Navigating a public health crisis without a home has been a stark reality for too many in the United States. The problem will intensify unless leaders ensure that federal rental assistance reaches those who need it most.
Now that Congress has approved more than $46 billion in emergency rental assistance, will that money reach the millions of Americans who need it most—the lowest income and most marginalized tenants and small landlords?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently extended the national eviction moratorium, which will prevent tens of millions from losing their homes through June 30. Beyond that, it’s crucial to ensure that emergency rental assistance funds from the two COVID relief packages passed by Congress are distributed swiftly and equitably to tenants with the lowest incomes and others who face systemic disadvantage in accessing public benefits such as Black, Indigenous and People of Color and immigrants.
However, there are challenges to distributing these funds. Congress left some details of the rental assistance program up to states and localities, which has led to unnecessary and burdensome restrictions or requirements in certain communities. Some programs provide outreach and assistance for tenants—online, in person, or over the phone—and allow for them to self-attest their eligibility and need, but others do not, leaving some tenants unable to navigate the application process. The amount of aid available by state is also inconsistent.
In Fresno, Calif., residents of the poorest neighborhoods, mostly people of color, face eviction at a higher rate than their White neighbors. Their risks of getting sick and dying are also strikingly higher.
If these funds aren’t distributed as they were designed to, the eviction crisis will intensify.
The CDC’s federal eviction moratorium has generally done what it was intended to do by keeping tens of millions of renters stably housed during the pandemic. But despite its protections, flaws in the order have still led to an alarming number of evictions. Just recently, close to 5,200 evictions were filed in 5 states and 27 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab despite the national moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, evictions have been filed in almost every state, including more than 36,000 in Indiana and 21,000 in Missouri. In Houston, more than 27,000 evictions have been filed during COVID-19.
Now, as we enter the pandemic’s 13th month, the threat of eviction looms over nearly ten million renters who have fallen behind on rent, affecting people in communities large and small, rural and urban. Hardest hit of all are communities of color.
Housing Insecurity and Inequity: A Decades-Long Problem
Just as Black, Indigenous and Latino people have endured higher rates of infection and death from the virus, they have also suffered the most from its economic effects. This is partly because they hold a disproportionate share of jobs in the service industry which has been hit especially hard by the pandemic.
But it is also because of structural racism’s enduring impact and our country’s long history of discriminatory housing and lending practices. Discriminatory policies throughout the 20th century—including the practice of redlining, the creation of White-only suburbs from the 1930s to the 1960s, the systemic denial of mortgages to people of color, and occupational segregation—led to widespread residential segregation by race. These practices have invariably led to differential access to health-promoting resources like clean air, high-quality schools, and job opportunities.
For example, in city after city, researchers have found that people of color who reside in neighborhoods once subjected to redlining are more likely to live shorter lives, have lower incomes, and be cost-burdened by rent.
Inequities stemming from structural racism have also compounded COVID-19’s damage in communities of color. Throughout the pandemic, Black and Latino people, many of whom struggled to pay rent before the pandemic, consistently reported low confidence in their ability to pay rent. They are also twice as likely as White renters to be behind on housing payments and twice as likely to report being at risk of eviction. All of this is in addition to facing a strikingly higher risk of catching and dying from COVID-19.
The threat of eviction falls disproportionally on Black women, who are more likely to face housing discrimination and other forms of racial and gender-based discrimination. This leads to the loss of a home, disruption of family and social networks, and numerous negative mental and physical health consequences. It also results in an eviction record that makes it harder to rent in the future. One assessment found that Black women renters had evictions filed against them at twice the rate of White women.
The Health Consequences of Evictions
Evictions carry profound health consequences and harm families in ways that will cast a shadow long after the pandemic has ended.
