WASHINGTON / KANSAS CITY, MO - Tiana Caldwell of Kansas City, Missouri, is one of approximately 40 million Americans who are  in danger of being evicted from their homes by the end of the year; a direct result of the economic slowdown and massive job losses caused by the coronavirus outbreak, according to a national housing group.   

Caldwell lost her job and was in treatment for ovarian cancer when she and her family were evicted -- in 2019. 

“We had gotten back on our feet, we were doing good, and then I got cancer … again,” she told VOA via Zoom. “So, I was actively in treatment when we were being evicted. … It was a bad experience.”  

Now, unemployed and barely able to pay rent, Caldwell is organizing protests with KC Tenants, a group advocating for affordable housing in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Attorney Gina Chiala (ctr) in court with a tenant (right) and an intern, Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo: courtesy HCJF)

Facing eviction 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, which earlier this month announced that 30-40 million Americans face eviction in the coming months, is a group that focuses on low-income housing policy and trends, and analyzes data to create a forecast for the needs of low-income housing across the U.S.

Like most of the country, Missouri was already experiencing an affordable housing crisis when the pandemic hit.

Currently, nearly 50% of renters in the state are at risk of eviction because they can’t pay their rent, KC Tenants Director Tara Raghuvee told VOA via Zoom. 

“There were already tens of thousands of renters in the state of Missouri who were paying over 50% of their income to rent before the pandemic, and now…hundreds of thousands are unemployed or have been unemployed through some period of this pandemic, and the debt that has amounted in the meantime for a lot of poor and working class families is simply insurmountable,” Raghuvee said.

The Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom is a non-profit organization that provides free legal information, advice and representation to low wage workers in the areas of employment, consumer and housing law. (Photo courtesy HCJF)

Federal assistance

Many Americans have been receiving financial assistance through state and federal unemployment benefits. But the supplemental federal assistance of $600 a week lapsed in late July, putting millions in jeopardy of not being able to pay their rent.   

“So people are about to be in the depths of a crisis unlike anything we've seen before,” Raghuveer said. 

Housing rights advocates are calling for rent relief and an extension on eviction moratoriums, an issue that was recently addressed by President Donald Trump. 

“I'm signing an executive order directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HHS (Health and Human Services) and CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to make sure renters and homeowners can stay in their homes,” he announced during a press conference from his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, August 8. 

But attorney Gina Chiala says there is no eviction moratorium to be found in the order. 

Chiala heads the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, which provides legal advice about housing to low-wage workers in Kansas City, Missouri.  

“Most of the people we represent who are facing eviction do make less than $15 an hour, and so this is a problem that preceded the pandemic,” she told VOA via Zoom. “And now it's only going to get worse, and we must all come together and fight for Congress to do something about this, not just to stem the bleeding now, but to permanently fix both our wage problem and our housing problem.” 

KC Tenants board member Tiana Caldwell (Right) at the podium with her son AJ and director of KC Tenants Tara Raghuveer while he speaks at a KC Tenants rally, pre-COVID. (Photo courtesy Tiana Caldwell)

Compassion versus commerce

Chiala and other affordable-housing advocates are calling on the federal government to implement long-term policy initiatives to tackle the low-wage and affordable housing problems. 

In the meantime, they are encouraging landlords to work with their tenants and negotiate whenever possible. 

But with 40% of the nation’s rental units owned by mom-and-pop landlords, many cannot absorb the losses from unpaid rent.    

Tracey Benson is president and founder of the National Association of Independent Landlords. Founded in 1998, the association provides help and support to its 200,000 members nationwide.

“It’s unprecedented times right now for our association, because we're getting constant calls by worried landlords that are worried about losing not only their rental homes, but also their (own) homes,” she told VOA via Zoom. 

Association member Kathy Phillips, a landlord in North Carolina, owns 10 rental properties that she depends on as her only source of income. One of her tenants has been falling behind on the rent. 

“She has rented from me for six years and has always been a good tenant,” Phillips said. “She's a single parent and I don't feel comfortable evicting a single parent in this climate of COVID.” COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Phillips offered her at-risk tenant 50% off her rent for three months and doesn’t expect her to repay the difference.

“She's looking very desperately for a job and we're hoping she’ll get a job in those three months. … If I don't have the rental income, then I can't pay my bills.” 

Tiana Caldwell (holding paper) and others with Mayor Quinton Lucas at the signing of Kansas City's Tenant Bill of Rights, December 2019. (Photo courtesy Tiana Caldwell)

Federal relief

And while moratoriums and rent relief would help tenants in the short term, many say what’s needed is implementation by the federal government. 

Phillips also said she believes the federal government needs to do more for both tenants and landlords. 

“I don't think there's a lot of answers until we have income for all these unemployed people. It would be nice to have some sort of help from the government for the landlords, but right now there's not, and you've got to be empathetic.”     

Caldwell, of Kansas City, would agree. While she was able to make her August rent, she is fearful about the future.

She said having been evicted twice “felt like a personal attack.”

“Because it's like, ‘Well, what did I do that was wrong? What did my family do that was wrong, because they wanted to take care of me?’ We need our government to show up for us, and it could do that for all of us, landlords and tenants, so that our country can get back to being better,” she said.

Until that time, and until talks resume among lawmakers for more financial relief, Caldwell said she will continue to fight for the right to be heard.