Eviction During a Pandemic
The pandemic has put health and wellness at the forefront of many Americans’ minds, reminding them of the vulnerability of life and importance of abiding by the safety precautions. However, for some Americans, this pandemic has not only been a health crisis but also a housing crisis. America has been going through an eviction crisis even prior to the pandemic due to the rise in housing costs despite stagnant wages, and this virus has taken the crisis to another level. According to the estimates by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, approximately 61 million eviction cases were filed from 2000 to 2016, averaging 3.6 million eviction filings per year . This translates roughly to seven evictions per minute. And similar to how people of color are currently experiencing higher infection rates and worse health outcomes than their white counterparts, studies have shown that people of color are far more likely to be filed for eviction than their white counterparts. Studies by Hartman and Robinson showed that around 80% of those facing eviction were people of color, mostly African American and Latinx populations. A study by Reinvestment Fund show that in Philadelphia between 2010 and 2015, a predominantly African American neighborhood (defined as demographics with at least 80% African Americans) had eviction rates that were over three times higher than a predominantly white neighborhood . The eviction crisis has been further exacerbated by the economic recession from the dramatic wage cuts and job losses during this pandemic. It is estimated that in the state of Pennsylvania alone, more than 240,000 families are currently at risk of being evicted without any federal or state-level support . According to the census collected at the beginning of December 2020, 13.3% of adults in Pennsylvania had either missed or had little to no confidence that they can pay the next month’s rent, which is equivalent to 691,033 households in Pennsylvania alone .
One of the ways the Pennsylvania state government has tried to mitigate this issue this past summer was through the Rent Relief Program using the federal funds it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It allotted a total of $150 million for rent relief and $25 million for mortgage assistance. However, only $67 million of the $175 million allocated were ultimately distributed to residents in need by the November 30th deadline. There were several reasons for this mishap. For example, the qualification criteria requiring the tenants to be currently unemployed or to have lost at least 30% of their income since March 1st was much too stringent. This became an issue for those who could not provide the necessary documents to prove their status especially in cases where the employers were out of business or had temporarily shut down . Second, for tenants to get the benefits, their landlords had to agree to receiving only $750 per month and forgive the rest of the rent fee for at least 6 months. For many regions where the rent costs were significantly higher, this obviously became problematic. For instance, according to RentHop, the median monthly rent in North Philadelphia West is $1280 for a 1-bedroom apartment and $1550 for a 2-bedroom apartment, which is considered about average for Philadelphia . After Governor Tom Wolf loosened some of the requirements, including extending the application deadline from September 30th to November 4th (different from the disbursement deadline, which was November 30th) and giving landlords and tenants the option to enter a repayment plan that requires tenants to repay the entire price owed by a certain date, there was a surge in people applying for this rent relief funding as the deadline quickly approached . However, out of the total 46,000 tenant applications and 29,000 property owner applications filed, only about a third received assistance due to incomplete applications and missing the deadline. The $108 million of federal funds that was left unspent has since been voted to be redistributed to the Department of Corrections, Pennsylvania State Police, and the Department of Health to pay healthcare and public safety employees responding to the pandemic . Again, the estimated number of households that are in danger of eviction in Pennsylvania is at least 240,000, and the government has decided to redirect the funds that were originally meant to help families and individuals who are at the brink of losing their homes, leaving many empty-handed.
Housing is not only one of the most basic human needs, but also an effective public health tool that can drastically reduce the spread of infection. When people face evictions, often their first resort is to move in with their family or friends’ homes, or to look for temporary shelters. However, it is well known that transmission rate is significantly higher among same household members compared to external contacts.
Another program that has been tackling this eviction crisis, the Eviction Diversion Program, hosted by the 35-year-old nonprofit organization called Good Shepard Mediation Program, has been providing a neutral third-party who helps mediate conflict between the tenant and the landlord. This program runs under the recognition that landlords often unfairly have the upper hand in court and that many of the conflicts that lead to eviction filings can be resolved out of court through better communication. They have a straight-forward application process: when a tenant has trouble paying rent, the landlord is required to send the tenant a “Notice of Rights” to either pay the rent or to sign a certification stating their inability to pay rent due to a COVID-related hardship. Then, the landlord can apply for a diversion with or without tenant’s consent and, within 30 days, both the tenant and landlord are contacted for a virtual mediation session to reach an agreement. A counselor follows up with both parties 45 days after the mediation to see how things are going. Since the start of the program in early September, requests for mediation have increased from a few per week to 90 per week by end of November. According to data provided by City Council Member Helen Gym's office, a sponsor of the program, out of the 399 total mediations held between September and mid-December, 261 have resulted in an agreement, 29 have agreed to continue negotiating, and 17 have not come to an agreement. The outcomes of the remaining 92 have not been recorded yet. An additional 320 mediations are currently scheduled or in the process of being scheduled, according to the data . This program is modeled after a community-level program that has saved over 16,000 homes from foreclosures , and there is much hope that this will provide a long-term solution to the eviction crisis that existed even before the start of this pandemic. The city decided to extend the program until the end of March 2021, and they are currently working on integrating the program into the city as a long-term tool.
