Pandemic Eviction Crisis: Congress Needs to Act Now or Face a Coming Tidal Wave of Homelessness

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

Throughout the pandemic, I felt a sense of approaching doom. Before everything hit, my landlord had grown restless at the numerous repairs needed to keep my aging unit functional. Despite reaching out to my property manager numerous times about pending changes to my living arrangement, I was told, “Everything’s fine. You’re the perfect tenant. Don’t worry.” I tried to dismiss my concerns as the anxiety everyone feels during uncertain times.

However, even though I faithfully made rent payments during the shutdown, I received a notice that my landlord was selling. The reason? COVID-19. My move-out date? July 31. If you are one of the many renters banking on the CARES Act to keep a roof over your head, you know that’s the precise day that the restrictions ease on evicting tenants during the pandemic.

I was fortunate to have enough put aside to survive. However, I know from social media feeds that I am far from alone. Congress needs to act now to protect tenants, or the U.S. will face an unprecedented wave of homelessness that will increase crime rates, deaths of despair, and further raise the specter of public revolt.

Rent Prices Versus Raises and Cost-of-Living Increases

Here’s the problem, folks. Rent prices have skyrocketed in recent years, not only in high-demand areas but across the board. The same apartment that cost you $1,000 per month in 2000 cost a staggering $1,865.49 in 2019. The price of a roof over your head nearly doubled in two short decades.

During that time, the overall inflation rate was 2.17%. If you had a job, you counted your blessings if you saw an annual increase of 3% or higher. In the meantime, the cost of housing skyrocketed to 86.55% higher than they were in 1999. Were you trying to save for a home? If you were, you know the meaning of the phrase, “too many bills and not enough month.” It’s basic math — you can’t squirrel away what you don’t have.

Would homeownership provide more substantial protection during a pandemic? Absolutely. However, especially given the Great Recession of 2008, many people remained on the path of recovery when the pandemic hit. They may have — like me — come close to repairing their credit and saving enough to make buying a home an almost-reality. Almost.

Now, with record unemployment, landlords want to protect their interests. They don’t care about the tenants who rely on them for a place to live. As the protections offered by the CARES Act expire, expect more to do precisely what mine did. I paid my rent faithfully — do you think property owners will extend any mercy toward those who could not, albeit through no fault of their own?

The CARES Act Is Expiring Quickly — Will August Be the Cruelest Month?

Under the CARES act, the protection from eviction extended to 120 days after the enactment date of March 27, 2020. Since many leases operate on a month-to-month basis, that means Congress has a deadline of July 31 to enact new protections or face an unprecedented wave of homelessness sweeping America. Again — my landlord showed no mercy to a tenant who obeyed all the rules. What will those who have non-paying tenants do?

If this happens, millions will face impossible hurdles in finding new homes. To get a lease, you need to show you have a reliable enough income to cover expenses. It’s understandable — property owners don’t want conflict. They don’t want to risk tenants trashing their assets because of an unwanted eviction.

The problem is that many people now lack that reliable income source. The U.S. job losses since the pandemic began are the highest they have been since the Great Depression. Many of those who lost their jobs eked by on meager savings if they had any. Unfortunately, despite what Bloomberg has to say on the topic, that isn’t much. Despite criticism, the fact remains that close to half of all Americans lack so much as a spare $400 in their checking and savings accounts. They can’t cover an emergency like this.

How can you rent an apartment when you have no job and no savings? You can’t. Millions who stand to lose their homes on July 31 will find themselves with nowhere to go — except the streets.

Yes, the added unemployment benefits served as a godsend to many — but guess when they’re slated to expire? If you said, “July 31,” congratulations, you win the kewpie doll.

Why is finding affordable housing such a crisis? It’s not because folks are lazy and refusing to work hard. It’s because wages have not kept up with the price of inflation for decades, and now things are spiraling so far out of control, it’s impossible for those working 40 hours a week or more to keep up. It’s not bellyaching. It’s not whining. It’s math.

This coming wave of evictions won’t only impact people who said, “I’m going to rent-protest during the pandemic,” even though they had every right to do so. The entire U.S. response to this disaster has paled in comparison to what other nations did and shows the gross negligence and inadequacy of our leadership. The sweep of evictions will also hit those who paid faithfully — like me — as landlords who couldn’t manage their own finances decide to sell.

How cruel is that? You survive a pandemic. You meet your obligations faithfully despite the hardships. You still lose your home because someone else didn’t meet theirs. That’s how dog-eat-dog America is today. Is that the society we want to inhabit?

Congress Needs to Take Action Now

If Congress fails to take action now, history tells us clearly what will happen when the second wave of evictions hit. People like Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul — two Senators who consistently rule in favor of the elite over the working class — need to pay attention. Why? The last time we saw homelessness like this, it took progressive leadership and the 4-term presidency of FDR to pull the nation out of a Depression.

If Congress doesn’t get off their duffs and extend protections, they will face a rise in civil unrest like never before. Folks are already angry. They have had enough. Many are ready to riot. All it will take is one more thing pushing them over the edge — like undeserved homelessness — to make them say, “what more do I have to lose,” and light the torch.

Congress needs to protect tenants now. They need to immediately extend the moratorium on evictions until 2021 if not longer. They need to likewise extend unemployment benefits to give people a chance to recover and get back on their feet. If not, they risk paying the price, and with a nation already as wracked with unrest and violence as ours, that’s a dangerous political game to play.

Jennifer Stanley is a freelance writer, teacher, and progressive social activist with a focus on disability rights. You can follow her blog at LivingWithHM.com.

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