By Molly Prothero
On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order calling on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to extend its federal eviction moratorium through March 2021.
But this action protects only a subset of tenants who meet specific qualifications and, crucially, know to fill out a CDC Affidavit and submit it to their landlords. And despite skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts, most state eviction moratoriums have now lifted, leaving tenants vulnerable to displacement and homelessness.
Displaced individuals have always faced increased risk of homelessness and negative health outcomes, especially for those living with low income, who are predominantly Black and brown. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic throws the health implications of eviction into stark relief.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition and Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition have conducted preliminary research on the difference in COVID-19 case counts between states with ongoing eviction moratoriums and those without. As of late November 2020, they estimated that, nationally, the lack of strong, ongoing eviction moratoriums caused over 430,000 excess cases of COVID-19 and 10,700 excess deaths.
Right now, extensions of state eviction moratoriums and large influxes of money for rental assistance could go a long way toward keeping people safely in their homes and mitigating such preventable deaths.
In Massachusetts, the Guaranteed Housing Stability Act (Bill H.5018) offers an example of what meaningfully protective legislation could look like. Among other provisions, the bill would freeze rents at pre-COVID-19 levels, provide protections so that tenants cannot be evicted through no fault of their own, and expand mortgage deferment protections and rent recovery funds for landlords so that everyone involved in the housing market is able to stay afloat. While the Act was reported out of Committee in October, it has not yet been put to a full vote.
CDC recommendations to protect against COVID-19 include staying six feet away from others, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and frequently washing hands. Eviction makes these recommendations difficult, if not impossible, to follow, as people living without disposable income are forced to move in with friends or family, rely on shelters, or sleep on the street.
City Life/Vida Urbana, a racial-justice oriented tenants’ rights organization in Boston, is one of many groups sounding the alarm about the impact of evictions during COVID-19 and making explicit the connection between housing and health.
I attended a demonstration outside of Boston’s Eastern Housing Court where an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana made the stakes clear: “If 130,000 people get displaced during a global pandemic, what do you think will happen?” she shouted into a megaphone. “They will die. Housing equals health.”
The health impacts of eviction are not limited solely to individuals who are evicted. One individual’s displacement during a pandemic can result in friends, family, strangers, or service providers being exposed as well. The evicted individual is left with no safe options, especially in the colder months when spending the majority of the day outside is unsafe.
While the pandemic has impacted everyone, the health impacts of eviction during the pandemic are not felt equally across all demographics.
First, the economic impacts of the pandemic fell disproportionately on people of color, who experienced job loss at higher rates than white individuals. Black and Latinx women have been especially negatively impacted. A destabilizing event such as job loss and the resulting decrease in income often combines with lack of state protections to render eviction highly likely. Black households are twice as likely to be evicted as their white peers, and Black women face eviction at the highest rates.
With COVID-19 already disparately impacting the health of communities of color, evictions exacerbate pre-existing disparities. Both infection and death rates are higher in communities of color, with Black and Latinx adults 4.7 and 4.6 times more likely to be hospitalized than white adults, and 2.3 and 1.5 times more likely to die. When it comes to evictions, these deaths are preventable.
The COVID-19 pandemic will, eventually, pass. But outside the pandemic context, evictions still will pose a threat to both individual and community health. Displacement always carries the risk of homelessness for individuals living with low income. The negative impacts of instability on children is well-documented; mothers are more likely to suffer depression and report worse health for themselves and their children if they have experienced eviction in the previous year.
When the pandemic ends, that should not be taken as a cue for evictions to resume as normal. In the long term, the tool of eviction should be limited to when a tenant poses a significant risk to the health or safety of others. When it comes to rent nonpayment or other minor lease violations, everyone could benefit, landlords included, from relying on other, healthier solutions.
Molly Prothero is a 3L at Harvard Law School and Executive Director of Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.