US braces for evictions crisis as aid talks stall in Washington

John BIERS
·4-min read

Activists and relief groups in the United States are scrambling to head off a monumental wave of evictions nationwide, as the coronavirus crisis leaves tens of millions at risk of homelessness.

The jobs catastrophe sparked by the global health emergency and the tepid rebound in the world's largest economy have left Americans struggling to pay rent and vulnerable to eviction.

Hopes for relief in the form of a fresh aid package from Washington were dashed as partisan bickering scuppered the latest negotiations.

The housing crisis is "already a tsunami," said Bambie Hayes-Brown of Georgia Advancing Communities Together, a coalition of nonprofit housing and community development groups.

"We got some funding from the United Way and we went through it so fast. We were just inundated."

Mariatou Diallo, who lives in New York, has not paid her rent since March, when her work in the health care industry dried up. The future frightens her.

"Right now, I'm very worried because I have an eight-year-old and if I'm evicted, I don't know what I'm going to do," she said this week at a rally for rent relief in the Bronx.

- 'Destabilization of communities' -

Weekly census data shows that more than 30 percent of renters in the United States have no or "slight" confidence in their ability to pay rent next month.

The Aspen Institute estimated as many as 40 million people could be at risk of eviction in the coming months, leading to "destabilization of communities" across the country.

Landlords have filed for nearly 35,000 evictions during the pandemic in 17 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, though 10 of those cities are blocking the move.

In some cases, renters have fallen months behind, but the crisis is only coming to a head now because eviction moratorium orders in several states have expired.

In addition, housing courts have reopened after being shuttered for months due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

Another factor is the ending on July 31 of federal supplemental unemployment benefits that provided $600 a week to workers laid off due to the pandemic. 

"Without the $600, nobody can pay the rent," said Yudy Ramirez, who lost her job as a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel in March.

Ramirez, 46, has not made payments for July or August on her apartment in the Bronx, which costs $1,100 a month. She has no news about possibly returning to her old job, and her health insurance benefits are about to lapse.

- 'Moratorium now!' -

The prospect of eviction looms especially threatening in working-class, non-white neighborhoods like the Bronx, which have suffered more deaths from COVID-19 and experienced disproportionate job losses.

About 50 people from the neighborhood including Diallo and Ramirez joined Monday's protest outside the Bronx Housing Court. 

"It's a pandemic -- moratorium now!" they chanted in English and Spanish, demanding that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo back legislation to forgive, or "cancel," rent.

They also want him to extend a moratorium on evictions for one year past the end of the virus crisis.

New York has barred evictions until October 1. But housing court is in session.

State officials have said trials will resume in the Bronx and other boroughs of New York by mid-September. 

- Advantage: landlord -

New York's tenant laws permit renters to withhold rent when there is a problem with the apartment, a right that can give renters leverage in court.

That is how Ramirez hopes to get ahead, by filing a claim about a broken front door and a leak in her bathroom.

That right does not exist in Georgia, where the landlord's duty to repair is separated from the tenant's duty to pay rent, said Erin Willoughby, director of the Clayton Housing Legal Resource Center.

Willoughby said tenants must respond to an eviction notice within a week -- or potentially face finding their belongings on the sidewalk, adding there are few defenses that work in court.

Arkansas, the last state in the US with a criminal eviction law, also does not allow tenants to withhold rent over habitability issues and offers few defenses to tenants in non-payment cases, said Kendall Lewellen of Arkansas Legal Services.

Attorneys can work to ensure that an eviction stays off a tenant's record, making it easier to find a new home, said John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

"There's always something to do, even in cases where the legal background is bad," said Pollock, whose organization is lobbying to ensure renters have legal representation.

Pollock said the US is facing an "epic catastrophe" on evictions, but that the situation could be mitigated by a fiscal package from Washington. 

The Democratic bill includes $100 billion in rent relief, as well as an extension of unemployment benefits. 

But the Republicans balked at the deal, and US President Donald Trump over the weekend issued a series of executive orders, including one on housing. 

Pollock however said Trump's action "doesn't actually do anything" to avert the crisis, noting it stopped short of requiring agencies to help tenants.

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