A new tremor is threatening to shake minority communities as protests over racial injustice sweep the country: A wave of evictions as a federal moratorium on kicking people out of their rental units expires.
The ban on evictions — which applies to rentals that are backed by the government — expires in a matter of weeks. On top of that, the federal boost to unemployment benefits that many laid-off workers have used to pay their rent is set to end July 31.
Black and Latino people are twice as likely to rent as white people, so they would be most endangered if the protection from removal is ended. But there’s no relief in sight from Congress, with Republicans and Democrats not even expected to begin negotiating a new economic relief package until after the July Fourth holiday.
“How many people are going to be homeless?” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) asked Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson at a hearing Tuesday at the Senate Banking Committee, his voice rising. “How many people are going to lose their homes, and what are you as an administration going to do about it?”
Carson did not provide an estimate of how many people stand to be evicted when the moratorium ends on July 24. A HUD spokesman said the agency “does not have these numbers available.”
The moratorium covers evictions, not rent payments, and nearly 26 million people will have trouble coming up with the rent by September amid the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, according to Zach Neumann of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. Forty-four percent of black tenants said they have little or no confidence they would be able to meet their next rent payment, according to the latest snapshot from the census, conducted the last week of May.
That and rising black unemployment could make for a combustible mix on the streets. The May 25 killing of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of cops has sparked protests in cities around the country. Mass evictions this summer would almost surely fuel additional unrest.
“Think about it: People are still unemployed. If they’re being evicted, they’re going to be out in the streets anyway,” said Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “If what you want is to get people back to work and not have people out in the streets protesting, then maybe you don’t want to kick them out of their houses.”
“Wall Street has bounced back, the stock markets are doing fine, rich folks are becoming more wealthy — the Jeff Bezos’s of the world are getting richer — and we’re getting evicted. It’s just a recipe for disaster,” she added.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told housing advocates on a call last week that the furor over Floyd’s death had brought new urgency to discussions of the racial disparities endemic in American life.
“One knee to the neck just explode[d] a tinderbox of other injustices that we must address, and one of them is housing,” Pelosi said. “Housing security is a matter of justice, as structural racism puts communities of color unfairly at risk of being rent-burdened or homeless.”
The congressionally mandated eviction plan applies to tenants in buildings with federally backed mortgages — covering just over 12 million of the nearly 44 million rental units in the country. Others may be covered by a patchwork of state and local moratoriums, but those are also starting to expire. Twelve states ended eviction protections in May, and the 8.2 million renters in New York will see their protections start to lapse on Aug. 20.
That gives a large advantage to white people: While about 74 percent of white households live in homes they own, only about 44 percent of black households and 49 percent of Latino households do, according to census data.
Black and Latino households also pay a higher share of their income on rent in most major metropolitan areas, according to a Zillow analysis.
House Democrats have passed sweeping legislation that would replace the current eviction ban on federally backed properties with a 12-month expanded moratorium on evictions for all tenants. It would also give tenants $100 billion in rental assistance to prevent falling behind on payments and getting hit with a massive bill when moratoriums end.
It’s not just Democrats who are worried about a potential rash of evictions, though. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said this week that policymakers need to figure out “what else can be done for the renters to ensure that they're not put in a situation of potential eviction once the grace periods might end.”
But Senate Republicans are pumping the brakes on pouring more stimulus into the economy before the last relief package is exhausted, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell floating August as a timeline for the next round.
Key Republicans also oppose continuing to provide expanded unemployment benefits, arguing that the enhanced payments are discouraging recipients from returning to lower-paying jobs.
Pelosi told housing advocates that delaying negotiations is a nonstarter. “We do not have time for Mitch McConnell’s ‘pause,’” she said. “This is a lot of money that we’re talking about, but it’s only going to cost more the longer we go.”
Housing advocates warn that landlords around the country are already preparing eviction proceedings to file the moment they’re allowed to proceed, even as more than 20 million Americans — including more than 1 in 6 black workers — remain out of work.
“Unless Congress intervenes soon, the coming tsunami of evictions and homelessness will disproportionately harm black and brown people,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
About 40 percent of homeless people in the U.S. and over half of homeless families with children are black, even though just 13 percent of the population is black.
Rice said Floyd’s death was “just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and that decades of redlining — the government practice of blocking off black neighborhoods on official maps to discourage mortgage lending — was one of the main underlying contributors to the current unrest.
“It’s all connected — when you really pull back the layers of the onion, the root cause is residential segregation and systemic structural racism,” she said. “I think making sure we don’t have massive wholesale evictions is a sort of a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, but ultimately we’re going to have to get to the root causes.”