One night last week instead of sleeping Florence Hobbs hopped around her apartment on a broken ankle, trying to pack everything she owned as fast as was possible. Her landlord had given her a 24-hour eviction notice and she didn’t want her things tossed out of the apartment in Charleston, South Carolina, when the clock ran out.
The 51-year-old hadn’t been able to pay rent since April, when her job as a caregiver ended with the death of her patient. She then had surgery, caught Covid-19 and broke her ankle while working at a new job. Friends helped her clear the apartment and are giving her a place to stay, but she is at a loss for what she is supposed to do next.
“There’s nothing being done to help my situation. I’m just in a dark place right now,” said Hobbs.
Housing advocates have warned of a looming eviction crisis after federal programs to help the 30 million unemployed Americans and to prevent evictions during the pandemic expired in late July. The Aspen Institute estimated 19 to 23 million people were at risk of eviction before the end of September because of the economic crisis. In late July, 13.3 million renters told the US Census Bureau they could not pay rent the month before.
On 8 August, Donald Trump signed an executive order which he said would minimize evictions and foreclosures. The actual order is not, as was hoped, an extension of the moratorium which expired in late July and has fallen short of what is needed to protect vulnerable renters.
It is impossible to calculate exactly how many evictions have taken place during the pandemic because the government doesn’t track that data. The closest thing to a national database, Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, has not yet found a sustained spike in evictions, though some states have seen spikes after local eviction moratoriums ended.
Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at a coalition for tenants and advocates in New York, Housing Justice For All, said with eviction protections fizzling out, the system which favors landlords over renters was laid bare.
“I think what we are experiencing is a baseline of how weak tenants protections are in this country compared to other places in the world,” Weaver said.
The country’s fragmented eviction moratoriums have only added to confusion about what rights people actually have. In Austin, Texas, for instance, there is an eviction moratorium through September, though the state itself never had one.
“Different states have different protections, or not, and it’s been really hard for folks to know what’s going on,” Weaver said. “So that means you hear the governor say one thing and the judge say another thing, then you see [US treasury secretary] Steve Mnuchin or Trump say a third.”
With the mangled communication and lack of a nationwide plan to address the eviction crisis, groups like Housing Justice for All have stepped in.
Equality for Flatbush, a member of the coalition, blocked evictions in a 7 July standoff with a landlord in Brooklyn. And support for the organization has skyrocketed. Weaver said when the pandemic began, her mailing list had 6,000 people. Five months later, it had grown to more than 100,000.
“We’ve been saying for a really long time that everyone is one paycheck away from an eviction, that’s sort of an adage in the tenant movement, but I think what’s happening is everyone is waking up to that,” Weaver said.
The country entered the pandemic and economic downturn, with an already existing eviction crisis. The most recent data from Eviction Lab shows 2.3 million Americans were evicted from their homes in 2016.
In South Carolina, Nicole Paluzzi, housing attorney at Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, has long been on the frontlines of the crisis. In 2016, North Charleston was found to have the most evictions in the country, with an average of 10 per day, by Eviction Lab.
South Carolina’s eviction moratorium ended in May. The day after it expired, a worker in the court clerk’s office told Paluzzi that 160 new filings had been filed before lunchtime.
“We did anticipate that people who were living paycheck to paycheck with very little emergency resources would be hit first, but we are also seeing people who are leaving their tenancies and moving back in with their parents and are in their thirties,” Paluzzi said.
Paluzzi said people who have been evicted include those with salaries of $80,000 to $120,000 a year. One man paying $2,200 a month in rent lost his job and couldn’t afford payments for private student loan payments and other bills. He was selling his computer to make ends meet before being evicted.
Paluzzi emphasized that there are understanding landlords and reasonable attorneys, but she has also seen property owners skirting evictions laws.
The federal moratorium only stopped people from being evicted if they couldn’t pay rent. So some landlords in South Carolina would say their eviction filing was about infractions such as “smelling marijuana” and not a missed payment. They did not have to prove the allegation was true to see their case ushered through eviction court.
