An estimated 8.4 million households could face eviction cases
The United States could see a Hurricane Katrina of evictions next month, as the federal Center for Disease Control’s limited moratorium on evictions and two programs expanding unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire by Dec. 31.
In late September, the National Council of State Housing Agencies projected that by January 2021, up to 8.4 million renter households containing more than 20 million people could have eviction cases filed against them. It estimated that would include more than 1 million people in California, 860,000 in Texas, and 730,000 in New York.
The crisis has been looming for months as back rent piled up for people who lost jobs or income during the epidemic, but tenant organizers around the country say the breaking point will come if the federal eviction moratorium and the expanded unemployment-benefit programs—a 13-week extension for people who have exhausted the six months of regular benefits, and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to freelance and gig-economy workers—are not renewed. The CDC’s order, which prohibits evicting people who have lost income from pandemic-related causes for nonpayment of rent if they would likely end up homeless, is scheduled to expire Dec. 31.
Come January, I don’t think any locality in Massachusetts will have an eviction moratorium. We’re facing down a new year with no protections. It’s hard to put words to how scary it is.Helen Matthews, City Life/Vida Urbana, Boston
In April, Massachusetts enacted “one of the strongest eviction moratoriums, because we organized and fought for it,” Helen Matthews of City Life/Vida Urbana says, but it expired in October. Since then, she adds, almost 3,000 nonpayment eviction cases have been filed, along with thousands more “no-fault” cases, such as when the tenant’s lease has ended and the landlord wants to replace them with someone who can pay much higher rent. (Landlords in Boston and Cambridge could not refuse to renew leases without good cause until 1994, when a state ballot initiative prohibited local rent-control laws.)
City Life/Vida Urbana has had some success organizing tenants to bar-gain collectively for lower rent, how-ever. In November, when a California real-estate investment firm bought an apartment complex in the Mattapan neighborhood, the newly formed tenant association negotiated a deal that gave all residents five-year leases with rent increases limited to 3-3.25 percent a year.
In California, the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act, enacted in August, sets complicated rules to protect ten-ants who can demonstrate COVID-related hardship: If they owe rent from before Aug. 31, they can’t be evicted for nonpayment, but can be taken to small-claims court for the debt. They have to pay 25 percent of rent owed since then by Jan. 31, when the law expires, and will have to begin paying the rest by March 1.
The law “seems to have pushed back the tidal wave we still think is on the horizon,” says Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a Los Angeles housing-rights organization. But it’s so complex that “it even confuses me,” he adds.
While 80 percent of apartments in Los Angeles are rent-controlled, he says, the city already had the highest rate of overcrowding and “rent burden” as a percentage of residents’ incomes in the nation even before the epidemic hit. And tenants’ knowledge of their rights, he laments, is so low that “sometimes all the landlord has to do is file an eviction notice and people will move.” The epidemic has made it much harder to reach people; CES’s tenant-rights clinic is now being conducted on Zoom.
I spend my days from morning until night dealing with tenants who are panicked. It’s like someone lit a huge bomb under us, and we’re watching the fuse get closer and closer.Larry Gross, Coalition for Economic Survival, Los Angeles
In Alameda County, the East Bay jurisdiction that includes Oakland and Berkeley, courts have decided not to process most eviction cases, but there have been more evictions in Contra Costa County to the east, according to the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
Eviction “doesn’t make sense when we’re asking people to stay inside,” says ACCE board chair Sasha Graham, who lives in the East Bay city of Albany. Both ACCE and CES are calling for the state to pass a law cancelling rent debt accrued during the pandemic.
“We need to forgive people for not paying the things they cannot pay,” says Graham. But the two groups also want that coupled with aid for small landlords, so they don’t lose their buildings to foreclosure and being snapped up as “distressed assets” by corporate and private-equity owners like Blackstone and Invitation Homes.
