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With cases piling up, an eviction crisis unfolds step by step


By Sophie Kasakove


In Indianapolis, eviction courts are packed as judges make their way through a monthslong backlog of cases. In Detroit, advocates are rushing to knock on the doors of tenants facing possible eviction. In Gainesville, Florida, landlords are filing evictions at a rapid pace as displaced tenants resort to relatives’ couches for places to sleep or seek cheaper rents outside the city.


It is not the sudden surge of evictions that tenants and advocates feared after the Supreme Court ruled in August that President Joe Biden’s extension of the eviction moratorium was unconstitutional. Instead, what’s emerging is a more gradual eviction crisis that is increasingly hitting communities across the country, especially those where the distribution of federal rental assistance has been slow and where tenants have few protections.


“For months we all used these terms like eviction ‘tsunami’ and ‘falling off the cliff,’ ” said Lee Camp, an attorney who represents tenants facing eviction in St. Louis. But those simple terms missed the complexity of the eviction process and the lack of reliable statistics to track it, he said. “It was not going to happen overnight. Certainly it would take weeks and months to play out.”


And even now, experts say, the available numbers dramatically undercount the number of tenants being forced from their homes either through court-ordered evictions or informal ones, especially as rising rents make seeking new tenants increasingly profitable for landlords.


While the number of eviction filings remained at nearly half of prepandemic averages during the first two weeks of October, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, in the 31 cities and six states it tracks, the filings are also increasing.


In the first two weeks of September, just after the moratorium ended, eviction filings increased by 10% from the first two weeks of August. In the first two weeks of October, evictions increased by nearly 14% from the first two weeks of the previous month.


“In places that don’t have protections, these numbers are increasing pretty quickly,” said Peter Hepburn, a researcher at the Eviction Lab. “And we don’t know where the ceiling is.”


Gene Sperling, the economist overseeing the Biden administration’s pandemic relief programs, credited the $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance set aside by Congress last winter with mitigating the problem. More than 2 million payments have been made — nearly 1 million in August and September alone.


Some jurisdictions have used part of the money to introduce programs that provide alternatives to eviction or legal assistance for tenants. Just over 37% of all renters in the country live in places that still have local eviction bans or are postponing eviction judgments pending rental assistance, according to the Urban Institute.


But elsewhere, limited renter protections and limits in the distribution of rental assistance are spurring the increase in evictions.


“No one should be sleeping well at night when there are still way too many painful, avoidable evictions,” Sperling said.


In Indianapolis in late October, Pamela Brewer waited nervously for a hearing on her pending eviction in a courthouse packed with hundreds of other tenants. There, landlords have been piling new evictions onto a backlog of thousands of older ones from the pandemic that are just now being executed.


“The hallways were full; the outside was full coming up the steps; the foyer was full,” said Brewer, who is months behind on rent after losing her job on the assembly line at a home appliances manufacturer at the start of the pandemic. “You look around, and everybody’s knees are shaking like, What’s going to happen?”


Some landlords say that the red tape of the rental assistance program has caused problems for them, too.


William Tran, who owns 38 properties in the Milwaukee area, said he is currently short $40,000 in unpaid rent, as some of his tenants have struggled to navigate the application process and others face long delays.


“It’s just a really cumbersome process, and it can be really overwhelming for a lot people,” Tran said.


Overall, though, landlords collected rent during the pandemic about as regularly as they did before the pandemic, according to data collected by the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord industry group.


Howard Spellman, a landlord with 37 rental units across California and New Mexico, said that his tenants who were behind on rent received rental assistance without much difficulty.


“I’ve done better during the pandemic because of the help from the government than in previous years,” Spellman said.


The true extent of the crisis facing tenants is understated by the available numbers on eviction, housing advocates and experts say. “The eviction avalanche is absolutely here across the country,” said Katie Goldstein, a housing justice campaign director with the Center for Popular Democracy.


There is no national database of evictions, and the haphazard patchwork of local policies and record-keeping methods in courts across the country poses severe obstacles to creating one. One-third of all U.S. counties have no available court eviction data at all, according to New America, a left-leaning think tank.


And most tenants are forced to leave their rental units not because of formal eviction proceedings, but because they’ve been illegally locked out or their utilities have been shut off, or because they want to avoid an eviction being added to their record by leaving on their own.


A 2015 study from Milwaukee found that there were two of these so-called informal evictions for every one formal eviction. A recent survey of low-income tenants in Washington state found that 1 in 5 tenants were subjected to a method of informal eviction during the pandemic, compared with 1 in 8 before the pandemic.


In September 2020, just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its eviction moratorium, Antionette Cobb came home to find her St. Louis apartment almost entirely empty. She’d fallen behind on rent after losing her job as a housekeeper at a hotel months before because of the pandemic. By August she had exhausted her savings. Cobb’s landlord rejected her offer to pay over half of her $550 rent for that month, she said, and decided to seize the property instead.


“My heart just dropped,” she said, recalling the remnants of her furniture strewn around the apartment: the couch with its cushions removed; the box spring and headboard without a mattress on top; the legs of the coffee table without its glass top.


“I can’t go to the store and buy things that I’ve had for years, stuff that my grandma gave me, picture frames,” Cobb said. “It was heartbreaking; it was like I was nothing.”


Cobb has been staying with a friend in Ohio and searching for a place in St. Louis that she can afford. But after months of looking, she hasn’t yet found an apartment that she qualifies for with the income she makes from Instacart deliveries.


“Eviction is just one piece of a much larger problem,” said Camp, the tenant attorney. “It is this access to available housing. It is the debt that has piled up on top of these families that have fallen behind over these months. It is a culmination of different factors that is just affecting housing stability overall.”

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