“Housing is a Human Right”

We are only six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and something that for months experts have predicted would happen is actually happening: between 30 and 40 million people are at risk of eviction. 

While the Centers for Disease Control passed a moratorium this month that bans most evictions until January 1, 2020 something permanent is done at both the state and federal levels we, as a society, are facing an avalanche of pain. For example, Americans are still struggling as the economy sputters. Unemployment — while down from its peak — is still at 8.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, the $600 supplemented unemployment insurance that was helping to bridge the gap has expired. The federal government launched a stopgap program via FEMA– Lost Wages Assistance — designed to get $400 into the hands of the unemployed, but many states are still figuring out how that will happen. More important: The second wave of stimulus is still being hammered out and may not be passed before the 2020 elections.

It’s clear that figuring out who is most at risk of eviction and how to prevent future housing loss will become more important as we head into the remainder of the year with no cure or vaccine in sight. To that end, Karen Bannan, the editor-in-chief of The Commons spoke with Timothy Robustelli, Policy Analyst with the Future of Property Rights Program at New America to discuss eviction trends and how data may be what helps us to find resolution.

How serious is the housing an eviction problem right now?

The United States certainly had an affordable housing crisis well before the pandemic, It was clear in 2008, with the mortgage foreclosure crisis, and then is sort of a work that, that Desmond and his team at Princeton University have been doing around evictions before the crisis, brought it all to light. And now with stay at home orders and shuttering of businesses and the inability for people to, you know, derive an income has led to a determined inability for them to pay rent and pay their mortgages. That’s creating a massive increase in households at risk for eviction. There was a recent study by the Action Institute and Emily Benfer, which estimated that 30 to 40 million Americans are now at risk of being evicted.

Before the pandemic, what was a typical eviction rate?

The average eviction rate that we calculated from 2014 to 2016 was 2.6% in one of our recent studies. Out of every 100 households, about two and a half every year were experiencing eviction. So that’s the baseline.  

Is there a way that governments can use data to sort of help fix this problem? What can we do to help solve this problem right now?

One of the largest problems related to housing loss and evictions in particular is the lack of good data. Evictions are processed at the municipal and county level. The courts are mostly in charge of data entry — the clerks of the court. And there’s a complete lack of standardization across the country when it comes to what’s included in the data, and what format it’s in, where it’s stored, and how accessible it is, whether it’s free, or if there’s costs for bulk data or individual files. But when that data is accessible, it’s very powerful in sort of giving clues into what type evictions and where evictions are happening within what census tracts and what neighborhoods in what communities that, in turn, can be broken down into the households that are more risk when it comes to certain demographic and socio economic variables. 

There’s a bit of lag between when evictions happen and when the data does become available, for the most part, but having that historical understanding can really give policymakers a better idea of where housing loss has historically occurred so they can better target outreach, resources, allocation of funds whether that’s rental assistance or otherwise, to these communities. There’s been increased efforts on the eviction level, in particular, to try and track real time evictions in certain cities in the United States, using historical data as a baseline and seeing what the trends are right now as eviction moratoriums have expired, or are expiring across the country.

Is anyone is anyone actually solving the problem of evictions right now using data?

I’ll point to some more local organizations. Eviction Lab is obviously doing great work. They were the first ones to have that national sort of level database. Of course, they’re sort of gaps in data availability, even even in their database, which actually be quick to point out but there’s organizations, grassroots organizations across the country that do a bit more granular analysis when it comes to eviction data and then related advocacy in the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in the Bay Area. City Life/Vida Urbana and MIT just produced an outstanding study about evictions in the Boston area. Justfix.NYC — I’m sure a few others are slipping my mind — but you know, housing policy and eviction policy and the processes around it are set mostly at the local and county level. So there’s a lot of grassroots organizations and housing advocates in some of the cities that were worst affected and they are doing some great work. 

I’ll also point to our recent study as well — the Future of Property Rights program. We just did a nationwide analysis at the county level on evictions and also mortgage foreclosures. And we did some case studies in Indianapolis, the Phoenix metro area, and then Winston Salem, North Carolina. Using census track level data, we were able to pinpoint some neighborhoods that historically suffer from housing loss and evictions in particular, and we’ve been lucky enough to work with some decision makers in those areas. So they can have a better understanding of where COVID related housing loss might be occurring.

