Moratorium,” Kai C. Schwarzer

November 16, 2020; CNN

Reporting for CNN, Anna Bahney reminds us that while eviction moratoria protect millions from eviction right now, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eviction moratorium order is slated to expire on December 31, 2020.

The result could be catastrophic. As Bahney writes, “An estimated 11 to 13 million renter households are at risk of eviction, according to Stout, an investment bank and global advisory firm. It predicts there could be as many as 6.4 million potential eviction filings by January 1, 2021 if the CDC moratorium is lifted.” That’s just in January.

The challenge is that while rent moratoria keep people in their homes for now, they do nothing to prevent the accumulation of unpayable renter debt that can easily result in evictions for nonpayment when the moratoria are lifted.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Recall that back in March, COVID-19 led to “shelter in place” orders. The same orders left many people unemployed. But how can someone “shelter in place” if they can no longer pay their rent? The solution was simple, but stopgap: eviction moratoria. Many of these were state laws. The federal CARES protected properties in all 50 states, but only if they were financed with federal loans.

Everyone knew the moratoria were supposed to be a bridge—to create time to devise structural policy solutions. For instance, the HEROES Act, passed by the US House of Representatives in May, would have created a $100-billion emergency rental assistance program to enable renters to write off debt, with landlords getting paid by the government. Think of it as a Paycheck Protection Program for the rental market. But, alas, it was not to be. The HEROES Act stalled in the Senate, and, as we all know, we’re now in November, and today there is still no successor bill to the CARES Act.

As for the moratoria, the CARES Act protections expired July 24th. By late August, it was feared that tens of millions of Americans might lose their homes. The CDC order in September bought time, but it provided no long-term solution either.

Moreover, the CARES Act, because it included provisions such as the “stimulus checks” sent to families and, until the end of July, $600 a week supplemental unemployment insurance, provided a means for many families to actually pay and stay current on rent. But these provisions are now also long gone.

In her story, Bahney describes some of the dynamics by focusing on one renter, Tammy Phelps. As Bahney explains, in August, “when the $600-a-week supplemental unemployment insurance stopped, [Phelps] was having trouble affording her $1,250-a-month rent. By October, she found herself sobbing in a courtroom in Omaha, Nebraska, trying to hold on to her rental home and keep her family from becoming homeless because she owed $3,750 in back rent.”

The CDC eviction order is not perfect. A tenant has to sign a declaration testifying that they cannot pay, and a landlord can challenge that declaration in court. The CDC moratorium has certainly averted a wave of evictions, but it has failed to halt all evictions.

But for Phelps, the CDC’s eviction protection order worked, and kept her family in their home. Still, as Bahney observes, “Since the order does not cancel or freeze rent, all of the tenants’ back rent will be due come January 1. Without rent relief or an extension of the protection, many struggling renters will—again—face eviction.”

And, because there have been no new relief checks for families, and with some final provisions of the CARES Act, such as the provision for “gig worker” unemployment insurance, set to expire on December 31st—further cutting into the income families have to pay rent—the threat of what Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, calls a “tsunami” of evictions is very real.

And, of course, with COVID-19 seemingly reaching new record levels daily, these evictions could serve to accelerate even further the pace of virus spread.

As for Phelps, she is well aware of the precariousness of her position. “I’m still scared,” Phelps says. “I’m hoping for an extension of the program and a rent supplement. As long as the country is in the turmoil we’re in, we are going to need the support.”—Steve Dubb