the city’s department housing and economic development. The office focuses on the most vulnerable citizens such as senior citizens and those with disabilities with a goal of reducing residential evictions in the city by 40%.
“The city of Newark is a city of renters; at least 75% of the city’s residents are renters,” Myers said. “Recent data also shows that of the county in which the city of Newark exists more than half of eviction filings were filed against Newark tenants. In 2015, 60% of Newark tenants spent more than one-third of their income on rent and almost a third spent more than half of their income on rent. We are a city of renters who are rent-burdened or extremely rent-burdened.”
Myers said prior to the COVID pandemic, 55% of those who sought assistant from her department needed help for non-payment of rent and more than 75% of applicants were women. Since its inception nine months ago, Myers said the office has helped more than 950 tenants maintain stable housing through legal representation and assistance or providing other information.
During that process, Myers said her office learned that of the non-payment of rent cases her office handled, nearly 90% had at least one viable, legal defense for a stay of eviction, such as a lack of maintenance on the property or unsafe living conditions. However, most residents do not have the legal expertise or ability to hire someone with legal expertise to defend them in court.
“This tells us that right-to-counsel legislation should be enacted without haste,” Myers said. “We also found landlords file nonpayment cases for a multitude of reasons. You should never judge a book by its cover when handling eviction cases. A lot of nonpayment cases are based on unaffordable and illegal rent increases. Many tenants have also withheld their rent because of habitability concerns. We receive numerous calls from tenants who landlords are refusing to make necessary repairs to ensure the apartment remains habitable and safe.”
Myers said her office also found that the reason many renters never showed up in court to defend themselves is because they were never informed of their court date or that they weren’t even informed that eviction proceedings had begun against them.
Additionally, Myers said she and other members of the office have learned about the gap between how much residents are earning and how much they must pay for housing.
“Evidence shows that reducing evictions also reduces a number of societal ills including health issues, negative credit reports, and juvenile delinquency,” she said. “Most eviction cases are based on non-payment of rent and the reality is that most rents are just plain unaffordable. There is an unaffordable rent problem not just in the city of Newark but in this country.”
Myers said the wage currently being earned by many Americans is not matching up to the amount of money they have to spend on basic items like rent, transportation, food, and clothing.
“I personally believe the solution to this affordability problem is the institution of some form of universal basic income otherwise known as guaranteed income,” she said. “Our country has already seen what guaranteed income could look like in the form of the CARES Act stimulus payment, and study after study has shown that those payments were not used for frivolous things. Americans used those checks to pay for basic necessities like food and rent. That tells us that Americans need financial assistance paying for their basic needs.”