By Thomas Aquilina
Editor’s note: Aquilina wrote the following column for Advocacy Journalism course, a Herbert School course offered through the Graduate Journalism Program.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted many injustices in American society. The government’s response to the pandemic has been telling, but one area that many consider to be a public relations win for the government is the eviction moratorium. With many people losing their jobs or having their hours severely cut, paying rent became even more difficult for many Americans than it already was. The government’s freeze on evictions was supposed to ensure that no American would have to battle the disease in the cold. But as is often the case, the devil is in the details, and the details of the eviction moratorium are disturbing.
The federal eviction moratorium was set to expire on June 30 but was pushed back to July 31. For counties with high transmission rates, the moratorium was once again extended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this time to Oct. 3. The extensions have not provided enough time for many people to catch up on their rent payments. Back in June, CNBC reported that 11 million Americans were behind on their rent and that roughly 15 percent of adult renters were behind on their housing payments. One shutters to think about what America would look like if so many people were forced from their home.
But for many, the nightmare of being kicked out of one’s house unjustly is already a reality. Thanks to loopholes in the agreements made between landlords and local governments, many people have found themselves without a place to live. And, unsurprisingly, many of these victims are minorities with few finances, and consequently, ways of protecting themselves. The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a housing think tank, found that around 40,000 eviction proceedings were initiated in New York from March 2020 through April 2021. Many of these proceedings took place in the Bronx, with the ANHD reporting that three of the 10 ZIP codes with the highest number of eviction filings belonged in New York’s 14th Council District. But the issue is affecting plenty of states other than New York.
Many southern states, including Kentucky and Alabama, have seen the number of evictions go down, but not to zero, since the rise of the coronavirus in the United States. Overall, thousands of Americans have been evicted since March 2020. But how could that be, and why is it so difficult to find information about this scandal? The answer to both questions might simply be corruption.
A disconcerting trend that arose in America during the first year of Covid was that the rich got richer while the poor and powerless largely remained that way. The housing industry was no different. Many landlords received money from the government and then used that money however they wanted to, instead of using it as a replacement for rent. This was how many landlords used government funds to remodel their housing units and make them more lucrative post-lockdown after evicting tenants.
Other loopholes have also allowed landlords to kick people from their units even though on paper there has been a freeze on evictions. An example of these loopholes came from renters’ leases expiring. The eviction freeze does not cover expiring leases, and many landlords have been able to get tenants thrown out of their units because of it. Places such as Louisville, Kentucky, have also seen many tenants get evicted over nuisance violations, which often only need to be suggested to get tenants removed.
The removal of so many tenants has been weathered by landlords because of the continued moving of capital. Mortgages were deferred and many landlords received bailout money from the federal government. And while Congress has tried to pour more than $45 million into the problem, not all of that renters’ assistance has gotten to the renters it was intended for. This lack of efficiency is being blamed by some on America’s lack of a universal system for getting assistance to people. With states scrambling to find a way to get people the money they need, numerous landlords have stepped in to take that money and use it to advance their interests. These interests often do not align with those of tenants, and that has caused too many instances of something no one should go through — becoming homeless during a pandemic.
Adding insult to injury has been the lack of coverage by many mainstream outlets. Too few Americans are aware of the struggles of those at or near the bottom of the economic ladder as it relates to the eviction moratorium. It is fair to wonder how much longer that will last because the eviction freeze will end eventually. But until it does and the government figures out what to do with people who are months behind on their rent, a certain number of Americans will suffer silently as they deal not only with the Covid-19 pandemic but also the trials of losing their place to live.