Biden’s plan to halt evictions does not address ‘structural problems,’ housing advocates say

While some are celebrating President Joe Biden’s extension of a moratorium on evictions until the end of March, housing activists and advocates warn that the new administration has ignored major flaws in the order — and say it has led to continued evictions.

Attorneys for state legal aid groups as well as housing activists said that they are thankful some of their struggling clients may have more time in their homes because of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order. However, they say they are deeply disappointed that the Biden administration chose not to address major loopholes in the moratorium’s language that landlords and property companies have used to evict their tenants in friendly housing courts.

“They’re kind of leaving us to fight with our state court systems,” said Hannah Adams, a staff attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “They’re basically leaving it up to the states and judges to interpret what is a somewhat confusing and ambiguous order.”

The CDC order protects certain renters from eviction. Renters must prove they have lost income to the pandemic, exhausted all government housing assistance, attempted to make partial payments and are likely to become homeless if evicted. But some judges have interpreted the order to mean a landlord cannot file an eviction with the court, while others have determined that a landlord can file but cannot remove the tenant. Still other judges have strictly interpreted the order, leaving little room for defense attorneys to challenge an eviction, housing attorneys said.

What that means is that in states like Louisiana, where there are few tenant protections, renters facing eviction have lost their homes — despite the promises of the CDC moratorium — and legal aid services are stretched thin.

Adams said her practice has seen 260 percent more eviction cases in 2020 than in 2019. The moratorium has helped, but she said from September — when the order began — through December 2020, the organization saw a 275 percent increase in housing cases, compared to the same period last year.

“In short, we were really hoping that the administration in extending the order would provide clarity,” she said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic last year, landlords have filed more than 221,000 evictions across five cities in 27 states, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Meanwhile, renters are still falling farther behind on rent. By January, Moody’s Analytics estimates 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities.

“Eviction moratoriums postpone housing instability but they don’t prevent evictions — because the rent is still due,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit affordable housing advocacy organization, said. “Renters are continuing to accrue more back rent than they can pay.”

The most recent stimulus bill provided a lifeline for renters who lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced because of the pandemic. But even with an extra $300 a week in unemployment, renters are expected to still experience rent burdens, according to a recent analysis published by Zillow. The company said unemployed renters will typically spend 43 percent of their unemployment on rent with the $300 in additional payments, which still falls well above the 30 percent threshold for being considered rent burdened, it said.

The Biden administration has promised to ask lawmakers for an additional $30 billion in rental assistance along with $5 billion in emergency assistance for people facing homelessness. But with roughly 13 million renters behind on rent, it will be a challenge to get money to those in need before the moratorium expires, according to Doug Rice, a senior fellow with Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“You can’t just drop it in renters’ hands,” he said. “It will be many months for that assistance to make its way across the country to households who are behind on rent.”

Demand for local emergency rental assistance has far outpaced available resources in states like Ohio, which does not have a statewide eviction moratorium. Columbus’s emergency rental assistance program reopened in November after receiving $5 million from the state. Within two days, they exhausted all of the funds, according to Bill Faith, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessnessand Housing in Ohio.

Affordable housing has been a constant battle across the country, but has only been exacerbated by the pandemic-ridden recession. The coalition has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of people living on the streets of Ohio in 2020, the organization said.

Even after the country overcomes the virus, it will still need to grapple with the housing crisis, said Marcus Roth, a spokesperson for the coalition.

“This is a long-term problem,” Roth said. “It’s not going to go away unless they address the structural problems with the housing market.”

On Thursday, housing secretary nominee Marcia Fudge told senators she would take “extraordinary actions” to prevent people from losing their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary actions. And we are in extraordinary times,” Fudge said during a remote hearing. “Whatever it takes, we cannot afford to allow people in the midst of a pandemic to be put in the streets.”