As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, housing insecurity has increased. With over 20 million Americans having lost jobs or experienced pay cuts, access to stable and affordable housing has become increasingly important. Housing insecurity is defined by the Urban Institute as missing or deferring rent or mortgage payments or having little confidence in one’s ability to make rent or mortgage payments. An August 2020 study by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) reported that nearly one in three renters experienced housing insecurity each week from late April 2020 to July 2020. With approximately 3.3 million renters receiving an eviction notice or being threatened with eviction since the beginning of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic marks what could be the most severe housing eviction crisis in American history. Housing insecurity is not equally distributed across the population, and there is a dire need for local, state, and federal assistance for those living in particularly vulnerable communities.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the CARES Act required landlords to issue a 30-day notice to renters before eviction and offered temporary federal rental assistance programs for those experiencing wage loss. However, this measure and all other relief initiatives have been temporary and partial in addressing the need for housing assistance. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) initiated an eviction moratorium in September, which temporarily prevents some eligible renters from being evicted. This moratorium, now set to expire in June 2021, has protected about 30 percent of renters as a short-term solution to the national housing eviction crisis. However, it does not prevent eviction proceedings from occurring altogether, nor does it absolve ongoing rent payment obligations of tenants.
The COVID-19 Relief Bill was signed into law in late December, extending the federal eviction moratorium and providing $25 billion through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) towards emergency rental and utility assistance. Combined, federal and state-specific measures have prevented about 1.6 million evictions since the start of the pandemic. However, only a fraction of the need has been addressed. According to Princeton Eviction lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, in some states, including South Carolina, Illinois, Texas, and Georgia, many tenants are unaware of their rights under the eviction moratorium, leading to a continuation of proceedings in eviction courts despite the pandemic. There is an estimated $70 billion in back-rent payments owed by renters across the country with limited resources or income. Additionally, 30-40 million Americans now face immediate risk of eviction upon the expiration of the moratorium in June. Thus, there is a pressing need to provide long-term housing assistance to prevent a massive wave of cases overwhelming eviction courts.
Housing Insecurity’s Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Communities
Discriminatory housing practices have consistently targeted communities of color in the United States, and these communities have faced unequal eviction practices long before the pandemic. This global health crisis has continued to exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities, particularly those within low-income Black and Latinx communities. Though progress was made with the passage of the Fair Housing Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act banning housing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and marital status, advancements have been largely undermined by ongoing inequities in access to affordable and stable housing, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the current economic crisis is universally impacting millions of Americans, there are clear disparities in housing insecurity impacts along racial and ethnic lines. Renters of color have experienced more difficulty with mortgage payments, homelessness, and evictions in comparison to White Americans. When the pandemic first emerged within the United States, an estimated 34 million individuals were already living under the poverty threshold with 3.7 million eviction cases filed each year by landlords. These numbers were disproportionately higher for Black, Latinx, and Native American communities. A September 2020 tracking survey by the Urban Institute found that nearly 45% of Black and Latinx renters nationwide have experienced housing insecurity since the start of the pandemic—a 13% increase since 2019. Another study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 78% of eviction filings within the first months of the pandemic in Boston occurred in communities of color. While an estimated 3.3 million renters had received an eviction notice by September, Black and Latinx renters were nearly four times more likely to be threatened with eviction or receive an eviction notice in comparison to white renters.
Housing insecurity and rising unemployment create an ongoing, vicious cycle for renters facing eviction, since job and housing insecurity impact all other aspects of life. Throughout the pandemic, unemployment and housing insecurity have been mutually linked, as renters and mortgage holders who lost jobs and earnings are nearly three times more likely to experience housing insecurity in comparison to job secure households. Housing insecurity also makes it difficult for renters to maintain employment, and lease violations and evictions remain on tenants’ housing records which negatively impacts a renter’s ability to secure housing in the future. Racially disproportionate housing impacts and evictions also translate to profoundly different outcomes and negative consequences for vulnerable communities. Housing insecurity ultimately leads to limited access to education and increased chances of homelessness, lower income levels and homeownership, food insecurity, and poor health outcomes.
With limited access to quarantine and isolation protections, people experiencing housing instability are more at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. A study by UCLA and Johns Hopkins researchers found that an estimated 433,700 additional COVID-19 cases and 10,700 deaths occurred after state eviction protections expired over the summer. The impact of lifting eviction moratoriums does not only cost Americans their homes and savings, but it also may cost them their lives. The long-lasting impact of the eviction process among households of color contributes to enduring racial inequalities in social, economic, and health outcomes. Federal, state, and legal aid assistance is desperately needed to confront these disparities through racially equitable approaches to securing housing stability.
Pro Bono Opportunities to Address Housing Insecurity
As federal eviction moratorium deadlines are rapidly approaching, there is a critical need for pro bono lawyers to step up and provide access to affordable legal services for low-income renters facing evictions throughout the pandemic. According to the Institute for Research on Poverty by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, approximately 90 percent of landlords have access to adequate legal representation throughout eviction proceedings in comparison to just 10 percent of renters. This lack of representation contributes to an overwhelming majority of renters losing eviction cases in courts, further contributing to the displacement of vulnerable renters. For example, according to a 2016 study by The New York Times surrounding the legal right to counsel in eviction courts, eviction rates reduce from 90 percent to 50 percent when a renter has adequate legal representation.
Pro bono attorneys can act in a variety of ways including interviewing clients, negotiating settlements, drafting and settling motions, conducting bench trials, advocating for sealing the client eviction records, and even litigating to prevent a client from reaching eviction courts altogether. For vulnerable renters facing eviction, this assistance can be the critical difference between displacement (and a downward spiral in quality of life) and stability (with an opportunity to build better futures). Linked below is a list of suggested resources and outlets for attorneys looking for ways to get directly involved in the pro bono efforts towards housing stability.
Thank you to PBI interns Nena Burgess and Robin Reikes for writing this blog.