The Pandemic Has Exposed How Broken Our Housing System Is

The failure to respond to the Covid housing crisis has created an eviction catastrophe for vulnerable renters

A protest in front of the Jackson Courthouse by advocacy group KC Tenants against continued evictions during the pandemic. Photo: Brandon Frederick

It’s a Thursday morning in July at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City, Missouri and Judge Mary Weir is running one of four landlord-tenant dockets processing housing cases — usually landlords seeking to evict their tenants. These state courtrooms, which typically try cases involving payday lenders and financial companies, move fast. Advocates defending renters describe them as assembly lines, and Judge Weir isn’t in the mood to wait.

“It is now 9:30 a.m., this is a landlord-tenant docket,” she says. “Folks, if you’re on the phone as a defendant, you should know you do have the right to defend yourself, but you also have the right to hire a lawyer. And you should know if you do represent yourself, the rules of evidence, and the rules of procedure still apply. You do not get a break because you’re not a lawyer, that is the law.”

Eviction courts have adjusted to Covid: Defendants can show up in person after a temperature check and pass through a metal detector; they mill about wearing masks until they’re called and are told to stand on blue dots taped on the floor as their cases are decided.

“For those who appear, the tension is palpable,” says Gina Chiala, a staff attorney and executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, which provides free legal assistance to tenants. “They’re watching other tenants go down in flames, leaving confused and in tears, and they know they’re next. Judges don’t like evicting people, and they have a lot of cases, so they end up processing them quickly and glossing over what’s going to happen next. I know what’s happening; in 14 days, someone is going to come to that tenant’s door and kick them out.”

Those who don’t want to show up — and most won’t — can use the conference line and WebEx video conference option, approved by the Missouri Supreme Court. Listening to a recording of one of these calls in Weir’s court, it has all the irritations of dialing in to a meeting — odd scratches and refrains of “can you hear me now.” The reality is when the call is over, some participants will have lost their homes.

On this morning, one elderly lady asks for and is granted a delay; she’s about to restart her job at Walmart, suggesting she’ll soon have money for back rent. Another man gets a delay so he can have a translator; it takes a few questions before it’s established he’s deaf. But mostly, it’s default judgments. After Judge Weir reads the name of a case — typically a real estate firm versus some tenant — and nobody answers, she’ll wait a few moments, then announce a default. Eviction granted. Showing up in person at least offers the chance to get advice from Heartland or another legal aid group, which can make a difference.

“It’s bonkers to think justice is being served over a conference call,” says Wilson Vance, campaign manager for KC Tenants, a grassroots organization that fights for local renters. “They can’t even mute individual participants; there are babies crying, sirens going past the window. The judge doesn’t even have to look you in the eye to displace you. It makes me sick to my stomach thinking how many people have been wrongfully evicted.”

Ever since Missouri’s statewide Covid-19 eviction moratorium expired on May 31, the court has gradually resumed operation. In July, the court heard 245 rent and possession cases; there have been 270 more through August 25. Court records show that’s a third of last year’s volume, but much of June and July was spent going through the backlog. Chiala suspects that’s because attorneys for landlords were waiting for the CARES Act moratorium to expire, and rent was often covered by stimulus cash. Advocates and tenant activists fear with Covid lingering, hopes for more federal stimulus dwindling, and temporary renter protections expiring, tenants in Kansas City, and the nation, will soon experience more video conference calls like the ones in Judge Weir’s courtroom.

Chiala calls remote court a “mockery of due process,” and a St. Louis legal advocacy group, ArchCity Defenders, is challenging the practice in state supreme court. She says that oftentimes tenants can’t hear the landlord’s attorney during trial, strain to show evidence over a weak video connection, and worst of all, might blurt something out during trial without consulting with their lawyer. (A spokesperson for the Jackson County Court said “we have found that hearings via video and telephone conference have worked well for the litigants, the attorneys, and the judges.”)

All the flaws exposed by Covid are on display during these proceedings. Heartland, which is one of several legal aid groups providing assistance, only has the budget to provide a single attorney in court during a time when up to 200 cases are being heard a day. Black and Brown populations — more likely to have low incomes, or be employed in the service industries, or have pre-existing health conditions — have to choose between rolling the dice on potentially unreliable remote options, or showing up in person and risking infection for a chance at due process. In pre-pandemic days, roughly 70% of defendants didn’t show up, daunted by the courtroom process and unable to secure counsel; Chiala only has anecdotal data, but believes a majority of tenants aren’t showing up now, either.

