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As moratoriums expire, lawyers anticipate a spike in evictions. John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. looking at “a tsunami of evictions” as moratoriums expire

Samantha Fields May 29, 2020
As moratoriums expire, lawyers anticipate a spike in evictions. John Moore/Getty Images

Back in March, as the unemployment rate started skyrocketing, states started putting eviction moratoriums in place to keep people from becoming homeless in the midst of a global pandemic. The federal government did, too, but only for properties with federally-backed mortgages.

Now, those moratoriums are starting to expire

Already, more than a dozen states, including South Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin, have allowed eviction proceedings to resume. By the beginning of June, more than half of states will have no protections in place for renters. By the end of July, almost none will. 

“We are on the precipice of an enormous eviction crisis, a housing crisis that will have societal consequences for the indefinite future unless we intervene immediately,” said Emily Benfer, a visiting professor at Columbia Law School and director of the Health Justice Advocacy Clinic. “These stopgap measures are just that. The moment that they’re lifted, renters who are already hard-pressed will struggle to maintain housing.”

These moratoriums are expiring as the death toll from COVID-19 and the unemployment rate continue to rise. More than 40 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in just two and a half months, since the pandemic began, including 2.1 million last week. That’s about 25% of the entire workforce.

Meanwhile, the financial help that came out of the CARES Act is running out. Most people have already spent their stimulus checks, and the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits from the federal government will stop at the end of July. 

“At that time, we will see the true magnitude of missed rent and debt that accrues each month, and will continue to grow and escalate,” said Benfer, who has been tracking eviction moratoriums nationwide

Patrice Paldino, the executive director of Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, said her office is expecting “a tsunami of evictions” after Florida’s moratorium expires on June 2. Already, Legal Aid is hearing from people who have received notices that their landlord intends to move forward with eviction.

“Now all of a sudden we’ve decided on this arbitrary date of early June, and we’re going to be okay with everyone being homeless as of early June?”

Patrice Paldino, Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida

“During this period, we hoped to keep people from being homeless, and now all of a sudden we’ve decided on this arbitrary date of early June, and we’re going to be okay with everyone being homeless as of early June?” Paldino said. “What’s going to happen? People are going to get evicted, and we’re just going to move them from one home they can’t pay for to another one they can’t pay for? There’s no solution yet.”

The Democratic-led House of Representatives recently passed another coronavirus relief package that includes $100 billion in rental assistance, $75 billion in mortgage relief, another round of $1,200 stimulus payments, and extends the $600 weekly federal unemployment checks through January 2021, but it faces strong opposition from Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump.

“If there’s not a stimulus package that comes forward, what we’re going to see is rises in homelessness, a huge rise in instability for families, but it’s also going to rock the housing market,” said Shamus Roller, executive director at the National Housing Law Project. “It’s going to hurt landlords, it’s going to hurt banks, it’s going to hurt the entire system of providing housing, both on the financial side and on the human side.”

A number of states and cities have set up their own rental assistance funds, but they are “a drop in the bucket,” Roller said, given the level of need. Houston’s $15 million rental fund ran out in less than two hours.

“Absent the federal government stepping in and providing significant rental assistance to people across the country, I really worry about housing stability for a large swath of the country,” Roller said. 

In Wisconsin, where the statewide eviction moratorium expired Tuesday, Harry Mazurkiewicz, 61, is just waiting for a notice to appear on his door. He’s terrified. 

He hasn’t been able to pay rent since he was laid off from his job as a painter at the end of March. 

“It wasn’t a decision, it was a reality,” he said. “I didn’t have the money. It just was devastating. It’s awful. It’s humiliating.”

His stimulus check went mostly to groceries, he’s run through his savings, and he’s had to borrow money from friends and rely on food banks to survive. He was never able to get through to the unemployment office to apply for benefits. 

“I tried and tried and tried,” Mazurkiewicz said. “I called and called and called, and sat on that phone for hours and hours and hours on hold, and never got through to nobody. Probably did it maybe 20-some times. I got so discouraged, I just stopped calling.”

When he told his landlord, who lives upstairs from him, that he’d been laid off and didn’t have money for April rent, he said it didn’t go well. Since then, it’s felt stressful and contentious between them every time they interact. Now that the state is allowing evictions to move forward again, he doesn’t know what his landlord will do.

“I’m very, very apprehensive because he could slap that eviction notice on my door, and I haven’t got one yet but I’m expecting it,” Mazurkiewicz said. 

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness in Los Angeles, California. After state eviction moratoriums expire, tenants will have to pay back-rent or move out. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Corina Eufinger owns a property management company in Wisconsin, as well as a dozen apartments that she rents out in Rock County. Two of her tenants worked in the restaurant industry and didn’t know how they were going to make rent after they lost their jobs in March. Both called her right away. 

“We’re working with those people. That’s part of being a landlord right now,” she said. “It’s not about running to … eviction right now, it’s about working with them collectively, because this is a problem that really we do need to work on together, given the entire situation that we’re in.”

Most of the landlords she works with are also trying to be flexible with tenants who have lost work and are struggling to keep up with rent, she said. 

