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Confronting the evictions crisis

nathanson-joe-col-sigGov. Larry Hogan’s recent announcement of grants totaling $19.3 million for eviction prevention benefiting communities around the state is a welcome recognition of a looming crisis.

The funds include $2 million for Baltimore city, $3 million for Baltimore County and another $3.7 million for other counties in the Baltimore region. The grants are drawn from the state’s allocation of federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

This infusion of dollars is seen as assisting an estimated 1,600 households in this region, out of 3,600 households statewide who are struggling to meet rent payments due to loss of jobs or reduction in income as a result of the pandemic.

While the news of this assistance is certainly welcome, the amount is a small down payment on what will be needed in the face of the coming evictions tsunami. Local jurisdictions have also recognized the threat.

For example, Baltimore City has assembled an evictions protection fund of about $29 million, pieced together from a variety of funding sources. Up until now, renters have been protected by sequential moratoriums on evictions, the first passed in early spring by Congress as part of its initial response to the economic fallout of the pandemic.

In early October, Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield signed a declaration determining that the evictions of tenants could be detrimental to public health control measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Under this order, “a landlord, owner of a residential property, or other person  with a legal right to pursue eviction or possessory action, shall not evict any covered person from any residential property in any jurisdiction to which this order applies during the effective period of the order.”

That latest moratorium expires just over a month from now, on Dec. 31, 2020.

Stout, a Chicago-based global advisory firm, has  established an area of practice focused on the right to counsel in the face of an eviction threat. With detailed analysis for each state and the nation as a whole, the firm has estimated that by Jan. 1, 2021, between 90,300 and 113,600 Maryland households will be subject to eviction filings with the lifting of the CDC moratorium.

The cumulative shortfall in rent ranges from $471 million to $550 million in Maryland alone. The national estimates of households under threat of eviction range up to nearly 6.5 million, with a shortfall of rent amounting to more than $28 billion.

The enormity of the problem is not only for those at risk of losing their rental home. Those missed rent payments also represent grave economic harm for landlords, many of whom are not large-scale operations with deep pockets. And, of course, as the CDC recognizes, the evictions problem is a threat to all of us, if increased homelessness becomes yet another factor in spreading the disease in the current public health crisis.

Enormity of the problem

In its recently released report, “The State of the Nation’s Housing,” Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies notes “Federal support provided through the CARES Act — including enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus payments and funding for state and local relief efforts — did manage to keep many renters afloat. … So far, state and federal moratoriums have slowed evictions, but without additional federal aid, many households that have missed payments may be unable to cover their back rents.”

The enormity of the problem is beyond the capacity of state and local governments. It is beyond past time for Congress to act in response to the combined economic and public health threats. This is work for the lame-duck session of the 116th Congress; no need to delay until after President Joe Biden takes office in January.

The center’s report, taking a broader look at this nation’s housing, also observes, “The nation’s failure to live up to its long-stated goal of a decent home in a suitable environment for all has never been clearer – particularly in the lack of affordable rental housing and unequal access to homeownership.  Today’s crisis conditions call for a comprehensive re-envisioning of national housing policy.”

In the face of the current emergency, let us hope that we can achieve the more modest commitment of keeping the current roofs over the heads of the most vulnerable households in our communities.

Joe Nathanson is the not-quite-retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.