“A lot of tenants have faith in the system,” Chiala says. “They have hard lives, they want to believe the court process is fair, that there will be sympathy because they lost their job to a pandemic. They don’t know how bad the system is rigged against them.”

Covid-19 didn’t create an eviction crisis in the United States — it already existed. Rising housing costs, precarious, low-wage jobs, and a thin-to-the-point-of-transparent safety net meant that many renters were an illness or a cut in weekly hours away from eviction. (Most renters are taken to eviction court over $600 or less.) Every year, an estimated 2.3 million evictions are filed, four evictions every minute, with evictions filed against Black renters at nearly twice the rate as white renters, per the ACLU data analytics team. Nationwide, a quarter of all renters and 71% of extremely low-income renters (defined as an income at or below the poverty level or 30% of the area median income, whichever is higher) spent half their incomes on housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. When Covid came, the CARES Act, which included a 120-day federal eviction moratorium and expanded unemployment benefits, as well as a patchwork of state laws and moratoriums, prevented evictions.

That ad-hoc system seems to have worked; data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University show that the pace of evictions in 17 cities has actually been slower this year than on average, a drop or stall some attributed to increased unemployment and stimulus benefits. But now, advocates and activists say, with no additional stimulus forthcoming and remaining moratoriums quickly ending, courts are likely to see cases pick up. On July 24th, the federal moratorium expired — due to its 30-day notice period, evictions could therefore start up again August 24. As of August 26, there are 17 state moratoriums still in place.

“A lot of tenants want to believe the court process is fair, that there will be sympathy because they lost their job to a pandemic. They don’t know how bad the system is rigged against them.”

The brittle network of pandemic-era protections is about to break. While courtrooms have been closed for months, protecting at-risk tenants, pressure has accumulated in the system. According to Noelle Porter, director of Government Affairs for the National Housing Law Project, in many jurisdictions landlords have been filing evictions at a faster clip, and a backlog has slowly grown. During the pandemic, other landlords have engaged in harassment and illegal tactics like lockouts that have led to tenant self-evictions, especially for undocumented renters fearing immigration issues.

The fissures will soon become obvious; Global advisory firm Stout, Risius and Ross found that roughly $21.5 billion in back rent is already owed, and a joint study by the National Low Income Housing Institute, Aspen Institute, and Eviction Lab predicts up to 40 million Americans are at risk of evictions by year’s end. With expanded unemployment now gone, a significant number of Americans will begin falling behind on rent. Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, a pro-renter group in California, says the shame of eviction has been compounded with a heightened anxiety of health risks, a “level of fear higher than anything I’ve seen.”

President Trump’s August executive order on the federal eviction moratorium was a perfect encapsulation of the larger failure to protect renters. Even though a legal analysis by the National Housing Law Project found he had the power to do something, all his toothless order did was ask the federal government to consider solutions. By providing false hope, it’s “worse than doing nothing at all,” says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.

As terrible as the eviction machine may seem during a pandemic, it’s only a slightly worse version of an already broken system, one that’s biased toward landlords and property owners. Famously documented by Matthew Desmond, the sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted, this facet of our judicial system is biased against BIPOC, and leads to a spiral of consequences for families who lose their homes, including medical issues, lost income, and the derailment of children’s education.

While many might assume evictions are worse in New York City, Los Angeles, or other pricy coastal metros, mid-size metros like Kansas City exemplify the issue. Smaller cities, especially where state laws preempt renter-friendly municipal laws, give tenants even fewer protections.

Anthony Edmonds, a Black 29-year-old, lives in Raytown, a suburb of Kansas City, and works part-time as a flooring contractor. He’s been in three car crashes in the last two years, which put him on disability and restricted his ability to work regular hours. On April 29, he was served an eviction notice at the townhome he lived in with two of his kids. He’s never missed his $700-a-month rent payment or utilities bill, but his landlord issued what’s called a no-fault eviction; whether it’s done to raise the rent, or because a friend’s kid needs a place to stay, it’s arbitrary and at the owner’s discretion. A landlord just needs to give a tenant 30 days notice, no justification necessary.

