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As US Lockdowns Lift, Evictions Loom for Poorest City Dwellers

Makeshift banners displaying messages of protest contesting the ability to pay for rent hang in the window of an apartment building in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, May 18, 2020.

As U.S. lockdowns lift, evictions loom for poorest city dwellers. It’s putting millions of people, often in black communities, at risk of losing their homes, housing researchers and activists warned.

Many states have halted evictions since mid-March, as the novel coronavirus spread rapidly, but such provisions are scheduled to end in the coming months as the country reopens.

"There's every reason to expect that this will result in a pretty serious rental market housing crisis," said Peter Hepburn, a research fellow at the Eviction Lab, a research group at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“Renters already put a lot of their income toward paying rent, and many of them have very limited savings, if anything, to help them weather this crisis," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At least 29 million people in the United States are collecting unemployment checks, according to the Labor Department, as people suffered record job losses in recent months.

Evictions typically hit black communities hardest, data show — an illustration of the inequality fueling the protests over race and policing that have roiled the United States for weeks, activists say.

Black renters faced eviction filings by landlords at nearly twice the rate of white renters, according to an analysis of national data from 2012 to 2016 by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In May, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate to provide emergency funding to tenants facing eviction.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said it was asking public housing authorities to be flexible with residents who have been affected by COVID-19.

"HUD is doing all that it can to ensure that the millions of residents we serve do not lose their homes due to COVID-19," he said in emailed comments.

Black renters hit harder

A study released in May by Amherst, an investment research firm, estimated 28 million renter households nationwide were at risk of eviction in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are extremely concerned about that," said Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the Virginia Poverty Law Center in Richmond.

"If we don't get significant rent relief, then in Virginia, given the high rates of eviction we've had historically, we're going to see at least tens of thousands of people facing eviction."

Five cities in Virginia already rank among the 10 U.S. cities with the most evictions, according to the Eviction Lab.

Housing insecurity and evictions disproportionately affect black communities, researchers say. In New Orleans, the eviction rate in some black and low-income neighborhoods was almost four times the national average, a 2015-17 study by Loyola University and the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a housing association, revealed.

In the 11 months up to June 2019, the number of black households evicted in Baltimore was three times higher than that of white households, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Washington.

Black workers in the United States have lower and less secure incomes compared with their white counterparts, said Hepburn at the Eviction Lab.

"Once they miss rent, then their landlord is going to file for eviction," he added.

Eviction moratoriums

Moratoriums on evictions are lifting in coming weeks around the country.

Nationwide, an eviction moratorium on rental properties with federally backed mortgages runs through the end of August. That suspension affects an estimated 28% of U.S. rentals, according to the Urban Institute, a research nonprofit.

In New York state, the moratorium expires on June 20, but tenants who can prove that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a financial hardship that prevents them from paying rent can get two extra months' reprieve from eviction.

Tenant advocates want New York to extend the suspension at least through the end of the year. "It's unthinkable to evict people during this time," said Sandra Mitchell, a tenant leader in New York City.

Most evictions stem from nonpayment of rent, and tenants in arrears commonly owe less than a month's rent, according to the Eviction Lab.

"Give us time to do the right thing," Mitchell said this week on a media conference call sponsored by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, a group of tenant advocates. "We need to go back to work."