Health Justice Lawyer Argues For Nationwide Eviction Moratorium
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
When the pandemic first started shutting down parts of the U.S. economy, measures were passed to ease the pain for people who suddenly had no income - things like eviction moratoriums and extra unemployment assistance. But many of those protections are set to expire at the end of this month, and that's leading to fears that millions of Americans could become homeless.
Here to tell us more is Emily Benfer. She's a law professor at Wake Forest University and co-creator of The Eviction Lab COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. She joins us from New York City.
Emily Benfer, thanks for being on the program.
EMILY BENFER: Thank you so much for having me.
PFEIFFER: Emily, I saw a tweet of yours from just a few days ago that got a lot of attention. And in it, you referenced ostrich syndrome. Would you explain what you were referring to once these moratorium and financial assistance programs end?
BENFER: So I think the United States is on the brink of mass evictions across the country. The Aspen Institute estimates that approximately 20 to 24 million people are facing eviction right now. And yet, by the end of July, the CARES Act federal moratorium, the majority of state-level moratoriums and unemployment insurance will expire. These are the only stopgap measures in place to prevent eviction. And yet, we're not seeing the level of urgency necessary to prevent them from happening from the federal government. So, to me, that is an ostrich syndrome that we need to really address to prevent this type of widespread eviction and homelessness.
PFEIFFER: You made reference to how evictions can start a cascade of other woes. I mean, it's often the beginning of many other bad things happening to people. Can you talk a little more about the lasting impact evictions can have?
BENFER: Eviction is incredibly devastating. It leads to unemployment, residential instability, homelessness, academic decline. It has well-studied negative consequences in health for both adults and children. It's also an adverse childhood experience, so it can result in long-term health and chronic problems for children well into adulthood, including cardiac disease, pulmonary disease and more.
And numerous studies have shown that eviction actually results in respiratory disease, which could be a compounding factor if someone were to contract COVID-19. It also increases mortality rates, depression, suicide. There is no good outcome from eviction.
PFEIFFER: And I've read that you've pointed out that once you have an eviction on your record, that sometimes makes landlords in the future not want to rent to you.
BENFER: That's correct. We call it the scarlet E. Once a person has an eviction on their record, their credit scores plummet. They are often routinely blacklisted in the rental market, even if they ultimately won their case, because usually, property owners don't want to rent to someone who has an eviction on their record.
And that includes filing. And so these states across the country that have allowed for filings of eviction during the pandemic - all of those renters are put in a particular place of hardship because it will be very difficult for them to find suitable housing going forward.
PFEIFFER: Are there any groups of Americans particularly vulnerable to eviction?
BENFER: Yes. Much like COVID-19, people of color have been hardest-hit by eviction. One survey found that after controlling for education, Black households are more than twice as likely as white households to be subject to eviction. And the single greatest predictor of an eviction is the presence of a child in these households.
PFEIFFER: You know, I'm sure there are listeners thinking, landlords have expenses, too. They may have mortgages and taxes to pay, and if their tenants aren't paying rent, that's a problem. What about the landlord perspective of this?
BENFER: That's such a good point. Renters are not the only ones bearing the brunt of the crisis, and we can't expect property owners to carry the economic depression in place of renters. When rent payments stop, so do property taxes and mortgage payments, building maintenance, employee salaries. And declining rent payments - they're more likely to affect small landlords who, like their renters, they lack a financial cushion to ride out the pandemic or to carry the economy.
PFEIFFER: Could you list the top two things you think need to be done to prevent a mass housing crisis in this country?
BENFER: The most critical thing that we can do as a stopgap measure, an immediate measure - the federal government should create a nationwide moratorium on evictions. And it must also couple that with the rental assistance that will sustain renters, state and local governments and the housing market so that we can stabilize throughout the pandemic.
Once that's in place, we have to start thinking about long-term interventions to address and prevent the affordable housing crisis. It's clear that the pandemic is not going away anytime soon, that we are going to be in this for some time. And that means that these tertiary stopgap measures will not be enough to prevent widespread eviction and homelessness.
PFEIFFER: That's Emily Benfer, co-creator of The Eviction Lab COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard and a law professor at Wake Forest University.
Emily, thank you.
BENFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.