Confused, Edmonds asked for a few more months so he could find a new place. The landlord didn’t sympathize. When Edmonds showed up in Jackson County Circuit Court to defend himself, he met a representative from Heartland. After a few phone calls, staff attorney Zainab Abdullah helped him negotiate a settlement; he’d leave and waive a security deposit and wouldn’t get an official eviction on his record, the only way a deal that cost you a steady place to live could be any worse. A past eviction, which stays on a tenant’s rental history for seven years, gives a landlord the right to refuse to rent a room, no questions asked.

Since then, Edmonds has put everything he owns in storage and has bounced between friend’s houses. His three-year-old son started asking him when they’d go back to his house.

“For people like me, the ultimate outcome of not having an eviction on my record is the best thing you can get,” Edmonds says. “It’s that much harder being an African American in this society right now. It kind of makes you feel hopeless at times, but I need to keep going.”

It’s difficult figuring out when Edmond will have a new job, or even a new place; shared custody becomes very tricky in a pandemic without permanent housing (“I don’t want to stress out another family,” he says). This year has been relentless, Edmonds says, with absolutely no breaks; he’s so stressed he can’t think straight. The family he’s currently staying with just bought a new place and will be moving in two weeks, so he needs to find a new temporary home.

Black and Brown renters tend to be hit the worst by eviction laws, says Eric Tars, in part due to network impoverishment. If a white family is evicted, chances are they can turn to friends and family who can provide housing and support and help them get back on their feet. For Black and Brown families, often one emergency away from financial strain, they’re both individually and collectively less likely to be able to provide help. That’s why Black Americans, who make up 13% of the population, also comprise 27% of the population in poverty, and Black males make up nearly half of the homeless population.

The sense of loss and anxiety in tenants has been heightened for those who have been through other disasters that have cost them their housing. Jeff Quattrone, a 60-year-old graphic designer from Woodstown, New Jersey, lives by himself in an apartment after he lost his last contracting gig July 3. He also lost his home during the foreclosure crisis in 2008 and feels like there are echoes of that right now. “Watching all this is like watching a train coming at me full-speed ahead,” he says.

Quattrone has filed for unemployment, which should take him through September, but he doesn’t have any substantial savings. He has decided to tap his pension plan, since he may not have another choice other than having the bank repossess his car and becoming homeless.

“It’s interesting to see how folks who weren’t affected during the last recession are being affected this time,” he says. “It’s the first time they’ve been imposed upon and see what marginalized people live with on a daily basis.”

Nationwide, there’s enough shelter beds for 63% of the homeless population, says Nan Roman, president & CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness. But that estimate is based on the most recent homeless population counts from 2019, with shelters operating at normal capacity; Covid social distancing has drastically cut that number. “If the pandemic continues, one of the greatest ways for it to transmit is through family groups, so having people together right now isn’t great,” Ronan says.

The eviction crisis is merely a symptom of the diseased American housing system: filled with sprawl, an active history of discrimination, and lacking in affordable and available options.

Homeless advocates have asked for billions of dollars to support shelter and outreach, and second the call for $100 billion in rental assistance included in the HEROES Act, which House Democrats passed in May. But they need to act soon; homelessness is a lagging indicator, says Roman, and it’s going to be hard to get accurate counts during the pandemic.

“It’s a game of musical chairs, and homeless people are the ones that have lost,” Roman says. Nothing going on right now has changed the 7.5 million affordable units we’re short as a nation. The demand for those units will go up, and there are workers without jobs who don’t have money to pay back rent.”

Tiana Caldwell, 44, an organizer with the renter’s rights group KC Tenants, was evicted in 2018 after getting diagnosed with cancer for the second time. This summer, she successfully defended herself against a charge she owed back rent. She says it feels good to be able to help people navigate the anxiety and terror and guilt of this moment. She’s heard heart-wrenching stories, heard fears of being tossed out into the elements, and sees her family doing everything they can to protect her and put on a brave face; her 13-year-old son decided to take school remotely this year to avoid putting his cancer survivor mother at risk.

“If we win, we organize. If we lose, we organize,” she says. “I think about all the people who don’t know how to reach us. That’s who I worry about.”

