More than 30 million people have applied for unemployment as of April 30, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Many are falling behind on their rent and are being evicted, despite new rules designed to stop evictions. Experts say the moratoriums by state and local officials don't go far enough and are leaving tenants vulnerable.
"My main concern is that I'll be evicted," says David Perez. The self-employed father of one sells artisanal wares, like wallets and sandals, at a flea market in Elkridge, Md. "What's going to happen to my family?"
Perez hasn't had any income since the end of February because the flea market closed, and he says that he and his 14-year-old daughter are living off food donated from his church. He has already lost his van because he couldn't make his monthly payments.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order on March 5 to block evictions, and state courts are not accepting eviction case filings until after the end of the public health emergency.
The federal government has included some protections for housing in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, including a six-month moratorium on evictions that became effective March 27.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced a bill on April 17 that would cancel rents and mortgage payments until one month after the countrywide emergency declaration is lifted.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to state officials across the country urging them to commit to preventing mass evictions after the moratoriums end.
But these provisions do little to ease Perez's anxiety about the future.
"How will I get money to pay rent, to survive?" he says in a whisper. "I feel very vulnerable."
"Will Governor Hogan cancel rent?" he asks. "Will the governor create a fund to help us in time of need?"
Perez isn't alone. Housing activists are enlisting renters who can and can't pay rent starting May 1 to sign a pledge with the goal of putting pressure on landlords and policymakers. The campaign slogan is "Can't pay? Won't pay!"
About 48.5 million people rent their home, according to the 2015 American Housing Survey. And according to an analysis from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, almost half of the country's rental units are owned by individual investor landlords — "mom and pop" landlords — people who depend on the rental income to pay bills, including mortgages and utilities.
People of color are most likely to be renters. According to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, Latinx and black residents make up 18% and 12% of the country's population and they account for 28% and 18%, respectively, of the tenant population in the United States.
"The main crisis right now is paying for rent," says Gabriela Roque. She's a housing advocate with CASA, an immigrant rights organization working in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Roque says that since the pandemic started, she's hearing "horror and heartbreaking stories" from renters. "Many are borrowing to pay rent," and come June, says Roque, "they'll be evicted."
"If you lose your job for two or three months, you might be $3,000 in the hole with no way to really make that up," says Matt Desmond, a sociologist and lead investigator at the Eviction Lab, a group that studies eviction in the U.S. at Princeton University in cooperation with Columbia Law School.
The Eviction Lab set up the first national database for eviction data, which includes a state-by-state score card. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began its sweep across the nation, Desmond and his colleagues have been tracking the eviction moratoriums, utility cutoff bans and other protections enacted to preserve housing during this public health crisis.
"We're faced with millions of families who are behind in rent," he says. "Do renters have to pay back rent or start paying rent once the moratoria lifts?" None of that is clear, and it adds to the anxiety among this population, Desmond says.
An active debate going on among housing advocates is whether to push for federal relief to help pay back that rent, Desmond says, or whether they should push for the forgiveness of back rent. He isn't sure what the best option is, but he's certain that the status quo isn't enough.
"The moratoriums aren't strong at all, and the protections vary from state to state," Desmond says.
Some states such as Colorado lack a statewide moratorium.
Zach Neumann, an attorney who represents tenants in Colorado, says the problem in that state is "a patchwork of federal and local eviction moratoriums, but they don't cover everyone. It's creating a ton of confusion."
Before the pandemic, Neumann ran a small social enterprise law firm providing low-income residents with legal representation on day-to-day economic issues — things like evictions and debt.
Late one Sunday night in March, Neumann posted a message on Facebook.
"If anyone is worried about paying your rent when rent comes due. Feel free to reach out," he wrote.
He went to bed and woke up to hundreds of messages the next morning.
"I was totally shocked," says the 36-year-old lawyer. "I just had no idea that it would be such a significant issue or that we would have this volume of clients," seeking help.
Neumann and lawyer friends created the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project to provide pro bono representation to tenants who can't pay their rent in Colorado. The project put together an economic analysis to try to gauge the size of the eviction risk in the state and estimates that about 500,000 people in Colorado will face eviction risk in the next few months.
"It all started organically," to help those in need, Neumann says, but the current national crisis is sobering. "It's like being like a rec league football player and then being told that you're playing in the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl is tomorrow."
Neumann worries that by the middle to the end of summer, most of the federal support that has been enacted, such as expanded unemployment insurance, federal relief and other assistance, will no longer be in place.
"The frightening thing is that even if you have a moratorium in place, when that moratorium is lifted, landlords will immediately be able to begin eviction proceedings against nonpaying tenants," and that's going to happen all over the country, he says.
A homeless crisis was already in place in the U.S. long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Neumann warns that it will get worse: "We're looking at a tidal wave of evictions." He adds that even with moratoriums currently in place, "evictions are happening."
Some tenants come to Neumann's group after being evicted.
"It's not unusual," he says. "People are confused about the kinds of rights they have."
People like Carlos Bott.
"My landlord called me about 20 times a day from 8 in the morning to 9 at night," Bott says.
He asked for permission to get a roommate to help pay the monthly $1,595 rent and says his landlord got very angry and started pressuring him to move out.
Bott and his wife co-signed the lease of their duplex in Longmont, Colo. The problem is that his wife and their two young kids are in the Philippines. The kids are U.S. citizens, but his wife isn't. The family got caught up in the worldwide coronavirus lockdown, and they haven't been able to finalize his wife's immigration documents. He says his landlord accused him of misrepresenting himself on the lease.
Bott is a software engineer, and until recently he worked with Major League Baseball on the Ballpark app and other apps. When the pandemic hit, he moved his office home, under the shelter-in-place orders. He says his landlord reminded him that working from home is a violation of his lease, which doesn't allow home-based businesses.
Then Bott lost his job, and, he says, that's when the harassment from his landlord felt relentless.
"What hurts the most is that she's taking advantage of a bad situation," he says.
When Bott expressed concern about finding another place to rent, he says his landlord suggested he just sleep in his car. He says what's most shocking to him is that he thought renting from a "mom and pop landlord" would give him more protection, and that hasn't been the case. Bott had to move out but says he feels lucky to have found a room to rent through May.
"I'm going to be homeless after that," he says.
He has applied for unemployment benefits but worries about the future.
"Who's going to want to rent to an unemployed man?" he asks.
He reached out to Neumann last week after being evicted.
"I hope I get a day in court and compensation for what I lost in this forced move," Bott says, with frustration in his voice. "We've got to stop these landlords from doing this illegal stuff."
According to the Eviction Lab, local and/or statewide moratoriums expire on May 1 in five states: Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, South Carolina and Texas.