The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it the challenge of balancing public health with America’s economic well-being. In the initial stages of the nation’s virus response, federal, state and local policymakers temporarily suspended evictions to prevent renter displacement and homelessness, with broader intentions of limiting community spread. Restrictions on courts or law enforcement overlaid additional barriers to the eviction process on top of these executive or legislative actions. The result is a patchwork of eviction restrictions that differ widely by jurisdiction. Eviction policy is ever evolving and, as some mandates begin to terminate, advocates are using the momentum of the current environment to extend these renter protections or make them permanent.
Despite efforts in all 50 states to loosen COVID-19 restrictions and allow phased reopening measures, many state and local governments are electing to extend eviction moratoria – even if these protections are not needed when Americans return to work. In California alone, over 172 jurisdictions temporarily suspended evictions. Nationwide, 22 states and at least 198 localities currently have special eviction restrictions in place. Some of these restrictions are contingent on active state or local state of emergency orders. Of those 22 states, 14 protect residents only in nonpayment of rent cases, five limit protections to cases of nonpayment for residents who can show economic hardship due to COVID-19 and 10 prohibit housing providers from filing notices to vacate.
At the onset of COVID-19, proponents of eviction restrictions leaned heavily on arguments such as “housing is health care” to keep these protections in place. More recently, two narratives have emerged that are driving the most adverse policy responses at the state and local level. The first narrative contends that an avalanche of evictions is on the horizon. While it is true that special COVID-19 renter protections continue to expire, we have yet to see a mass wave of evictions. Time, coupled with federal assistance dollars, reprieves from late fees and the use of payment plan agreements has allowed many residents to stay current on their payments. Some residents have even been able to pay off large outstanding balances. Even more encouraging is the growing proliferation of rental assistance programs at the state and local level. For example, on June 23, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to use $100 million of CARES Act funds to help rental housing residents affected financially by COVID-19.
The second narrative is the idea of a “triple pandemic,” a coronavirus-inspired metaphor used by renter advocates to describe the intersection of social justice, housing justice and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on minority communities. This narrative aligns with existing arguments about the disparate impact of evictions and resident screening laws on communities of color. As was the case with the Fair Housing Act during the Civil Rights Movement, we expect to see advocates drive forward sweeping changes to eviction policy and other housing laws in 2020.
Two noteworthy examples of adverse policies driven by these narratives remain in play in the New Jersey and California state legislatures. The New Jersey Assembly’s Housing Committee approved Assembly bill A-4226 during a hearing on June 16 that would have significant ramifications for rental housing providers in the state. The bill requires owners and operators to enter into repayment agreements that would significantly change existing lease terms and preclude providers from utilizing the eviction process in these cases. Under these repayment agreements, renters are given six months to repay every one month of outstanding rent owed. Housing providers are also prohibited from pursuing evictions of residents who enter into these agreements and reporting any nonpayment of rent to credit reporting agencies.
California is considering equally expansive COVID-19 eviction protections. Assembly Member David Chiu, author of California’s statewide rent cap and just cause eviction bill passed last year, has introduced AB 1436. The bill, which passed the house and now sits with the Senate Judiciary Committee, would prevent housing providers from holding residents liable for nonpayment of rent resulting from COVID-19 financial impacts during the covered period. The covered period is defined as the date the state of emergency due to COVID-19 was enacted through April 1, 2021, or 90 days after the termination of the emergency order, whichever is earlier. Moreover, no eviction could be filed on a resident who suffered loss of income or increased expenses during the outlined timeframe for the subsequent 12 months after the restrictions expire. Historically, the State and local governments have waited years to lift state of emergency orders, meaning evictions would likely be barred for the next 10 months.
While many of these temporary renter protections are set to expire, the industry must remain vigilant to prevent any extensions or expansions of eviction moratoria as the viability of the rental housing industry is at risk. Policymakers also must consider the long-term implications on the availability of affordable housing in the current housing stock and effects on investment in new development. It is critical for lawmakers at all levels of government to focus on greater access to emergency rental assistance; this approach is key to fostering renters’ financially stability and preventing displacement.