Before the pandemic, the people at highest risk of eviction were low-income women of color. Paluzzi said this was bearing out anecdotally in Charleston and North Charleston.
“My clients are overwhelmingly single Black women with children,” Paluzzi said. “My client today was and my client yesterday was. And all of my clients last week were single Black females with children.”
This includes Hobbs, who was on her way back from a mental health intake appointment when she got word that she had 24 hours to leave her home. She has one grown daughter and was supporting herself in the apartment.
After losing her job, and having to pay out of pocket for a medical procedure, Hobbs sought help from aid groups. She was approved for rental assistance at two separate agencies, but the funding ran out before she was able to collect it. She is staying with a friend, but can only contribute so much with the $260 in worker’s comp she gets each week.
“I have to figure out a way now to help him [my friend] as well,” Hobbs said. “His bills are not going to stop. Nobodies bills are going to stop. And now that I am evicted this is going to be on my record as well.”
The question of what’s next is almost too big for Hobbs to grapple with. She is focused instead on survival.
About 1,000 miles north-west, Sheri and Dean Slater, both 64 years old, have one week to move out of their apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
They are vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19 because of their age and underlying health conditions, but each day, Sheri conducts hours-long searches in-person and online for their next home.
Their landlord decided he didn’t want to be a landlord anymore and once eviction protections in the state evaporated, he told the couple to find somewhere else to live.
Sheri has heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. She has to work to stay calm when thinking about their problems because she is worried about having a fourth heart attack. Dean, who lost his job at a pizza restaurant when the pandemic began in March, has just been diagnosed with a nervous system disorder.
Each trip Sheri makes to a property is a risk to the couple’s health because of the other people who are visiting it, but she has no other options. When she does have to move, she’s worried about it being done safely.
“I don’t know how much more I can handle,” Sheri said. “I am doing the best I can. And God forbid, at the end of the month, if the government doesn’t do anything… I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Christine Donahoe, the housing priority coordinator at Legal Action of Wisconsin, helped the Slaters get an extra month in their apartment after their landlord told them they had to leave at the end of July. But there is no law which accounts for the coronavirus risks some may face when being forced to move.
“Essentially, we’re acting like business as usual when it comes to evictions here in Wisconsin,” Donahoe said.
From late March to late May, Wisconsin had a 60-day eviction moratorium. The state also provided $25m in rent assistance. Donahoe said the assistance, with federal government programs such as the unemployment expansion, seemed to have reduced possible evictions. But once the moratorium lifted, evictions jumped 25% in June compared to how many were filed in June 2019.
One lasting change is that some eviction courts are only holding hearings online. This brings a “whole new universe of problems”, Donahoe said, because people who are being evicted are more likely to not be able to afford internet access.
In the courtroom, tenants also face judges, attorneys and landlords who may not have the latest information on eviction laws.
“At the beginning of this there were judges that hadn’t even heard of the federal eviction moratorium for weeks after it had been instituted,” Donahoe said. “And it’s understandable but it’s also really frightening to think of what our clients and tenants will be facing in court if the judges aren’t up to speed.”
She is also worried about the state’s database for evictions. Tenants who have a filing against them struggle to find housing later, even if the court rules in their favor. With so many changes to the laws, more improper evictions can be filed, leaving more people looking like bad tenants.
“There are still a lot of boarded up homes and blighted neighborhoods from the housing crash, and that was over ten years ago, so I really worry about what impact this will have,” Donahoe said.
Sheri Slater said the city had a tough market for renters and that every place she looked at was snapped up quickly.
In an ideal world, someone else would buy the house they are living in and they could rent it from that person. At one point, they had hoped to buy the four-bedroom house themselves but that was ruled out when Dean lost his job.
The Slaters both grew up in the neighborhood and said the house is comfortable in Wisconsin’s harsh winters and hot summers.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s reality,” Slater said in mid-August. “It seems like the worst movie you could ever watch in your life. I am beside myself. We have two weeks today to find a place, pack everything, the two of us, and move.”
Source: The Guardian