COVID-19 Further Strains Renters Keeping Roofs Over Heads

Clockwise, from top left: Dr. Margot Kushel, executive director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco; Nisha Vyas, senior attorney at the Western Center for Law and Poverty; Akash Kalia, owner of the Palms Inn in Santa Rosa, California; Emily Benfer, co-creator of The Eviction Lab COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard at Princeton University; and Delegate Kumar Barve, Maryland state House of Delegates. (all photos via twitter)  

These days the future seems very uncertain for everyone – it’s especially stressful for renters who’ve lost their jobs due to the pandemic.  They worry about how they’ll catch up.   

While eviction moratoriums were put in place, as they’re lifted, renters still without a steady paycheck are currently at a loss to figure out how they’ll have enough money to resume paying their rent, much less entering into a payment agreement to pay back rent.  They’re still responsible for all of it.   

It’s estimated that as many as 28 million renters nationwide are facing possible evictions over the next three months. 

In California however, on July 1, Governor Gavin Newsom gave a bit more breathing room by extending the state’s eviction moratorium to Sept. 30 allowing local governments to delay evictions for those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

When “lockdowns” were first imposed in April to slow down the virus, those who could, started to work from home, and those considered “essential workers,”  continued to work as they had before, but too many fell through the cracks and lost their livelihoods.   

Many in white collar jobs continued to work but those already struggling prior to the pandemic have been hardest hit.  From restaurant and hotel workers, the self employed, hair dressers, construction workers, street vendors and many more found their jobs, gone.  Those who could, filed for unemployment. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported unemployment rates shot up to 14.7 percent and more than one third of renters didn’t pay their rent.  

“COVID-19 struck at a time when we were already in a housing crisis. 20.5 million families struggled to scrape the rent together, ” points out Emily A. Benfer, visiting professor of law and the director of the Health Justice Clinic at Wake Forest School of Law.                                                                  

Benfer is the co-creator of the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University and  believes that our country is on the brink of a housing crisis like we’ve never seen before without a safety net beneath us. 

“Ten million people were displaced from the housing crisis over the course of years,” said Benfer who believes we’re on track to surpass that figure in a matter of months.                                                    

“Approximately 16.9 million households many of which contain numerous adults and children are unable to pay the rent and are at risk of eviction,” said Benfer who referenced another study by the Aspen institute that found that as many as 24 million renters will be facing eviction by the end of September.”

During a recent briefing held by Ethnic Media services, panelists pointed out that renters of color, especially Latino and Black renters are at the highest risk for evictions. 

Both communities are experiencing COVID-19 job loss, infection and death at much higher rates than other populations and have expressed  low confidence in their ability to pay their rent during this pandemic.                                                                                                                 

Renters stretched to pay the rent first to keep a roof over their heads find themselves setting aside other needs including food or their health care.

“Before the pandemic, 8 out of 10 extremely low income households and over 5 out of 10 very low income renters will pay almost more than half their income in rent. Some households paid 90% of their income towards rent and communities of color disproportionately bare these crises,” said Nisha Vyas, senior housing attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.  

“Despite the statewide moratorium and local tenant protections, we have heard reports of landlords still attempting to displace tenants from housing using a variety of methods, including calling the police, trying to trick tenants into leaving by serving them with papers that look like they’ve been issued by the court but haven’t, or simply by changing the locks,” Vyas stressed.  He said it’s important for people to know that all of these methods are illegal. 

 California is already home to about 22 percent of the nation’s homeless population, with more than 150,000 people experiencing homelessness,  Nearly half of California’s residents (45%)  are renters.

 Benfer points to striking statistics:

*50 million renters live in households that suffered COVID-19 related job or income loss.

*40% of job loss occurred in low-income households.

*92% increase in daily rental assistance requests from this time in 2019 and food pantry requests increased by as much as 2000% in some states.  

31% increase in credit card use to pay rent in April, and an additional 20% increase in May.

31.6% of renters have slight or no confidence in their ability to pay rent.

Without additional support for tenants  who’ve lost their means to pay rent, many are likely to find themselves without a place to live.                                                                                                                    

“What it would take to end homelessness in this county has to be a dramatic expansion of extremely low-income housing, as well as a dramatic expansion of rental support, said Dr. Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.  Kushel is also the Director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations.                                

She asserts that there will be an increase of homelessness on a scale of 20-40% unless decisive action is taken. 

“The homelessness crisis while often portrayed as a crisis of mental health and substance use, is and has always been a crisis of devastating lack of affordable housing, of the effects of structural racism, and of income inequality,” said Kushel. 

This pandemic coupled with loss of jobs that can likely increase homelessness should heighten everyone’s concern.

“If we focus our efforts [only] on people who are currently homeless, it is like trying to bail a leaking ship. Because we know that we cannot solve homelessness merely by focusing on the people who are currently homeless.”

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