As Eviction Moratoriums End, Tenants and Advocates Push Back

September 21, 2020 by Aburiyeba Amaso

by Nina Bernstein

While Congress barred evictions nationwide at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis and many states and localities created their own eviction moratoriums, these eviction bans have begun to expire, unleashing a new public health crisis on the nation.[1] This crisis will disproportionately affect low-income people of color in a moment when protests against police brutality have brought racial inequity into sharper focus. Now, housing justice and Black Lives Matter activists have begun to illustrate the interconnectedness of these struggles.

Since the national legislative eviction ban ended on June 24,[2] eviction moratoriums throughout the country have functioned as a patchwork of executive orders, state legislation, and court orders in local jurisdictions, which are renewed and expire at asynchronous times.[3] As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in many states,[4] tenants are without adequate protection from homelessness. Nationally, the Aspen Institute estimates that one in five of the 110 million Americans who rent their homes are at risk of eviction by the end of September.[5] A new federal eviction moratorium extends through the end of the year, though tenants must take steps to prove their eligibility.[6]

These evictions pose a major threat to public health, particularly for Black and brown tenants. Evicted tenants will face the threat of homelessness during the pandemic and may have to enter shelters with inadequate space for social distancing or double up with friends or family, increasing their risk of coronavirus.[7] Black tenants are at higher risk of eviction as the moratoriums expire.[8] Simultaneously, Black and Latinx individuals are at higher risk of serious illness from the virus, due to their greater likelihood of working in essential positions and having chronic health conditions.[9] These dual dangers leave Black tenants in a particularly perilous position.

Even without a pandemic, evictions pose a significant detriment to tenants’ health.[10] Housing instability is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes, particularly for children and adolescents. Younger tenants are more likely to experience developmental and behavioral problems, and worse overall health and educational outcomes when they have experienced housing instability.[11] Even the mere threat of eviction is associated with worse physical and mental health outcomes, including high blood-pressure and psychological distress, due in part to material deprivation and stress-related physiology.[12]

Beyond the dangers of eviction itself, the eviction defense process puts tenants at high risk during the crisis. In ordinary times, tenants seeking to defend themselves against eviction must attend in-person court dates in often poorly ventilated and crowded courtrooms.[13] As eviction proceedings resume, tenants’ attorneys have expressed grave reservations about the danger of COVID-19 spreading in the courthouses.[14] Shortly before the courts closed, one public defender appeared with her client only to experience symptoms of COVID-19 soon after and test positive for the virus a few days later.[15] Unknowingly, the defender may have exposed others in the crowded courthouse to the virus.[16] Such episodes are likely to repeat if courts reopen for evictions and other non-emergency proceedings. In housing court, this means more danger for the disproportionately low-income Black and Brown tenants who are already at higher risk for severe illness with COVID-19.[17] And where court proceedings move online, tenants and attorneys express concerns about maintaining due process for tenants in the proceedings.[18]

As evictions resume, tenants and advocates have begun to push back with creative strategies outside the courtroom. This activism both demonstrates the need for stronger protections against eviction and draws connections between evictions and the Black Lives Matter movement. In New Orleans, activists with the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly gathered outside the courthouse and formed a wall to prevent entrance to the courthouse for landlords and others in eviction proceedings, forcing cases to be rescheduled.[19] In Kansas City, activists blocked the courthouse door and entered eviction proceedings to disrupt them.[20] The Kansas City protestors explicitly connected the protests against eviction to protests against police brutality, stating “Black lives matter in our homes . . . Black lives matter before we are dead.” [21]

Closer to home, in Maryland, evictions continue to be barred by the governor’s executive order.[22] Still, the D.C. Tenants Union brought community members together to rally and form a barricade outside a property where the landlord had threatened tenants with illegal evictions.[23] The landlord showed up to change the locks as he had promised, but drove away after seeing the crowd outside.[24] Here too, the tenants at the property connected their eviction during a pandemic to the fight for Black lives, noting that the government protects police and landlords but not Black and Brown people.[25] Similar actions have begun in New York to protest illegal evictions during the pandemic.[26] These demonstrations offer hope for challenging the systems that allow evictions during the pandemic and for connection and coalition-building amongst work against the concurrent public health crises of eviction, of coronavirus, and of racist violence.

[1] Emily A. Benfer, Coronavirus rent freezes are ending — and a wave of evictions will sweep America, NBC News (June 22, 2020); Renae Merle, A federal eviction moratorium has ended. Here’s what renters should know, Wash. Post (Aug. 4, 2020)

[2] See Merle, supra note 1; Alicia Adamczyk, President Trump’s executive order does not extend the eviction moratorium—here’s what to know, CNBC (Aug. 10, 2020)

[3] Teresa Wiltz, As COVID-19 Tanks the Economy, Eviction Moratoriums Expire, Pew Stateline (Aug. 6, 2020)

[4] Coronavirus in the U.S.: Where cases are growing and declining, National Geographic (Aug. 12, 2020)

[5] Katherine Lucas McKay, Zach Newmann, & Sam Gilman, 20 Million Renters Are at Risk of Eviction; Policymakers Must Act Now to Mitigate Widespread Hardship, Aspen Institute (June 19, 2020)

[6] Ron Lieber, The New Eviction Moratorium: What You Need to Know, N.Y. Times (Sep. 2, 2020)

[7] Allison Kite and Anna Spoerre, KC Tenants disrupts eviction court, demands relief for tenants during COVID crisis, Kansas City Star (July 30, 2020); Janaki Chadha, New York’s Most Crowded Neighborhoods are Often Hardest Hit by Coronavirus, Politico (Apr. 11, 2020)

[8] Oksana Miranova, Race and Evictions in New York City, Community Service Society of N.Y. (June 22nd, 2020)

[9] Jeffrey C. Mays & Andy Newman, Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C., N.Y. Times, June 26, 2020

[10] Carolyn Swope & Diana Hernandez, Housing as a determinant of health equity: A conceptual model, 243 Soc. Sci. Med. 117571 (2019); Diana Becker Cutts, U.S. Housing Insecurity and the Health of Very Young Children, 101 Am. J. Pub. Health 1508 (2011).

[11] See sources, supra note 5.

[12] Hugo Vásquez-Vera et al, The threat of home eviction and its effects on health through the equity lens: A systematic review, 175 Soc. Sci & Med. 199, 205 (2017).

[13] Rebecca Baird-Rembra, Can NYC Reopen Its Housing Courts Safely?, Commercial Observer

[14] Id.

[15] Martha Lineberger, Lives Hang in the Balance as Courts Resume In-Person Work, CityLimits (Aug. 5, 2020)

[16] Id.

[17] See Mays, supra note 9.

[18] See Baird-Rembra, supra note 13; Allison Kite and Anna Spoerre, KC Tenants disrupts eviction court, demands relief for tenants during COVID crisis, Kansas City Star (July 30, 2020)

[19] Emma Ockerman, Anti-Eviction Protesters Just Blocked People From Entering a New Orleans Courthouse, Vice (July 30, 2020)

[20] Allison Kite and Anna Spoerre, KC Tenants disrupts eviction court, demands relief for tenants during COVID crisis, Kansas City Star (July 30, 2020)

[21] Id.

[22] Margaret Barthel, Three Tenants Were Facing Eviction Threats. Amid A Summer of Protest, Dozens of Activists Mobilized, DCist (Aug. 1, 2020)

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Caroline Spivack, New Yorkers Are Using a 1930s-Era Tactic to Stop Evictions, Curbed (July 31, 2020)