KC Tenants.

December 2, 2020; MIT Technology Review

“Usually around this time of year, everyone would be getting excited for Christmas,” says Jessica Gavin, a stagehand from Georgia. Gavin told President-elect Joe Biden at a virtual “Impact of COVID-19” roundtable that, like many Americans, she was not finding much to celebrate this year, between the loss of loved ones due to the pandemic and the crushing financial blows the virus was bringing to her community. In her city, she says, you can see food lines snaking around blocks. Before Thanksgiving, NPQ reported that more than 50 million people, including 17 million children, were experiencing food insecurity, an increase of about 42 percent from the previous year.

But hunger is about to be exacerbated by another crisis, this one involving housing. According to the US Census, as of early November, over nine million Americans were behind on their rent. Just in time for the holidays and adding more weight to the proverbial house of cards, the ticking time bomb of the housing crisis, building over the past several months, is set to go off in mere weeks.

The moratorium on evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is slated to expire on December 31st. Already, in many cities, legal eviction orders have already been issued, with execution of the orders delayed until the moratorium ends. The result could be hundreds of thousands, or even millions of physical removals in January if the CDC moratorium is allowed to expire.

While some facing eviction have been unable to access their places of work to earn a living due to the pandemic, eviction court proceedings have adapted. Court is in session, even if the methods, lack of accommodation, and unequal access leave many tenants exceedingly vulnerable.

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus caused the closure of courtrooms, hearings went online. As the MIT Technology Review reports, not all hearings are created equal. Just as internet access has been an issue for impoverished students looking to log on to learn, those desperately seeking to log on to video calls to plead their cases and stay housed found similar roadblocks as places offering free Wi-Fi (like libraries) were shuttered due to COVID. Some struggle to upload required documents to avoid a default judgment. For others, weathering the constant changes of platforms and venues is too much to track.

“It’s a totally untenable situation,” says Lee Camp, a senior attorney with Arch City Defenders, a legal aid organization in St. Louis. “Appear by phone [or video] and have your due process rights violated, or go and risk your life.”

Camp notes that tenants with disabilities, like hearing loss, or those who require translation help are limited even further. He was horrified by one case wherein a tenant being evicted over a video conference had to rely on the same property manager evicting him to translate for the court. Camp notes that this would never have happened during an in-person court hearing.

With an unprecedented 30–40 million people at risk of eviction in the next several months according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, the stakes are high.

“Every single eviction is an act of violence,” notes Tara Raghuveer, the founding director of KC Tenants, a tenant advocacy organization in Kansas City, Missouri. “With every eviction that we allow right now, we’re prioritizing a landlord’s profit over a tenant’s life, period.”—Carrie Collins-Fadell