The new Housing Navigation Center in San Diego, a one-stop shop of services and resources for homeless people. Experts fear the pandemic could force millions from their homes across the country. Photo courtesy of Family Health Centers of San Diego.

As the coronavirus began to shut down large swaths of the U.S. economy in March, spiraling millions of Americans into unemployment, a patchwork of state and federal eviction bans were enacted to keep people in their homes.

Now those protections are vanishing.

Moratoriums have already expired in 29 states and are about to lapse in others. On Friday, a federal stay, which protects roughly one-third of American renters who live in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government, will run out.

There are protections in place for renters, and proposed extensions, but they vary widely from state to state and region to region.

An Assembly bill could push the state of California’s moratorium through April. The San Diego City Council this month extended the city’s moratorium through the end of September.

As many as 28 million people could be evicted in coming months, according to Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University who is the co-creator of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a national research center on the issue.

That’s nearly triple the estimated 10 million Americans who lost their homes during the years after the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Public health and housing experts say such a massive displacement of renters would be unprecedented in modern history.

In addition to the hardship that comes with losing one’s home, they say, the evictions could lead to a second-wave public health crisis as the newly homeless are forced into shelters or tight quarters with relatives, increasing the risk of spread of COVID-19.

Evictions have resumed in cities including Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, according to data compiled by Princeton University at its Eviction Lab. No single, comprehensive source exists to track U.S. evictions nationwide.

In Milwaukee, eviction filings dropped to nearly zero after Wisconsin instituted an emergency 60-day ban on evictions on March 27. But after that order was lifted May 26, evictions surged past their pre-pandemic levels.

Milwaukee recorded 1,966 eviction filings in the seven weeks following the ban’s expiration, an 89% increase from 1,038 notices filed in the seven weeks leading up to the moratorium, the Princeton data show.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician and the medical director for infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said it’s impossible at this point to establish a scientific correlation between evictions and COVID-19 spread and deaths; diagnosed coronavirus cases are up 150% in Milwaukee, for example, since the eviction moratorium ended.

What is not in doubt among public health experts, she said, is that evictions are dangerous during a pandemic. “A key tenet of prevention in a pandemic is to have the infrastructure that will minimize transmission from person to person,” Safdar said. “Any activity that breaks down that structure … makes containment of a pandemic exceedingly difficult.”

A July 17 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that in 44 U.S. cities and counties, eviction filings by landlords have almost returned to their usual levels in places where moratoriums have expired, or where bans were never enacted.

That study said evicted tenants are “at greater risk of contracting, spreading and suffering complications from COVID-19” because precariously housed people often are unable to shelter in place, and because they tend to use crowded emergency rooms for their primary medical care.

As evictions rise in some coronavirus hot spots, displaced families are doubling up with relatives or moving into shelters, creating conditions for the virus to spread widely, according to Diane Yentel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S.’s premiere affordable housing policy group.

“In these cases where social distancing is difficult or impossible, the likelihood of them contracting and spreading coronavirus increases exponentially,” Yentel said.

A fragile safety net is adding to the strain. Enhanced $600 weekly unemployment benefits provided by the federal government are set to evaporate next week, at a time when the national unemployment rate is 13.3%.

Landlords say the pandemic is a crisis for them as well. Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, says eviction is always a “last resort,” but “the rental housing industry alone cannot bear the financial burden of the pandemic.”

He said nearly half the country’s landlords are mom-and pop operators who have invested in rental property for retirement income.

COVID POSITIVE, AND FACING EVICTION

For weeks, eviction courts across America were shuttered due to COVID-19. Now, over Zoom, conference calls and even in person in some places, proceedings are ramping up again.

In Houston’s Harris County, more than 5,100 eviction cases have been filed since the virus upended the U.S. economy in March, according to data compiled by Houston-based data science firm January Advisors.

That’s still roughly half of pre-pandemic levels. But it’s worrisome to public health advocates given that Harris County has seen confirmed coronavirus cases jump 500% since Texas’s eviction ban was lifted May 18, the Reuters COVID tracker shows.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Mariah Smith was served an eviction notice on July 1. A shipping clerk for an aircraft parts maker, she lost her job in May.

Her fortunes have only gotten worse. Smith, 25, last week was diagnosed with coronavirus after experiencing chills, body aches and a sore throat. She said just walking leaves her winded.

She faces a court hearing on her eviction. Nick Homan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, agreed to help.

After Reuters contacted Smith’s landlord — a limited liability company named LPT 46 – an attorney representing the firm, Marvin Bynum II, said the company just learned of Smith’s COVID diagnosis. “The landlord is hopeful that Ms. Smith recovers soon, and is confident the parties can swiftly reach a mutually amicable resolution,” Bynum said.

Homan said the larger issue remains.

“There’s nobody in any position of authority to stop eviction right now,” Homan said. “I don’t see anybody making decisions on public health. I only see landlords making decisions about their finances.”

– Reuters and staff reports

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