“The majority of people I’ve talked to, as long as the tenant is communicating with them, they’re not first in line when the courts are opening up.”

Paul Howard has a number of tenants in Jacksonville, Florida who are not communicating with him, and who haven’t paid rent in two months.

“We’ve reached out really very strongly to try to do two things. First, to make sure that they understand that the governor’s stay on evictions in Florida does not mean they don’t have to pay their rent,” he said. “But at the same time, we want to make it very clear that we are willing to listen to almost any kind of an offer to get caught up. If it took somebody six months to get caught up, I’m happy to do it. I mean, I’m not gonna get the money anyway. So I’m happy to do it, and I recognize the hardship you’re in.”

But of his 12 tenants who are behind on rent, he said only two have responded to his repeated attempts to get in touch. If he doesn’t hear from the others by May 31, with a plan for how they propose paying down the back rent, “we have no choice,” he said. He plans to file for eviction as soon as June 3. 

“What are my options? In this case, we’re talking about a number of people that are now two months behind on the rent, won’t give us a workout plan, and June’s coming around. What else can I do?” said Howard, who is also president of the Florida Landlord Network. “The mortgage has got to be paid, the property taxes have got to be paid, everything’s got to be paid. And I just cannot allow that to continue.”

Even with record high unemployment, about 90% of renters found a way to pay some or all of their rent in both April and May, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council

“I think that we could see evictions filed at a level that we’ve never ever seen before.”

Christine Donahoe, Legal Action of Wisconsin

“A lot of that could have had to do with the stimulus checks,” said Christine Donahoe, the housing priority coordinator for the nonprofit Legal Action of Wisconsin. “But I also know that a lot of our clients still have not received stimulus checks. A lot of the low-income people who don’t have bank accounts or don’t have direct deposits have not yet received their stimulus.”

Though the moratorium expired this week, Wisconsin requires landlords give tenants five days’ notice to either pay or leave before they file for eviction, so the state has not yet seen a spike. But Donahoe said she is concerned about what is going to happen next week, once those five days have passed. 

“I think that we could see evictions filed at a level that we’ve never ever seen before,” she said. “Renters have way fewer rights than homeowners during the process, and so I think that this crisis is going to hit harder and hit faster than the homeowners crisis [in 2008].”

Few landlords will rent to people who are unemployed, and even fewer to those with an eviction on their record. With homeless shelters already at capacity in many parts of the country, and the risk of spreading the virus still high, lawyers, housing advocates and public health officials worry that many of those who are evicted will have nowhere to go. 

“Housing is paramount to preserving the public’s health, especially when the response to the pandemic has been to shelter in place,” Benfer said. “So the robustness of moratoriums is really important in order to protect public health, but also to stave off a second wave epidemic associated with a lack of safe and decent housing.”

Niklaus Salvatore, 28, moved into the apartment he lives in now in February, just weeks before he lost his job as a breakfast assistant at a hotel in Miami Beach. Before that he’d been in transition, living with a friend for six months, rent-free, so he could build up some savings. 

Now, he’s using that savings to keep paying rent — when he told his landlord he’d lost his job, and asked if she might be able to reduce the rent for a bit, she said, in effect: if you can’t pay, give me a month’s notice and start looking for a new place. 

“I have friends who told me about the whole moratorium, ‘you don’t have to pay rent because you know, technically your landlord can’t file to evict you, so you’re good,’” Salvatore said. “I’m like, ‘yeah, to a certain extent,’ because once that is up you have to pay all that money back.”

He was afraid of having that happen, or worse, of having his landlord hold a grudge and not renew his lease later on. 

“Then you’re stuck in a pandemic trying to find somewhere else to move, and by you not having work, who’s gonna rent to someone who’s not working?” he said. “It’s totally not worth the risk.”

But there are millions of Americans who don’t have savings to fall back on. A recent Marketplace-Edison poll found that nearly 60% of Americans could not pay an unexpected $1,000 expense; more than 40% could not even cover a $250 expense.

“I think the real concern is a month from now, or towards the end of the summer, as people run out of unemployment. It’s further and further away from the stimulus payments, what happens to those people?” Roller said. 

The consensus among housing lawyers and advocates is that there is going to be a huge wave of evictions nationwide as moratoriums expire, and later, as unemployment benefits run out.

Paul Howard thinks it’s going to start right away in Florida. 

“I have I don’t know how many evictions on hold right now, waiting for June 3, from other landlords. I mean, a lot of them,” said Howard, who runs an eviction service as part of his work with the Florida Landlord Network. “June’s going to be very busy downtown at the courthouse.”

Harry Mazurkiewicz doesn’t know what’s going to happen if his landlord decides to evict him. He’s consumed with fear and anxiety. 

If he doesn’t get called back to work soon, if something doesn’t change, he said, “I’m just actually thinking about biting the bullet and just trying to go get some kind of work here,” he said. “If I get sick, then I get sick, but I can’t be going much longer like this.”

It’s all he can think about, every minute of the day. He dreams about it. With no family, and most of his friends in similarly tough positions, he doesn’t know where he’ll go if he gets evicted. 

“I have no idea,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you. I don’t even want to think about it.”

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