Alongside the prospect of a new surge in coronavirus infections, another crisis is on the horizon: A nationwide wave of evictions threatens more than six million families that have fallen behind on rent.
See the share of households at risk by entering your county in the search field below.
This problem is especially acute in 250 counties where at least one-fifth of renters are behind, according to our analysis. But nationwide, the sheer scale of rent debt is alarming: An estimated $23 billion in all is outstanding, with about $3,800 per average household in arrears.
State and local governments can prevent this rental crisis from becoming a homelessness crisis with help from nearly $50 billion in federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds. Yet despite laudable coordination efforts and recent acceleration, the rollout is too slow, too few renters are eligible, and the application process is too complicated. As a result, funds are reaching only a small fraction of those who need them most.
For example, $158 million has been disbursed in California, while over $1 billion was applied for. South Carolina is faring worse: under $1 million has been disbursed, out of $39 million requested. Distributing direct aid this way is new to many governments and every locality has a unique housing landscape. But with the moratorium ending in just days, they have run out of time.
There is also a huge eligibility gap: We estimate that of the 6.2 million households in arrears, half make more money than the federal program allows and therefore aren’t eligible. The result is that at-risk households in nearly every county are still catastrophically behind.
We found that in the 84 largest urban counties, including Philadelphia, St. Louis and Dallas, renters face a collective $13 billion bill. Also worrying are counties across the Deep South. In several counties in South Carolina and Mississippi, for example, more than one in four renters are behind. There are also millions of households at risk in small counties. In Columbia County, Ga., north of Augusta, we estimate 1,200 households owe a collective $4.6 million.
The numbers in large urban areas are staggering. Nearly 300,000 renters owe an average of $5,300 each in Los Angeles County. In New York City, over 400,000 renters owe a collective $2 billion. Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Diego all show at least 55,000 families at risk of eviction for nonpayment.
This crisis also underscores existing inequities in America. Those who’ve lost employment income in the pandemic face three times greater odds that they are in arrears. According to our analysis, being Black means you are approximately twice as likely to be behind on rent, even after accounting for differences in education, employment, living situation and other factors. Hispanic and Asian families are also considerably more likely to have fallen behind than white families (about 10 percent of white households owe back rent).
This is a preventable crisis.
It should be much easier for families to get access to programs that can help them pay their rent. In addition, states and localities should invest 10 percent of their federal funds in eviction diversion programs, such as legal aid and mediation; these programs could help people who don’t qualify for Emergency Rental Assistance because their incomes are too high.
States and localities can extend their own emergency eviction moratoriums, increase awareness of tenant rights, and allow arrears to be converted to civil debt, for which a tenant can’t be evicted, while households are waiting for their federal rent assistance. Seeking out vulnerable renters is key: Washington State, for example, focuses on historically marginalized groups, while Houston uses the Centers for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index to direct its outreach. Other counties should do the same, using the C.D.C. index or our own organization’s tool, the Covid-19 Community Vulnerability Index.
If state and local governments fail to act quickly after the moratorium is lifted, then local leaders and concerned neighbors must be prepared to help families through the eviction process. A good resource to start with is the Eviction Lab, a research program that has published a useful directory of over 600 organizations that can help those facing eviction.
Now that we know where the most renters are in trouble, we have the tools we need to prevent a new kind of pandemic. Families who fell behind on rent don’t have time to wait.
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