March 16, 2020

Taking Bold Action to Protect Tenants during the COVID-19 Outbreak

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Over the last few days, state and local governments have taken unprecedented measures to protect their residents during the COVID-19 outbreak. In what has become a rapidly evolving situation, policy makers and elected officials have already proposed and even implemented dozens of measures that place temporary moratoria on evictions and ensure running water and utilities for residents. 

It’s incredibly encouraging to see the speed at which mayors, city councils and agency staff have adapted and responded. Here’s what we know so far. 

Housing Stability is Public Health

Eviction has been top-of-mind around the country. As business slows and schools close, it’s often the lowest wage workers who will bear the greatest burden in the form of reduced income or job loss. By placing a temporary moratorium on evictions, residents can be encouraged to self-isolate and take other public health precautions without the fear of losing their housing.

Eviction moratoria have been implemented or are under consideration in places like AtlantaAustinBaltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Montgomery County (MD), New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, PhiladelphiaSacramentoSan Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Spokane and Washington, D.C. Statewide bans are also being considered in California, Massachusetts and New York. Other stakeholders, such as New York City’s Housing Authority, the Boston Housing Authority and some large landlords have also stepped forward and pledged to halt evictions. 

The criminal justice system has also stepped into the lead, taking their own measures to protect residents. Over the weekend, Delaware’s Chief Magistrate issued an order temporarily halting most evictions and eviction actions state-wide for two months and Kentucky’s Supreme Court has issued an order temporarily cancelling court dockets. New York State’s Chief Administrative Judge announced an immediate one-week eviction moratorium in New York City, and ordered judges not to issue new eviction warrants if a tenant is unable to come to court. In Florida, Miami-Dade police took the lead in suspending evictions during the declared emergency. 

Staying healthy also means having healthy housing. In addition to addressing the threat of eviction, local jurisdictions are stepping up to ensure that households have the basics including running water and utilities. In many cities, water had been turned off for thousands of households due to nonpayment of bills, but cities like Atlanta, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Phoenix and Seattle have announced plans to restore water to all residents. Having access to water and other basic utilities is essential to facilitate hand-washing and other illness prevention measures. As this piece from Brookings astutely points out, “sheltering at home requires good housing.”

Why Eviction? 

There is a huge wealth of evidence connecting eviction and health. But in a public health crisis, new challenges emerge: For instance, housing court can be a crowded place with hundreds of residents, landlords and lawyers waiting for their case to be heard, making it difficult to practice self-isolation. During these unusual times, there is a public health imperative to halting court appearances. Moreover, due to shutdowns and telework requirements, nonprofits, legal aid, local governments and other service organizations may be unavailable to assist vulnerable populations that would normally receive legal defense or financial assistance during eviction proceedings. 

Even without the urgency of a global pandemic, the benefits of eviction policies are abundantly clear. Eviction is costly - moving, losing deposits, struggling to find new housing, legal and application fees, transportation burdens on workers who move further from job centers, and children who miss school days or keep changing schools all place huge financial burdens on individual households and the system overall. 

Eviction can have a detrimental impact on mental health, wellness and decision-making. The financial stress of not having a place to live, and the impact of an eviction record slowing the ability to secure new housing, forces families to make difficult choices between a roof over their head and basic health care needs. Research has also shown that experiencing housing instability in childhood can have detrimental impacts on adult achievement. Moving three or more times as a child negatively affect education, work and earning outcomes in adulthood. Further, frequent moves can negatively impact children’s social-emotional well-being. At all ages, each additional move is associated with emotional and behavioral problems as well small declines in social skills.  

What Should Governments Do? 

At Enterprise, we applaud efforts by local, state and federal governments to protect tenants and promote housing stability. During these unusual times, there are some things we urge governments and stakeholders to keep in mind:

  • In addition to eviction prevention measures, governments should closely engage landlords and property owners, many of whom could face significant financial losses during this time. By proposing funding measures that incentivize landlords to keep residents stably housed and compensate property owners for losses, they can promote housing stability for tenants long after the crisis has passed. 
  • Similarly, governments could also consider short term rental assistance as part of a package of temporary financial assistance measures. If tenants can pay their rent, and landlords can pay their mortgages, we can minimize disruption to the economy. Moreover, broader financial assistance for those who lose their jobs will encourage individuals to stay home rather than go out in search for work. 
  • Any financial package should include assistance for small businesses that would allow owners to continue paying their staff, provide sick leave or allow employees to return to work once states of emergency have been lifted. 
  • A comprehensive approach to eviction prevention includes right-to-counsel laws, reasonable timelines for curing late payments and financial assistance for low-income households. Protective measures such as these are critical long-term measures that state and local governments should consider after the crisis has passed. 
  • In addition to moratoria on eviction, lawmakers can also consider moratoria on foreclosures. Homeowners are equally vulnerable during these times - governments can look to the housing crisis of 2007-2008 for effective programs that prevent or delay foreclosure, provide financial assistance and offer housing counseling services.  
  • More local governments should step forward and turn on water and utilities for all households. Access to water in the home is necessary to encourage handwashing and prevent the spread of the virus. 

Addressing the needs of renters and homeowners during a public health crisis requires swift action at all levels of government. Fortunately, we know what works and can use that evidence to inform our policies in the days ahead. 

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