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An ‘Avalanche of Evictions’ Could Be Bearing Down on America’s Renters

May 31, 2020 | , ,

The United States, already wrestling with an economic collapse not seen in a generation, is facing a wave of evictions as government relief payments and legal protections run out for millions of out-of-work Americans who have little financial cushion and few choices when looking for new housing.

The hardest hit are tenants who had low incomes and little savings even before the pandemic, and whose housing costs ate up more of their paychecks. They were also more likely to work in industries where job losses have been particularly severe.

Temporary government assistance has helped, as have government orders that put evictions on hold in many cities. But evictions will soon be allowed in about half of the states, according to Emily A. Benfer, a housing expert and associate professor at Columbia Law School who is tracking eviction policies.

“I think we will enter into a severe renter crisis and very quickly,” Professor Benfer said. Without a new round of government intervention, she added, “we will have an avalanche of evictions across the country.”

That means more and more families may soon experience the dreaded eviction notice on the front door, the stomach-turning knock from sheriff’s deputies, the possessions piled up on the sidewalk. They will face displacement at a time when people are still being urged to stay at home to keep themselves and their communities safe.

That fear has been eating away at Sandy Naffah ever since she lost her income as the virus led to economic shutdowns. Ms. Naffah, who had been juggling two part-time jobs — teaching elementary school students how to read and working as a beauty consultant at a mall — quickly fell behind on the $800 she pays in rent each month for a one-bedroom apartment in Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

She is now staring down a precarious future, desperately hoping that a one-off federal stimulus check and unemployment benefits — which she said she had yet to receive — will keep her afloat and stave off eviction.

“It’s a ticking clock,” she said. “I can’t continue to go on this way, otherwise I will be out on the street.”

In many places, the threat has already begun. The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that evictions could begin again in the nation’s second-largest state. In the Oklahoma City area, sheriffs apologetically announced that they planned to start enforcing eviction notices this week. And a handful of states, like Ohio, had few statewide protections in place to begin with, leaving residents particularly vulnerable as eviction cases stacked up or ticked forward during the pandemic.

Christie Wilson, 37, was among them. After fleeing a dangerous relationship, she said, she spent several months sleeping in her car last year before a veterans program helped her pay for a two-bedroom apartment in Decatur, Ga. She had recently become responsible for the rent herself, she said, and had lined up a job at a warehouse.

But after two days on the job, she said, she was laid off as the coronavirus outbreak intensified in March.

A few weeks later, she found an eviction notice on her door. She now fears losing her apartment, where, in the fragile stability of recent months, she has enjoyed small luxuries, like listening to gospel music on her patio in the mornings and spending Mother’s Day in her own home with her teenage son.

The real estate company managing her apartment said that it had followed protocol in filing for eviction, and that employees were working with Ms. Wilson to waive fees and help connect her to nonprofit groups. If she has to move out, she worries she would end up in a homeless shelter, where preliminary testing has shown high rates of infection.

“There would be no six-feet distance — we’d be sleeping on top of each other,” said Ms. Wilson, who is racing to pay back more than $2,000 in back rent before Georgia courts reopen next month.

Though about 90 percent of renters made full or partial rent payments by late May, down only 2 percent from last year, lawyers and landlords alike fear that the trend will not last. More than 38 million people have filed jobless claims since March, including a high proportion of people living in households making less than $40,000 a year. In a survey released this month by the Census Bureau, nearly a quarter of respondents said they missed their last rent or mortgage payment or had little to no confidence that they would be able to pay on time next month.

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