How does knowing where the loss is occurring help solve the problem of eviction, especially since it doesn’t seem like additional stimulus money is coming our way anytime soon?

Knowing where past evictions occur can help policymakers know what communities are at risk come 2021 –after the CDC’s nationwide moratorium on evictions expires –and develop policies to help at-risk households in the new year and beyond. Similar to the long-term effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the pandemic-related economic downturn will likely require government intervention for years. 

Additionally, from FPR’s conversations with stakeholders around the country, it seems as though funding for housing assistance is still being disbursed from the CARES act, especially for cities and towns with populations under 500,000 that did not receive funds directly from the federal government. They have to wait for state governments to direct any federal money, which has been a slow process. There may still be an opportunity to better direct funds related to rent or mortgage payment assistance. 

Finally, knowing what communities and neighborhoods are historically at-risk can also assist with outreach regarding tenants’ rights education and current COVID-related policies, as well as helping stakeholders direct local and nonprofit resources.

Tell us more about your own study. What did you learn from that work?

Aside from the quantitative analysis, we did with these mappings at that the census tract level, we conducted about 100 key phone interviews across our three case studies. And what it comes down to it’s really a number of structural factors that compound and lead people to be at risk of home loss, whether that’s the stagnant wages in low paying jobs coupled with just a blatant lack of affordable housing for low income and extremely low income households. And it’s often just one little thing that will cause these budgets just to be thrown out of whack. 

In two of our case study locations in Phoenix and in Winston-Salem, we had different interviewees use the example of a flat tire. What does a flat tire cost? $100 or $200 to replace? And people due to some of these issues — you know, historical discrimination in the housing market, stagnant wages, a lack of housing stock — are really living on this razor’s edge where sort of one event whether that’s car issues, medical emergency, something else, they’re really put at risk for eviction and it’s just life. Everyone has their heartbreaks. Everyone has these unexpected events, and due to the lack of their own safety net and a shrinking social safety net more generally across the country, it puts them at risk of housing loss.

What conclusions did you come to with your own study? Is there anything that can help stem the flood of evictions?

One of our critical policy recommendations was improving the quality of data, including access to data, improving the granularity of data. And that really comes first, understanding what the barriers to good data are. Is it limited capacity in county courts? Is it really having conversations with the stakeholders who are responsible for the accumulation of this data? It’s it’s hard to solve a problem that you can’t really quantify, so it really comes down to the data — especially with evictions — having more conversations about standardization and accessibility.

Another thing that we’ve heard about technology wise that wasn’t included in our recommendations, but that we found out through continued conversations is the fact that many courts have moved to doing the proceedings online, doing their eviction proceedings online. Of course, there’s concerns over security and access to legal aid when people are taking these calls from their houses, but in one example and one anecdotal story from Tempe, Ariz., a justice of the peace said that, during pre-Covid times, the attendance of tenants facing eviction in his court was around 10%. Well, now that it’s all moved online, the attendance rate has jumped to around 90%. So sort of an unintended positive consequence, in some ways, for moving court records, court proceedings online. Tenants are actually showing up to these trials. When they’ve been done in the past it was usually just a default judgment, and now they have a bit more agency to try to stay housed.

Pre-COVID tenants were mostly at the whim of an unfamiliar and intimidating legal process, and landlords just paid lawyers to show up and represent them. Tenants, they’re unfamiliar with the process, and they often have to take off work or find childcare or even find a way to come down to the courthouse using unreliable public transportation. So the ability for them just to do it in their home if it’s set up in the right way — the rules are a bit more equitable. If legal aid is available — it’s often not, but if it is available — they have access to that, and that’s something that we’ve seen is possibly a big game changer when it comes to eviction court.

So what do we take from this experience?

The pandemic, at the very least, has shone a light on some problems that maybe a lot of people don’t think about on a day-to-day basis. It’s caused many Americans to realize that housing is a human right, and that more people than you might imagine don’t have access to stable adequate housing. Home is where you raise a family. It’s where you make a community connection. It’s where you send your kids to a school and it’s where you look for jobs. And so understanding that the home is the prerequisite or a prerequisite for a lot of other things in high quality livelihoods and that a lot of people in the U.S. don’t have access to stable housing — if there is a silver lining, it’s that there’s been more conversation around that and the fact that we need to fix the structural inequities in our society.