Millions of U.S. renters face the prospect of eviction in January unless federal officials extend protections put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.
That month is when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ban on evictions is set to expire. The moratorium protects tenants who have missed monthly rent payments from being thrown out of their homes if they declare financial hardship. The CDC ordered the halt on evictions under the Public Health Service Act, which allows the federal government to enact regulations that help stop the spread of infectious diseases.
Between 2.4 million and 5 million American households are at risk of eviction in January alone, and millions more will be vulnerable in the months after, according to estimates from the investment bank and financial-advisory firm Stout Risius Ross.
While several states and cities have their own eviction bans with varying rules and expiration dates, the CDC order is the only one that covers the entire country.
Housing-industry executives said they expect the CDC eviction ban to be extended. Many landlords said they believe they are more likely to recover some rent by working with tenants than by evicting them.
While many states have enacted eviction moratoriums, the CDC order is the only protection for renters in some cities. Attorneys and judges said they expect courts to be overwhelmed once moratoriums end, creating a monthslong backlog of cases.
Yet in many cities and towns, the legal process is under way. While the CDC order helps keep renters in their homes, it doesn’t prevent landlords from beginning the eviction process in court.
Since the CDC eviction moratorium went into effect in September, building owners in places like Plano, Texas, and Milwaukee, have taken tenants to court through videoconferencing.
Landlords have already filed more than 150,000 eviction petitions during the pandemic in the 27 cities tracked by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Many of those tenants have lost their cases, and are now on the hook for all their back rent.
Some failed to qualify for the moratorium because they didn’t sign a declaration of their inability to pay, or because their landlord challenged their claim to financial hardship. Some renters have then had to leave their homes despite the ban being in place.
Evicted renters are still liable for months of unpaid rent. Moody’s Analytics said it estimates U.S. tenants owing as much as $70 billion in back rent by year-end.
John Pollock, staff attorney at the Public Justice Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit, said that if the moratorium isn’t renewed, January is expected to be the worst month for evictions in American history. “I don’t see how it’s possible that we’re not going to see more evictions on Jan. 1 than we’ve ever seen in a month,” he said.
Evictions stress cities where the pandemic already has weakened social-safety nets, housing advocates say. Studies show they also worsen the health crisis. New research led by an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the expiration of local eviction moratoria was associated with more than 10,000 excess deaths from Covid-19, potentially due to increased disease transmission from dislocation or homelessness.
The dollar amounts of unpaid rent in eviction cases astonish even some veteran judges. Justice of the Peace Michael Missildine of Collin County, Texas, said he was issuing judgments against tenants owing more than $10,000 in rent payments. In the past, a typical ruling would be a fraction of that sum.
“It’s not normal,” Judge Missildine said during a video hearing. “They’re getting large very quickly, and it’s very scary to see,” he added, referring to rent-debt figures.
Some landlords say they have offered installment plans or taken other steps to accommodate struggling tenants, but now have gone months without collecting rent. They are blocked from taking control of their property by what they consider overly restrictive local and federal laws.
Korvall Li in Seattle said he hasn’t seen a rent check since January from a townhouse tenant who makes a six-figure salary. That is a deficit of about $30,000. Mr. Li said he has continued his mortgage payments and is suing the state and city over eviction protections that exceed the federal moratorium.
“I already decided that I’m not going to be a landlord in the future,” Mr. Li said. “It’s really turned me off the whole real-estate thing.”
Those behind on their rent during the pandemic are disproportionately minorities, according to recent survey data from the Census Bureau. Nearly a third of Black renters and 18% of Hispanic renters said they were behind on rent last month. About 12% of white renters said they weren’t caught up on their rent payments.
Julie Watts, a Dallas wholesale worker who has been out of a job since the spring, has missed her $1,003 rent bill many times but kept her apartment because of the eviction ban. She is due to enter the hospital this month for an ailing kidney.
“I’m afraid to leave my apartment because I don’t want to come home from the hospital and find out my stuff is in the parking lot,” she said. “And for right now, my housing is more important to me than my health.”
Some tenants also struggle with videoconferencing applications, attorneys say. Missing a court hearing often means an automatic victory for the landlord. In St. Louis, a legal-aid intern said he had observed several hearings where judges granted landlords evictions because they believed the tenants had failed to log into the videoconference. In fact, they had been placed on silent mode, according to his sworn affidavit in October. Those judgments were overturned, the affidavit said.
“The courts still do not have adequate policies and procedures to accommodate these very real barriers,” said Lee Camp, a housing attorney in St. Louis.