We could end up with the Wall Street guys coming in and grabbing up properties.Sandy Rollins, Texas Tenants Union, Dallas
Lone Star State tenants have almost no rights, Sandy Rollins says. Rent strikes are illegal, tenants can be held in default it they’re even one day late with the rent, and the most commonly used lease form says they can be evicted within 24 hours after a court orders them out.
Eviction cases in Texas dropped dramatically when the state Supreme Court imposed a moratorium last spring, but have since crept back up. In Dallas, the number of eviction cases, only 30 in April, was close to 1,500 by June, says Rollins. According to state court records, 107,000 new land-lord-tenant cases had been filed as of Sept. 30, slightly more than half the number filed during the same period in 2019.
Some tenants have been able to fend off eviction using the CDC moratorium, and Dallas and Austin have enacted laws to give tenants more time to respond to an eviction notice and to arrange payment—but “we’re seeing all these things come to an end at the end of the year,” says Rollins.
The state’s Eviction Diversion Program, established in October to offer rental assistance to low-income tenants financially affected by the pandemic, is scheduled to be expanded statewide on Jan. 1, from 19 to 254 counties—but it will expire Feb. 1.
Tenants in Kansas City, Mo., also have minimal rights. Earlier this month, when the tenant union in an apartment building where the landlord had ordered all 68 residents to move out by Jan. 31 demanded free rent for December and January, he responded, “LOL.”
Since the city allowed evictions to resume June 1, landlords have filed more than 2,400 eviction cases, and judges have ordered more than 650 tenants thrown out, says Kansas City Tenants director Tara Raghuveer. Many eviction hearings are held as online teleconferences, she adds, and the courts provide no guidance about how tenants are supposed to join if they don’t have Internet access or speak a language other than English.
KC Tenants has responded with creative Zoombombing. The group says it has delayed more than 365 evictions since July by disrupting teleconference hearings, and in late November, one judge cancelled her entire eviction docket for the rest of the year.
We are mucking up a process that prioritizes landlords’ profits over tenant lives. We are buying critical time for tenants who, like all of us, need to stay home in order to stay alive during the pandemic.Tara Raghuveer, Kansas City Tenants, Kansas City
In Chicago, more than 1,500 eviction cases had been filed in Cook County courts as of Dec. 4, and will proceed if Gov. J.B. Pritzker does not extend the state’s moratorium when it expires Dec. 12, says Antonio Gutierrez, an organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union. The group, based in Albany Park, a multiracial but gentrifying neighborhood on the Northwest Side, has seen landlords be aggressive about trying to oust tenants, he says—although the state’s moratorium gave it leverage to help stop the new owner of a seven-apartment building from emptying it.
The ATU had been campaigning to repeal the state’s ban on local rent-con-trol laws and for a law to prohibit evictions without “just cause,” but is now concentrating on “creating the infra-structure for eviction support,” Gutierrez says. That includes connecting tenants with legal services and helping immigrants with income and legal documents.
We’re preparing for the worst.Antonio Gutierrez, Autonomous Tenants Union, Chicago
Gutierrez is encouraged by the growth of “organic” tenant networks around the nation. The ATU is now part of the Chicago Tenants Movement, a coalition of 15 groups that includes the Chicago Teachers Union. The coronavirus crisis seems to have accelerated the recent development of tenant organizing outside its traditional strongholds in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles.
In Boston, City Life/Vida Urbana, which did a number of eviction blockade sit-ins during the foreclosure crisis of 2008-10, is again trying to organize an eviction-defense network. “We are prepared to do direct action and blockading evictions on a mass scale if we have to,” says Helen Matthews.
For Sasha Graham, the basic issue is fairness. “People don’t have any money. It’s just not possible to ask people to pay the last nine months of rent when there was already a housing crisis before the pandemic,” she says. “The money is there. It’s about having the courage to tax people who have the money. It has to be about the collective.”
A longer version of this story appeared in the Indypendent.