'All Of Us Are Going To Feel The Impact': 40 Million Renters At Risk Of Eviction By Year's End

Published: Friday, August 14, 2020 - 12:21pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: As the pandemic continues and millions of Americans are out of work because of it, concerns over a dramatic increase in evictions and homelessness have remained intense. Gov. [Doug] Ducey recently extended a moratorium on evictions, but [the week of Aug. 9], a lawsuit was filed  to overturn it with the argument that landlords have had some tenants who haven't had to pay their rent in months. New research says evictions could reach as high as 40 million by the end of this year if Congress doesn't act to extend other moratoriums and assist renters. Stacy Butler of the University of Arizona's Innovation for Justice Program was part of the research compiled by nine institutes and organizations. And she's with me. Stacy, the numbers indicate that Arizona's circumstances are consistent with the rest of the country's. So what would you like the federal government to do now to lessen the problem?

STACY BUTLER: So most urgently, we need to have eviction moratoriums put back in place. The eviction moratorium that was embedded in the CARES Act was protecting approximately 30% of the rental property in United States. Many states had also enacted eviction moratoriums, which are now largely expired. But those state-based eviction moratoriums were protecting other rental properties. We need to halt eviction to buy us some time. It is an emergency stopgap measure. That it needs to be in place so that we have time to put other measures in place to stabilize housing. And the biggest policy change that we need to have happen as soon as possible is rental assistance. We need to keep people in their houses and give them the ability to pay their rent. When people can pay their rent, then property owners can get paid. Property owners can use rent to pay for maintenance on buildings, their own financial well-being, but also property taxes. Property taxes support our hospitals and our community services and our schools. So the rental market is really critical to the health of the community.

GOLDSTEIN: Even as there hasn't been more action taken, we certainly hear a lot about what to do for folks who are unemployed or out of work because of COVID. Do you think this has been something that hasn't been enough of a priority? Yes, we've heard about evictions, but not necessarily about good ways to keep folks at least in place for a while.

BUTLER: I think there's a lot of confusion about what can and can't help renters. We hear a lot from property owners who feel that the talk about eviction is somehow vilifying the landlord community, and I think that's certainly not the intention. We support both rental assistance in that it can help property owners pay mortgages, but also mortgage forbearance for property owners to be in a position to be able to stabilize that rental housing while they're waiting for tenants to secure that rental assistance. There are numerous bills that have been sitting in the House, were passed by the House and sitting in the Senate, that that would provide the relief like eviction moratorium, rental assistance, unemployment benefits that could be used to pay rent. And unfortunately, we just haven't been able to get them out the door.

GOLDSTEIN: Stacy, there's a lot of praise for the CARES Act, but obviously there are concerns about violations related to it. I want to ask you about what you found when it comes to aspects of that, when it comes to protecting renters. Were there specific things that you found that were, were clear violations?

BUTLER: Well, what we saw in the community with the CARES Act protections was just a lot of confusion. Tenants not being sure whether they were living in a CARES Act-protected property. Landlords not being sure if they were, if their property was secured by a federally-backed mortgage. For tenants, how to assert that, that right to not be evicted and to not incur fines or costs or fees against the property while you're struggling to pay your rent. You know, I, I believe that to the extent that there have been violations of the CARES Act; largely they have been inadvertent. That it's just been a struggle in the community to understand the protections in place and eligibility for those protections. And, you know, we try to assume the best about the property-owning community and, and their interest in complying with the CARES Act.

GOLDSTEIN: There was already tremendous concern about low income housing, affordable housing across the country. Obviously, Arizona has seen a lot of that as well. This was well before the pandemic. How much has this complicated and made the situation even more dire, because we already had a situation to begin with?

BUTLER: You're right that there was a, there was a shortage of affordable housing before, and that just meant that we had a lot of housing-insecure families and a lot of cost-burdened rental, rental families or rental households. To put the upcoming evictions... in perspective, though, prior to COVID, there were about 3.6 million eviction actions filed each year. So when we look ahead at a potential 30 to 40 million renter households at risk of eviction, it's just, it's unprecedented. We will not have ever seen anything like this.

GOLDSTEIN: If there is not enough action taken in the next small period of time, what could the homelessness situation in Arizona, in the U.S. look like?

BUTLER: Well, eviction brings a lot of downstream costs. I mean, homelessness is what immediately comes to mind. And we certainly don't have the infrastructure in place to rapidly rehouse the number of people that could be facing evictions. We don't really know how many of those families will be able to find housing in other ways. Certainly, we can expect overcrowding as families try to shelter together. That's not ideal during a global pandemic. But eviction carries other downstream costs. The people who are evicted have higher rates of need for medical care and mental health care. Children who are evicted have long-lasting consequences for their physical well-being and their emotional health. And then communities bear the cost, because, as I said, rent supports property taxes, which pay for our hospitals, community services and schools. So none of us are going to be sheltered from the eviction pandemic that's coming. All of us are going to feel the impact.

GOLDSTEIN: Stacey Butler is director of the University of Arizona's Innovation for Justice Program. She joined us via Skype. And you're listening to The Show. As the pandemic continues and millions of Americans are out of work because of it, concerns over a dramatic increase in evictions and homelessness have remained intense.

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