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Millions of Evictions Are a Sharper Threat as Government Support Ends

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For the 108 million people who live in a rental home or apartment, Aug. 1 was a grim milestone. It marked the first time rent was due after much of the nation’s economic response to the coronavirus had expired.

The lapse of expanded unemployment benefits and federal, state and local eviction moratoriums is forcing lawmakers to figure out how to extend those protections. It has also left experts resorting to natural disaster metaphors (“avalanche,” “tsunami”) to describe the scale of potential evictions.

Unlike the U.S. economy, which was enjoying the longest expansion on record, housing — specifically rental housing — was troubled before the virus hit, with problems going back decades. A little under four million evictions are filed each year, one in four tenant households spends about half its pretax income on rent, and each night some 200,000 people sleep in their cars, on streets or under bridges.

Those were the statistics in good times. Now, with unemployment above 10 percent and projected to stay there through at least next year, tens of millions of households could be at risk of eviction in the coming months. Even if only a fraction of those evictions actually take place, it would still be several times the current pace and the biggest disruption in rental housing in decades.

Whatever the final tally, it is increasingly clear that if the Great Recession was personified by empty subdivisions and foreclosed homeowners, the enduring symbol of coronavirus, with its disproportionate impact on hourly workers, is likely to be a laid-off tenant struggling to keep an overcrowded apartment.

“The United States is on the brink of an eviction crisis of unprecedented magnitude,” said Emily A. Benfer, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.

That is, of course, a projection — and so far, government efforts to hold back a wave of displacement have been effective. About two-thirds of the workers eligible for extended unemployment protections could make more than they did when they were employed, allowing tens of millions of tenants to shelter in place while paying their monthly bills.

Renters who didn’t receive unemployment pay were largely covered by the various eviction moratoriums that, while not relieving their debts, had at least granted them a reprieve. The federal moratorium alone, passed as part of the CARES Act in March, covered between 28.1 percent and 45.6 percent of rental units.

On Friday, after talks between the Trump administration and Democrats effectively stalled, President Trump threatened to bypass Congress to extend the moratorium.

The moratoriums were supposed to be emergency measures to give tenants some relief until the virus subsided and the economy returned to health.

Except that didn’t happen. The virus continues to surge around the country, and parents are unsure when schools will reopen. Each week more than a million laid-off employees continue to file for unemployment insurance, while temporary layoffs are becoming permanent job losses.

Landlords hold that the most extreme predictions of evictions are overblown. For starters, the limited data available suggests that most tenants have stayed current on their bills. Also, property owners, facing rising vacancies and falling rents, are increasingly working out rent cuts and extended payment plans.

Still, put all the numbers together, and it becomes clear that renters were struggling before the pandemic, they’ve been hit harder by the virus and job losses, and the rental market is likely to be more challenging even after the economy recovers.

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Credit…Scott Heins/Getty Images
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Credit…Felix Uribe for The New York Times

In the wake of the pandemic, 43 states and Washington, D.C., enacted some kind of eviction moratorium, according to Ms. Benfer. On top of that were various local measures, along with the federal eviction moratorium, which covered subsidized housing and rental properties with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While these measures were of varying length and strength — and many, including the federal ban, had little to no enforcement mechanism — together the patchwork served to halt or slow evictions for a majority of renters. Only seven states — Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming — never issued a statewide stay on evictions, and even in those states, the federal rules should have protected at least a third of renter households.

Just as important as those protections were the federal unemployment and stimulus payments. After all, most renters do not have eviction problems if they stay current on their bills, and with help from the $1,200 stimulus payments and $600 in extended unemployment that came with the CARES Act, many of them have.

Benjamin Schenk, a San Diego landlord who operates 30 units in two buildings, is one of the many property owners who have been surprised by the high number of tenants paying their rent in the early months of the pandemic. In March he was talking with his lenders about how he might restructure his loans in anticipation of nonpayments, only to make it to August with payment rates close to 100 percent, which he attributes to the CARES Act.

But people are now falling behind. Though it will take until mid-month to get a true sense of how bad August will be, several tenants who lost their jobs stopped paying rent in the first few days. “The aid that folks are relying on has dried up and not a lot of places are hiring,” Mr. Schenk said.

While there’s no comprehensive data on rent payments, a weekly tracker from the National Multifamily Housing Council that covers about 11 million units has started slipping. In the Census Bureau’s most recent Pulse Survey, for the week of July 16 to 21, just under one in five renters said they were unable to pay July’s rent on time, while one in three were unsure they could make August payments.

The threat to small landlords is also a threat to tenants. About 40 percent of the nation’s 48.2 million rental units are owned by “mom-and-pop” operators who tend to have a limited financial cushion. Since much of the nation’s affordable housing consists of small apartment buildings and single-family homes if these smaller landlords go under many of their units could be “lost.” Some would become owner-occupied housing. Others will get acquired by larger investors who plan renovations and rent increases — compounding a longstanding affordable housing shortage.

Evictions, meted out by local courts, are difficult to tally nationwide. For now, new filings are depressed compared with historical averages, according to a survey of a dozen cities by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. But they have resumed around the country, and are likely to grow.

There is a difference between an eviction filing, which is the start of a legal process, and an actual eviction, in which a tenant is removed. According to Eviction Lab, there were 3.7 million such filings in 2016, about one million of which led to an eviction — a figure that undercounts displacement.

Many tenants leave after a threat of eviction or the first sign of a filing. Others leave after a landlord turns off utilities or changes the locks. Even for tenants who are never taken from their home by a sheriff, behind every filing is severe stress and tattered credit that makes it harder to find a new place. Beyond that is the uncountable number of families whose rent was raised beyond their means and who left before missing a payment.

So even if there are only a million formal evictions a year, the number of people who are displaced is probably several times that, and likely to grow.

While homelessness would almost certainly increase with a spike in evictions, this doesn’t necessarily mean shelters will fill up or encampments will pop up on every street. Tenants, in particular, families, often exhaust every available option — living in weekly hotels and illegal garages, staying with friends or piling in with multiple roommates — before they end up in the shelter system or the streets.

Steve Noggle, 43, was evicted from his apartment in Annville, Pa., this week. He received just five weeks of extended unemployment benefits even though he lost his restaurant job four months ago. He has been sleeping on his sister’s couch since Monday. “I don’t like having to be here, it’s a burden on everybody, especially because I can’t contribute anything financially,” he said. “I’m just hoping I can get a job as soon as possible.”

Gillian Friedman contributed reporting.