If losing a home was all that happened to those who were evicted, that would be enough. But the consequences last for years, if not a lifetime. Every aspect of someone’s health — mental, physical, financial, interpersonal — takes a hit.

Having an eviction on your rental history gives landlords, who can legally deny you an apartment due to past evictions, a reason to reject you. Effectively blacklisted by most landlords, it makes the challenge of finding decent, affordable housing, already in short supply, nearly impossible. That scarlet E may even last longer; the tenant screening industry, which scrapes online records to create databases used by landlords to verify tenants, may keep your records for an indeterminate amount of time, according to the National Housing Law Project, even if the record is eventually reversed or expunged.

Landlords typically refer missed rent payment to debt collectors, who in turn inform credit agencies, damaging a tenant’s ability to get loans. Evictions also become a red flag during many employment searches. Potential hires are seen as an “unreliable person,” says Arreola, and may not be allowed to handle money. The National Housing Law Project has argued that a new congressional relief package for Covid should include a section that bans landlords from using Covid-related evictions as a reason to deny housing, or any wave of mass eviction may lock millions out of decent housing.

The eviction crisis is merely a symptom of the diseased American housing system: filled with sprawl, an active history of discrimination, and lacking in affordable and available options. But failure to deal with the consequences of eviction due to the pandemic will ripple throughout the nation’s housing supply.

The human drama playing out in one Kansas City courtroom is just a hint of what may come later this year; even as evictions remain lower than they did last year, advocates believe the worst is yet to come. California and New York, states with arguably the largest and most at-risk renter populations in the country, still have active moratoriums for now; in California, many cities and counties have passed moratoriums, and the state’s Judicial Council has passed an emergency ruling preventing eviction orders from moving forward, while New York’s has been reliably extended every month. But California’s state Judicial Council voted earlier this month to rescind that protection by September 1 (a last-minute stopgap bill to extend protections through January 31 was signed into law Monday), and in New York, landlords have recently been allowed to sue tenants again; currently it’s only filing by mail, and the courts still won’t hear cases. To Susanna Blankley, of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, this is how the machine slowly lurches back into action, putting tenants on notice and slowly building up a backlog of cases; 40% of New Yorkers can’t pay rent, and 1.5 million households, in theory, are at risk of eviction in the city and owe more than $2.2 billion in back rent, according to a study recently released by her group.

Porter at the National Housing Law Project says if 30 million people lose their housing, there won’t be 30 million people ready to take those apartments; that may mean scores of landlords face mortgage default and sell, perhaps to speculators or large management companies that raise rent.

“This is a major economic crisis that nobody benefits from,” Porter says.

Sarah Saadian of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, still hopes there’s a future for the HEROES Act, which would have extended the national eviction moratorium to March 2021, provided $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.

“It’s really outrageous the Republicans waited for months to negotiate thinking they’d have more leverage,” she says. “It’s too late to help people pay September rent, which is all the more reason moratoriums need to be extended, to protect people until they can get some form of income.”

Housing and tenants' rights were already becoming a larger political issue before the Covid crisis, including President Trump attacks against multi-family zoning in the suburbs. The affordable housing shortage is becoming more dire, cities like Minneapolis have rallied around and passed progressive new city planning rules to build more dense housing, and protest from groups like Moms 4 Housing in Oakland and the Reclaimers in Los Angeles, who took over empty homes to protest speculation at a time when so many are struggling, set the stage for the nationwide response to the eviction crisis. Vance in Kansas City is only sure that a lot of renters will struggle during this time. But she also sees potential in the depths of the disaster.

“If you asked me in February if it would be possible for any level of government to put a pause on evictions, I would tell you you’re crazy,” she says. “Even now, what’s possible is constantly shifting. I think people won’t forget. We’re seeing pain, but we’re seeing so many more people radicalized than we’ve ever seen before.”

Update: On September 1, the Centers for Disease Control issued a broad federal eviction moratorium, utilizing the agency’s powers to protect against the spread of a pandemic, which would last through Dec. 31, 2020. While advocates hailed the step as an important and needed one to prevent immediate evictions, they noted that without rent relief or forgiveness, the move was a temporary patch, one likely to push the eviction crisis into the new year.

A Chicago expat living in Los Angeles, Patrick Sisson writes about the intersection of cities, business, and culture.

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