While a safe and healthy home is the first line of defense against COVID-19, evictions often lead to overcrowded housing conditions by forcing people to double up with friends or family. These arrangements make it nearly impossible to comply with public health measures such as social distancing and self-quarantining, creating a vicious cycle of housing displacement and health risks amid the pandemic. These risks persist in spite of the availability of vaccines since vaccine access lags for communities of color.
Recent research confirms this connection: evictions (and lack of eviction protections) are associated with increased COVID-19 cases and mortality. More broadly, being forced from your home is linked to a range of negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, suicide, emergency room visits, and exposure to violence.
Federal Action to Solve This Crisis
Although the national eviction moratorium has prevented the displacement of millions of families since taking effect last September, it has failed to protect thousands of others—pushing them deeper into poverty and poor health.
That’s because the CDC’s policy has been applied inconsistently across states, is riddled with loopholes, and has not been fully enforced.
Renters are only protected if they know about the moratorium and seek its protection. As a result, corporate and other landlords continue to evict renters who are unaware of the moratorium protections available to them. It is often the most marginalized renters, such as undocumented immigrants or seniors without access to the internet, who are both most in need of and least aware of the moratorium’s protections. Some landlords evade the moratorium by finding reasons to evict other than nonpayment of rent.
Because millions are behind on their rent, only bold action now will prevent an even worse crisis after COVID-19. That’s why the following federal action must happen quickly:
Enforce and strengthen the eviction moratorium by making its protections universal and automatic, applying to all tenancy types, and clarifying that landlords cannot initiate eviction proceedings during the moratorium. The intention of the administration to involve the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in enforcing the moratorium is encouraging.
Ensure that emergency rental assistance reaches the lowest-income tenants, people of color, and immigrants and their landlords to prevent evictions. In January 2021, more than 9 million tenants were behind on rent payments. Meanwhile, small and non-profit landlords, particularly those who are Black and Latino, are struggling to make mortgage payments and cover maintenance and operational costs. Key strategies include: making the application simple, partnering with community-based organizations on outreach, and tracking who is receiving rental assistance and refining tactics as needed.
But beyond this, we need change that guarantees housing as a human right. This can only happen by advancing anti-racist policies and achieving the large-scale, sustained investments and reforms necessary to ensure that people with the lowest incomes have a safe, stable, and affordable place to call home.
Make rental assistance and housing choice vouchers universally available. Today, only one in four households eligible for rental assistance receives it, limiting their ability to live in affordable, stable homes or in higher-opportunity neighborhoods.
Strengthen and enforce renter legal protections. The power imbalance between renters and landlords put renters at risk of housing instability and homelessness. There should be requirements for landlords to show just cause for evictions and a right to counsel for all renters facing evictions.
Expand and preserve the supply of affordable homes. Not one single state or congressional district in America has an adequate supply of affordable housing for families with the lowest incomes. Preserve and build more public housing, expand the national Housing Trust Fund, and use federal incentives or requirements to reform local zoning.
Increase community and nonprofit ownership of housing. This approach gives residents control over important community assets, keeps neighborhoods affordable, and makes it less likely that people lose their homes when there are dips in the economy.
Provide emergency rental assistance to households in crisis by creating a permanent national housing stabilization fund. Millions of households are just one financial shock away from economic hardship that could quickly leave them without a home.
In mere months, we witnessed the power and ingenuity of modern science to develop multiple COVID-19 vaccines. We need that same power and will to ensure housing stability and opportunity for everyone, or our collective health and economic well-being will continue to be in jeopardy.
Learn more about RWJF-supported initiatives and resources for communities working to ensure access to safe, stable, affordable housing for all.
About the Authors
Giridhar Mallya, RWJF senior policy officer, is a public health physician and health policy expert. Working to advance the role of policy in achieving a Culture of Health, particularly at the state and local level, he views the Foundation as “a national leader in marshaling the evidence used to shape policies that foster healthier people, communities, and institutions.”
Diane Yentel is the President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a membership organization dedicated solely to achieving socially just public policy that ensures people with the lowest incomes in the United States have affordable and decent homes.