With evictions restarting, housing advocates fear another COVID wave

When the Centers for Disease Control extended eviction protections for renters one more time last month, to July 31, it said in no uncertain terms the extension would be the last. But a surge of COVID-19 cases around the country is causing housing advocates to raise the alarm, worried that a surge of evictions could fuel yet another wave of COVID-19, especially as the hyper-infectious Delta variant spreads across the country.

They have reason to worry. A recent analysis shows that millions of the nation’s distressed renters are living in COVID-19 hot spots where the Delta variant is surging fastest.

Citing this research, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has called for the Biden administration to extend the moratorium, saying, “We must protect the vulnerable and do everything in our power to prevent a mass eviction crisis.”

National Low Income Housing Coalition President Diane Yentel also referenced the research in testimony during a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, saying, “The Biden administration or Congress must extend the federal eviction moratorium.”

“The newly surging Delta variant, low vaccination rates in communities with high eviction filings, and the slow distributing of [rental assistance] make the necessity of an extension abundantly clear,” Yentel said.

The analysis from Paul Williams, a housing policy researcher and a fellow at the Jain Family Institute, found that 78% of households behind on their rent as of early July live in COVID hot spots — or about 4.7 million households of the 6.5 million behind on rent. Considering the typical U.S. household has 2.5 members, that translates into more than 11 million people at risk of eviction in counties with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Williams noted that his estimate probably undershoots the true number of renters at risk, since the underlying data, from the National Equity Atlas, excludes six states — including states like Arkansas and Mississippi, where the coronavirus is raging. 

Millions face eviction as deadline looms 09:00

“Putting people out on the street is probably not going to have good effects on community transmission rates [of coronavirus],” Williams told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Indeed, new research published this week adds to the evidence that keeping renters housed is an effective public health measure. Academics from the University of California, Johns Hopkins University and Wake Forest University compared states that allowed evictions to proceed in the summer of 2020 with those states that implemented eviction bans. They found that allowing evictions contributed to an additional 433,000 cases of COVID-19 and an additional 10,700 deaths.

What’s more, evictions are unequal, with ZIP codes that have lower vaccination rates seeing higher rates of eviction filings, according to a recent analysis from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Both eviction rates and vaccination rates are correlated with income, with high-income people more likely to be vaccinated and more likely to have stable housing. And it’s not just coronavirus: Eviction is a driver of poor health, with years of research linking eviction rates to higher instances of heart disease, HIV and depression. 

“[F]rom a public health perspective, stopping an eviction crisis is of paramount importance,” Emily Benfer, a professor of law at Wake Forest and one of the paper’s authors, told CBS MoneyWatch in an email.  

“There is ample evidence that the 1) Delta variant is highly contagious and spreading at alarming rates, 2) eviction increases transmission of respiratory disease (i.e., COVID-19), 3) lifting eviction moratoriums is associated with increased COVID-19 infection and death, [and] 4) vaccination rates are low in high-risk areas,” she said. “All of this evidence indicates that an eviction crisis would only propel the U.S.  deeper into the throes of the pandemic and its catastrophic consequences.”

Expert on Delta variant fueling U.S. surge 05:38

While many of those renters facing eviction could qualify for federal rent assistance, that money’s been slow in coming. Only about 12% of the $46 billion Congress appropriated for rent aid as part of its pandemic-relief efforts has been distributed as of the end of last month. Reasons range from overly complex application requirements to understaffing at government agencies and housing nonprofits to landlords simply unwilling to wait any longer for their money. 

“States and cities, renters, families need more time,” Yentel said. 

Williams agrees. “It would be shameful if there were a bunch of people who applied for this money, didn’t get it because the program was too slow and then ended up getting evicted,” he said, adding of the fast-spreading Delta variant: “The circumstances of public health have very much changed since June.”