When Pandemic Hits, Pausing Evictions Can Help Renters and Landlords—But It’s Not Enough
Disasters—whether climate related or a pandemic—have catastrophic effects on all of us. Although physically or economically vulnerable families bear the most immediate harm, solutions that look at only immediate harms can add new vulnerabilities and risks. With the mounting coronavirus (COVID-19) cases and extended “social distancing” across the US, hourly workers and small businesses face abrupt disruptions in income. The resulting job insecurity and housing instability have rightly sparked local and state governments to seek eviction moratoria. But a temporary hold on evictions allows rent arrears to add up—which puts renters in deeper crisis in the future while harming rental property owners today. An effective solution to economic risks from COVID-19 would get the rent paid.
Renters in every state and county in the US already struggle with low incomes and unaffordable housing costs. Evictions already pose serious risks (PDF) and with the additional financial strain caused by COVID-19, the risk of eviction will rise.
But eviction moratoria on their own, as many governments are proposing or enacting, would only address a small part of the crisis. Without additional rent relief or flexible cash assistance, moratoria could reduce COVID-19 transmission risks today but create an eviction tsunami later. Even with flexible cash assistance, the level of support would need to be high enough to pay rent rather than address other needs, and anticipating a solution to the rent shortage will come later. In places with a full eviction moratorium, the courts and sheriffs’ offices are not processing evictions, but the hearings and writs for possession will resume eventually—meaning landlords take a hit now, and tenants will take a hit in the future. Tenants and landlords need a way to ensure evictions are not just delayed; they need emergency rental assistance to keep all parties solvent through this unprecedented global crisis.
Tight rental markets and perpetually underfunded rental assistance has caused nearly 21 million renters to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. At a time with stalled incomes, increased health care needs, and limited opportunities for at-risk families, affordability problems will worsen. Families’ unpaid rent will grow each month. The current moratoria vary from silence about when rent comes due again to a 6-month window for repayment. But policymakers cannot assume that renters who were struggling financially before COVID-19 will resolve the rent arrears later, nor that property owners can wait indefinitely to get paid.
For landlords, an eviction moratorium during the pandemic offers a complicated mix of help and harm. Landlords in Washington state were among the proponents of an eviction moratorium there. In addition to helping renters through a sudden loss of income, a moratorium reduces both parties’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 at court or during an eviction and avoids unit turnover that will likely result in extended vacancies. Both landlords and tenants want rental properties to maintain occupancy, at least for the time being. But a moratorium without emergency rental assistance leaves landlords covering the costs of a rental business without the revenue.
The 43 million US households who rent their homes still wait for federal relief. The announcement of eviction and foreclosure relief by President Trump led the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Finance Agency to suspend foreclosures and evictions of homeowners for at least 60 days on Federal Housing Administration–insured mortgages or government-sponsored enterprise–backed mortgages for single-family homes. Although a modest portion of those loans are for investor-owned properties, renters and rental property owners have not received sufficient attention in federal relief efforts.
Our experience suggests that federal policymakers should urgently address evictions and the added rental affordability risks from COVID-19 to help renters and landlords. Congress could model a solution on the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program or expand cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for the duration of social distancing and job losses. Evidence shows that such cash assistance should come monthly, be sufficient enough to pay rent and other bills, and avoid infeasible work requirements.
Whichever approach we pursue, our expertise indicates that any eviction moratorium should have a complementary rental assistance policy. Otherwise, we could worsen the existing eviction crisis while trying to address the pandemic.