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July 27, 2020

COVID-19 and Evictions

A “Tsunami” May Be Coming

National estimates predict that 20 to 28 million renters are at risk for eviction by September.

National estimates predict that 20 to 28 million renters are at risk for eviction by September.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment. Usually unemployment benefits cover only part of a person’s wages, so the government provided $600 a week in supplemental benefits to help. With those added benefits about to end and the job market and economy still struggling, there are very real fears that a “tsunami of evictions” may occur next month when over 16 million people can’t pay their rent.  

Last month, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation’s largest provider of legal aid funding, hosted a call to discuss the oncoming eviction crisis and how legal service providers can best serve their clients. Matthew Desmond, head of the Eviction Lab and author of Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City, spoke at the event about the need for data collection on evictions to better understand the scope of the nation’s housing crisis. He noted that the federal government does not collect data on evictions, even for those living in publicly funded housing.

Panelists from legal aid organizations reported that they are already seeing eviction proceedings rise sharply due to an increasing inability to pay rent. National estimates predict that 20 to 28 million renters are at risk for eviction by September. Many people would already be removed from their homes but for current state and federal moratoria on evictions. However, legal aid organizations reported that some landlords ignored these moratoria or engaged in self-help measures, such as illegal lockouts. Nevada Legal Services reported that in 2019 their office only handled twelve lockout cases; yet from February to June 2020, they accepted more than 800 lockout cases. Even groups protected under the CARES Act, such as those residing in publicly funded housing, have seen an increase in eviction filings, with Legal Services of Northwest Texas reporting that 7% of Houston’s eviction filings are from federally backed housing providers.

As states lift their emergency orders, eviction filings are expected to increase dramatically. Tenants confronted with eviction notices face enormous challenges, especially during this pandemic. Typically, many tenants cannot afford an attorney and are unsure of their rights during an eviction hearing. LSC notes that approximately 90% of tenants have no legal representation in these proceedings, whereas 90% of landlords do. Additionally, many tenants lack internet access for virtual hearings or cannot safely appear in court during the pandemic, meaning that eviction proceedings will increasingly occur without tenants present and often result in default judgments. Legal service providers predict that this enormous disparity will lead to hundreds of thousands of evictions and newly homeless Americans.

Experts agree that to reduce the evictions expected in the coming months, more funding is needed for public housing and for legal services to help tenants facing eviction proceedings. LSC requested $100 million in emergency federal funds to increase access to legal services, and so far, it received $50 million. LSC is requesting another $50 million in Congress’ next stimulus bill and the ABA fully supports that request. The House has already included the extra $50 million in its stimulus bill (the Heroes Act), but the Senate has not yet addressed the issue.

Besides advocating for emergency LSC funding to help address the looming eviction crisis, the ABA also sent a letter on July 21 urging Congress to prioritize housing stability and safety for people across the country. Government stay at home orders understandably prioritized personal safety over jobs and economic security, but there must be an economic strategy to help those who complied with the orders and are facing financial hardships as a result, whether landlords or tenants, especially now that some COVID-19 relief is ending. 

Want to help? Click here to tell your Members of Congress to include more emergency funding for LSC and to prioritize housing stability for their constituents during this pandemic.

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