With the inauguration of the new administration under President Joe Biden, the eviction moratorium has been extended to March of 2021. But the chances are Americans will continue to need assistance paying their rent past March. Although vaccines are starting to roll out, it will take many months for them to be distributed and many more months for the society to recover from this unprecedented time. Housing is not only one of the most basic human needs, but also an effective public health tool that can drastically reduce the spread of infection. When people face evictions, often their first resort is to move in with their family or friends’ homes, or to look for temporary shelters. However, it is well known that transmission rate is significantly higher among same household members compared to external contacts. A recent study by Sheen et. al. showed that the transmission rate between household members is up to 2.3 times higher than between non-household members. Furthermore, according to their simulation model based in the city of Philadelphia, the relative risk of infection in lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods would increase from 1.4 to 1.7 compared to higher socioeconomic status counterparts , further exacerbating the pre-existing health disparities between the two populations.
Clearly, our nation was not well-prepared to effectively respond to this pandemic. And sometimes what looks good on paper does not play out well in real life, like how the Rent Relief Program paid out only a third of what it promised to the struggling residents of Pennsylvania. New programs, like the Eviction Diversion Program, are trying to solve issues on a micro-level to reduce evictions from being filed in the first place. But we must do more. The truth is that in our nation right now, far too many people are struggling to protect their homes, one of the basic human needs that gives us a sense of belonging, identity, privacy, and perhaps most importantly, provides us a safe space during this extraordinary time. Our nation must acknowledge our eviction crisis and make housing a top priority during this pandemic and beyond.
Author: Hayoung Youn Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any organization with which I am affiliated.
Eviction crisis in America:
1. Gromis A. Eviction: Intersection Of Poverty, Inequality, And Housing. Princeton, NJ: Eviction Lab, Princeton University; 2019. https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2019/05/GROMIS_Ashley_Paper.pdf. Accessed January 23, 2021.
2. Policy Brief: Evictions in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: REINVESTMENT FUND; 2017. https://www.reinvestment.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Evictions_in_Philadelphia_brief_Final.pdf. Accessed January 23, 2021.
3. Household Pulse Survey. Census.gov. https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/hhp/#/?measures=HIR&s_state=00042&mapAreaSelector=st&barChartAreaSelector=st&mapPeriodSelector=13&barChartPeriodSelector=13. Published 2021. Accessed January 23, 2021.
CARES act funding for sate rent relief program:
4. Keith C. Pa. misses deadline to spend $108M in rent, mortgage relief from CARES Act. https://www.inquirer.com/news/pennsylvania/spl/rent-relief-pennsylvania-rrp-cares-act-eviction-mortgage-budget-doc-20201218.html#:~:text=Over%20the%20summer%2C%20Pennsylvania%20created,up%20until%20an%20extended%20Nov. Published December 18, 2020. Accessed January 23, 2021.
5. RentHop. Rental Stats and Trends. https://www.renthop.com/average-rent-in/philadelphia-pa. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Philadelphia eviction diversion program:
6. Brey J. Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program Extended After Showing Results. https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/philadelphias-eviction-diversion-program-extended-after-showing-results. Published December 22, 2020. Accessed January 23, 2021.
7. Allen T. ‘It’s a conversation’: Philly’s alternative to landlord-tenant court is preventing eviction. https://whyy.org/articles/its-a-conversation-phillys-alternative-to-landlord-tenant-court-is-preventing-eviction/. Published November 24, 2020. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Housing as a public health tool:
8. Sheen J, Nande A, Walters E L, Adlam B, Gheorghe A. The effect of eviction moratoriums on the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. November 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7605580/. Accessed January 23, 2021.