Tenants who are behind on their rent have been granted one last reprieve with the Biden administration extending the nationwide eviction moratorium a final time. What comes next for renters and landlords across the country will largely depend on how states and municipalities manage what could become a tidal wave of evictions once the moratorium ultimately expires at the end of July.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the eviction moratorium, which was set to expire June 30, would be extended until July 31. The CDC signaled this was intended to be the final extension of the ban on evictions, which was first put in place under the Trump administration last September.
“I think the CDC was right in telegraphing a date certain — July 31 — for the moratorium on evictions to end, and in support of that, I think the Biden administration has done a good job of providing additional resources for residents and property owners challenged by continuing COVID-induced hardship,” said David Howard, executive director of the National Rental Home Council.
The national moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent is now set to expire at the end of July.
The eviction moratorium has faced numerous legal challenges from landlords and Realtor groups since it was enacted , but it survived its biggest test Tuesday. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, rejected an appeal from landlords to end the CDC moratorium.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberals in the decision. Kavanaugh noted that he believed the CDC overstepped its authority in issuing the moratorium, but chose to allow it to remain in place through the end of July “because those few weeks will allow for additional and more orderly distribution of the congressionally appropriated rental assistance funds.”
Congress has allocated more than $46 billion for emergency rental assistance to help struggling tenants and landlords alike get back on their feet and more forward with a clean slate. However, distributing that money has proven difficult, and much of it has yet to make it to its intended recipients.
‘We’re still not out of the woods from a financial standpoint.’
And concerns remain whether it’s enough money to address the widespread issue. “It’s still a distant down payment,” said Bob Pinnegar, CEO and President of the National Apartment Association.
“As this goes through July I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about $26 billion that still has yet to be authorized to assist residents with their rent,” Pinnegar added. “So we’re still not out of the woods from a financial standpoint.”
Renters appear to be aware of the dire straits they are in. Around 3.2 million renters said it is very or somewhat likely they will have to vacate their homes in the next two months due to eviction, according to a household survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
While the extended moratorium will give renters and landlords more time to rectify their situations, inevitably many Americans will still be in a financial bind once it lifts. Policymakers, consumer advocates and industry experts are focusing on what policies the country needs to adopt soon to avoid a disaster in the rental housing sector.
The White House is focused on eviction diversion programs
When the moratorium’s final extension was announced, the White House issued a call to state and local courts to participate in eviction diversion efforts. “Establishing diversion programs will help landlords and tenants reach agreement and access emergency rental assistance in addition to other available resources to keep families hard-pressed by the COVID crisis in their homes while helping make landlords whole,” the White House noted in a fact sheet.
The Justice Department sent a letter to state courts across the country calling on them to adopt various strategies, including requiring landlords to apply for rental assistance before filing for evictions, extending the time for pending cases and partnering with community groups that provide assistance to renters.
“Third-party, independent evaluations of eviction diversion programs all across the country show real returns on investment,” said Matthew Desmond, a Princeton Univertsity professor and principal investigator at The Eviction Lab, during a virtual housing event hosted by the White House on Wednesday. “These are cost effective, incredibly efficient programs.”
Desmond warned, though, that eviction diversion programs need to step in as early as possible, because about a third of tenants will move out of their home once a filing is made against them before the case has even gone to court.
In cases where both landlords and tenants participated in the eviction diversion program set up by Philadelphia, an agreement was reached over 70% of the time.
“If we intervene after an eviction is filed, that means we intervene after a landlord has paid money to start a court process,” he said.
Some cities and states have already begun implementing eviction diversion programs. Starting last summer, Philadelphia began requiring landlords to participate in such a program before they could file for eviction. The requirement ended in March, though the city’s courts now require landlords to file for rental assistance before proceeding with an eviction case.
Through the program, housing counselors help landlords and tenants resolve their outstanding issues before the case makes it to court. When both parties were present for the mediation, they reached an agreement over 70% of the time, according to the city. That’s in line with the positive results other municipalities have seen from implementing similar programs.
“One of the strengths of the program is that it really serves as a tool to connect landlords and tenants to work out a payment agreement,” Mark Dodds, policy and planning program manager for the city of Philadelphia, remarked during a virtual event hosted by Pew Charitable Trusts.
Tenant advocates want lawyers for renters
Eviction diversion programs are just one piece of the puzzle in the eyes of tenant advocates. Without a doubt, some eviction cases will go to court, and some households will lose their homes. How the judicial system handles these cases and protects the interest of renters could make a major difference, advocates argue.
One policy that consumer advocacy groups are pushing for is a right to counsel. “You have well over 80% or even 90% of landlords in some jurisdictions being represented by lawyers, but representation for tenants tends to be well under 10% in some places,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project. “It’s just not an even playing field.”
Many states and cities across the country have introduced or approved legislation to create a right to counsel for renters in recent years, even amid the pandemic. These include everywhere from Rochester, N.Y., to Boulder, Colorado.
Separately, consumer advocates are calling for eviction records to be sealed, whether or not a tenant loses their case. “It’s going to be really important in the immediate term after the moratorium’s protections expire that we see protection for people who are applying for new housing, so they’re not denied based on COVID-era problems and landlord-tenant debts,” Dunn said. “So that doesn’t become a barrier to people who have already been displaced to get into new housing.”
Trade groups worry about the state of the nation’s rental housing stock
Landlords of all sizes have borne the financial pain of going months without rental payments from tenants hard-hit by the pandemic. But small, “mom and pop” landlords, who often have fewer resources to fall back on, may have been hit the hardest. Many of these landlords own single-family rental homes.
A March study from the National Rental Home Council found that 50% of single-family rental home owners had residents who missed at least one payment since the start of the pandemic. As a result, many have been forced to sell their properties: 11% were forced to sell at least one property, while 12% sold all their holdings.
Around 12% of landlords who owned single-family rental homes were forced to sell all of their properties amid the pandemic.
“As the moratorium comes to an end and we hopefully move further away from the COVID-crisis the big challenge for the single-family rental home industry will be supply,” Howard said.
Many of these homes were sold to families who opted to move into them rather than keep them as rentals, given the short supply of homes for sale right now. Should that trend continue, the supply of rental housing could diminish, which in turn could drive the cost of rent for tenants higher.
Trade groups in the rental industry say that policymakers need to look ahead to creating opportunities to build more rental housing, rather than simply focusing on the eviction situation.
“We went into this with a housing affordability crisis, and we could come out of this with a housing affordability disaster because we’ve not been able to maintain the integrity of the nation’s housing stock,” Pinnegar said.