This article originally ran on March 16, 2020. It was updated on March 18, 2020.
As more and more of American public life shuts down — schools, events, bars, restaurants — and the economic ripple effects of the coronavirus epidemic widen, the federal government and a growing number of cities and states are moving to protect people from becoming homeless.
The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it is temporarily suspending evictions and foreclosures for people living in Housing and Urban Development properties, and for homeowners who have single-family mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
That move comes after a growing number of cities and states — including San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Kentucky and New York — have enacted similar measures, temporarily halting some or all eviction proceedings. Housing advocates and lawmakers are pushing for a full, nationwide ban on both evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the crisis.
“Imagine if you’re in a situation where you just lost your job because of something out of your control, and you can’t pay your rent,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who last Friday signed an executive order putting a moratorium on evictions for at least 30 days. “We want to take that stress away from people who might feel that way.”
With every passing hour, cities and states across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, Illinois to Ohio, are taking increasingly drastic steps to try to slow the virus, steps that will also leave millions of people, especially hourly and low-wage workers, without work — and a paycheck.
Many are “just one financial emergency from not being able to pay rent, and coronavirus might be that emergency,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “They might lose their jobs, they might have their hours cut back because of loss of business, or they might get sick and not be able to show up at work, and then they face the possibility of eviction, and potentially homelessness.”
That is a particularly critical issue right now, in the middle of a pandemic, when Americans are being told to practice social distancing and to self-quarantine if they are sick — impossibilities for many who are homeless.
San Jose and San Francisco last week became the first big cities to put a moratorium on evictions. Since then, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston and a number of other cities have enacted similar measures. Several states — including New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky — have temporarily halted some or all eviction proceedings. And housing advocates and lawmakers are pushing for similar measures across the country.
“If you’re infected and you need to self-quarantine, if you live out on the streets, how are you going to do that?” Breed said. “Housing is a significant part of, especially if you’re sick, getting healthy. It’s a critical part of getting healthy and staying healthy.”
It’s also a critical part of public health efforts to flatten the curve, and slow the spread of the virus.
“I think it’s never been more obvious than it is right now that housing is health care. If people are not housed, they lose the ability to protect themselves and their community from getting sick,” Yentel said. “So it’s not only a moral imperative to prevent increased homelessness at this time, it’s a public health imperative.”
More than half a million people in the country are homeless. More than 18 million are severely cost-burdened when it comes to housing, meaning they’re paying more than 50% of their income on rent or their mortgage — most people in that situation are earning less than $30,000 a year.
“If you lose your income and you’re living in that situation, the next month you’re not going to be able to pay your rent,” said Cea Weaver, who works with Housing Justice for All, a nonprofit in New York that pushed hard for a statewide moratorium on evictions. “Folks are saying, if I don’t work for two weeks, I’m not able to pay my rent.”
That is true for Bettie, who’s 30 and works at a retail pharmacy near Los Angeles. She doesn’t want to give her last name, or her employer’s name, for fear of jeopardizing her job. But she’s afraid, as are her co-workers, of what would happen if they got COVID-19, or were exposed to someone who had it, and had to stay home for two or more weeks without pay. She only gets three sick days a year.
“My first concern is who’s gonna pay my bills?” Bettie said. “I’m pretty sure we’re probably a month or two behind being homeless if I were to lose a significant amount of time of work.”
That is why advocates like Weaver have been calling for an indefinite moratorium on evictions.
“We know that it’s really impossible to fight illness or to get adequate medical care if you are not adequately housed,” Weaver said. “For those who are suffering a loss of income because they’re being forced to stay home from work to protect their health or to protect others, voluntarily or to keep themselves safe, that loss of income could lead to an eviction for hundreds of thousands of people. And that would just make everything worse.”
There have been mixed responses from landlords and trade groups. In San Jose, a number of landlords expressed anger and concern over the proposed moratorium, and what it would do to their ability to pay their mortgages, according to the Mercury News. In New York, a major real estate trade association, the Real Estate Board of New York, put out an open letter — before the state had made a decision — announcing a voluntary 90-day moratorium on evictions.
“As owners and managers of more than 150,000 rental apartments in the City, we will help our residents weather this crisis safely in their homes,” REBNY wrote in an open letter. “Starting immediately, we are voluntarily pledging that we will not execute any warrant of eviction for the next ninety days unless it is for criminal or negligent behavior that jeopardizes the life, health or safety of other residents. With all the stress, health risk and economic suffering going on now, no one should have to worry about losing their place to live during this crisis.”
Another landlord group, the Community Housing Improvement Program, said in a statement that if lawmakers, “choose to enact moratoriums, we hope they will include appropriate compensation to building owners to cover financial losses.”
There is precedent for this. After major hurricanes and natural disasters — like Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Harvey — cities, states, the Federal Housing Authority, banks and private companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have put temporary moratoriums into place on both evictions and foreclosures.
Until now, though, such moratoriums have been more limited in scope. Because, Yentel said, “as of yet, we haven’t had a national disaster that covers the entire country.”