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Why more renters are being evicted in the middle of the pandemic

During this coronavirus pandemic, we hear repeatedly from public health officials to stay at home. But many Americans don’t have stable housing -- and now, a growing number of people are being forced out of where they live because they can’t pay the rent. William Brangham reports on the causes and consequences of a national rise in evictions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    During this pandemic, we hear it repeatedly from public health officials: Stay at home.

    But many Americans don't have stable housing.

    And, as William Brangham reports, a growing number of people are being forced out of their homes because they cannot make rent payments.

  • William Brangham:

    Like tens of thousands of Americans right now, Rhonda Anderson and her family are being evicted.

  • Rhonda Anderson:

    It's stressful and it's hard.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's back up.

    Last December, Anderson's family was excited when they moved to North Charleston, South Carolina. She and her husband had both found good jobs, and this nice rental home close to work.

    But then, three months after they moved, the pandemic hit. Anderson's husband lost his home restoration job when the virus and the shutdown dried up all his company's projects.

  • Rhonda Anderson:

    My husband filed for unemployment. Didn't get no unemployment. So, basically, it left me in a situation to do stuff by myself, try to keep food in the house and try to pay the rent.

  • William Brangham:

    Rhonda took on extra hours at her job. She's the head cook at a local nursing home.

    These days, she's working up to 75 hours a week, but it still hasn't been enough to make rent on time.

  • Rhonda Anderson:

    I have never been in this situation before in any way, never.

  • William Brangham:

    After paying the rent late in April and in May, her landlord told her she was being evicted.

  • Rhonda Anderson:

    I'm asking, like, how are you going to evict us and we're still paying our payment? He said: "I just — I just want you all out of there."

    And we didn't know why.

  • William Brangham:

    The landlord said Anderson paid her rent late several times, and she was violating her lease because her 20-year-old son wasn't on the initial paperwork. He had come to live with her when his college closed because of the pandemic.

    The CARES Act the coronavirus relief package Congress passed earlier this year, halted evictions for anyone living in properties with federally backed mortgages, but that only applies to about a third of renters nationwide, and it's set to expire July 25.

    In addition to the federal protections, most states put a pause on all evictions when the pandemic first hit. But those rules only postpone evictions. If tenants violate their rental agreements, landlords can still evict them once the moratoriums expire.

    And that's exactly what's happening now to people like Rhonda Anderson. When South Carolina let its moratorium expire in May, it saw a spike in eviction filings, says Charleston attorney Nicole Paluzzi.

  • Nicole Paluzzi:

    What we're seeing now is a significant bump in the nonpayment of rent cases. And a lot of that is related to people being unemployed during COVID-19 during the shutdowns.

  • Lavar Edmonds:

    It's really kind of a perfect storm.

  • William Brangham:

    Princeton University's Lavar Edmonds studies evictions. He says they were already a major problem before the pandemic.

  • Lavar Edmonds:

    The last 15, 20 years, you can see rents have been increasing considerably, whereas incomes have remained relatively stagnant.

  • William Brangham:

    In 2018, one in four renters in the U.S. put more than half of their income towards rent, and about half of renters have less than $1,000 in savings.

  • Lavar Edmonds:

    They're paying rent, but they're sort of on the edge of something goes wrong, and now we have got a problem.

  • William Brangham:

    What's pushing many renters over that edge is the economic fallout from the pandemic.

    One recent survey found up to a third of all renters weren't able to pay rent in April. That's causing housing advocates to warn of what they see as a worst-case scenario, a spike in homelessness right in the middle of the pandemic.

    That could expose more people to the virus, if they end up in shelters, where it's very hard to socially distance.

    But Boston Medical Center's Dr. Megan Sandel says, not having quality, stable housing is also tied to other problems, like food insecurity and increased stress. And that can, in turn, trigger long-term physical and mental health issues.

  • Megan Sandel:

    An affordable home is like a prescription for health. And nothing showed that more than during the epidemic. And so now is the time to double down on stocking that housing prescription.

  • William Brangham:

    Like many aspects of this pandemic, people of color are also most vulnerable when it comes to housing. Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. are twice as likely to be renters as whites.

    And during the pandemic, black and Hispanic workers are more likely to have lost their jobs as well.

  • Diane Yentel:

    Black and brown renters are disproportionately likely to be extremely low-income. They're much more likely to be severely cost-burdened.

  • William Brangham:

    Diane Yentel is president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

  • Diane Yentel:

    As we look towards this potential wave of evictions that's coming, that, too, will disproportionately harm black and brown renters.

  • William Brangham:

    States and cities are already using federal emergency money for rental assistance. But housing advocates say much more is needed.

    Earlier this year, Houston's $15 million fund was tapped out just 90 minutes after it opened up to applicants. Landlords are pushing for more rental assistance, too.

    Doug Quattrochi is the executive director of MassLandlords, a trade association in Massachusetts.

  • Dough Quattrochi:

    Landlords don't like to evict their paying customers or their nonpaying customers. We want to have customers, and we want to have people occupy our housing.

  • William Brangham:

    Quattrochi says, when rent isn't paid, small mom-and-pop landlords like him struggle to pay their own bills.

  • Dough Quattrochi:

    Even though there's a pandemic, we still have to pay for repairs, we have to pay for insurance, real estate taxes. Five percent of our members are insolvent, and they're selling their buildings to get out of the business. Another 20 percent…

  • William Brangham:

    Because of this pandemic?

  • Dough Quattrochi:

    Because of the pandemic, plus the resulting shutdowns and the eviction moratorium. They can't operate anymore, and they're done.

  • William Brangham:

    After going to court, Rhonda Anderson agreed to a deal with her landlord. The landlord would apply for CARES Act rental assistance to cover the missed June rent, and Anderson would vacate the house at the end of the month.

    But the eviction wouldn't go on her record, something that could have made it harder to rent in the future. But the quick move meant her family had to go to a hotel. Fortunately, it's only temporary.

  • Rhonda Anderson:

    We found a place, but it's not open up until after the holidays. So, we have to stay in a hotel for, like, eight days. So that's how life is at now.

  • William Brangham:

    And as evictions pick up across the country, that's how life could soon be for thousands more Americans.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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