With Cases Piling Up, an Eviction Crisis Unfolds Step by Step

In Indianapolis, eviction courts are packed as judges make their way through a monthslong backlog of cases. In Detroit, advocates are rushing to knock on the doors of tenants facing possible eviction. In Gainesville, Fla., landlords are filing evictions at a rapid pace as displaced tenants resort to relatives’ couches for places to sleep or seek cheaper rents outside the city.

It is not the sudden surge of evictions that tenants and advocates feared after the Supreme Court ruled in August that President Biden’s extension of the eviction moratorium was unconstitutional. Instead, what’s emerging is a more gradual eviction crisis that is increasingly hitting communities across the country, especially those where the distribution of federal rental assistance has been slow, and where tenants have few protections.

“For months we all used these terms like eviction ‘tsunami’ and ‘falling off the cliff,’” said Lee Camp, an attorney who represents tenants facing eviction in St. Louis. But those simple terms missed the complexity of the eviction process and the lack of reliable statistics to track it, he said. “It was not going to happen overnight. Certainly it would take weeks and months to play out.”

And even now, experts say, the available numbers dramatically undercount the number of tenants being forced from their homes either through court-ordered evictions or informal ones, especially as rising rents make seeking new tenants increasingly profitable for landlords.

While the number of eviction filings remained at nearly half of prepandemic averages during the first two weeks of October, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, in the 31 cities and six states it tracks, the filings are also increasing.

In the first two weeks of September, just after the moratorium ended, eviction filings increased by 10 percent from the first two weeks of August. In the first two weeks of October, evictions increased by nearly 14 percent from the first two weeks of the previous month.

“In places that don’t have protections, these numbers are increasing pretty quickly,” said Peter Hepburn, a researcher at the Eviction Lab. “And we don’t know where the ceiling is.”

Every week, canvassers for Detroit Action have been knocking on the doors of people facing eviction to notify them of options for assistance.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Gene Sperling, the economist overseeing the Biden administration’s pandemic relief programs, credited the $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance set aside by Congress last winter with mitigating the problem. More than two million payments have been made — nearly a million in August and September alone.

Some jurisdictions have used part of the money to introduce programs that provide alternatives to eviction or legal assistance for tenants. Just over 37 percent of all renters in the country live in places that still have local eviction bans or are postponing eviction judgments pending rental assistance, according to the Urban Institute.

But elsewhere, limited renter protections and limits in the distribution of rental assistance are spurring the increase in evictions.

“No one should be sleeping well at night when there are still way too many painful, avoidable evictions,” said Mr. Sperling.

In Indianapolis in late October, Pamela Brewer waited nervously for a hearing on her pending eviction in a courthouse packed with hundreds of other tenants. There, landlords have been piling new evictions onto a backlog of thousands of older ones from the pandemic that are just now being executed.

“The hallways were full, the outside was full coming up the steps, the foyer was full,” said Ms. Brewer, who is months behind on rent after losing her job on the assembly line at a home appliances manufacturer at the start of the pandemic. “You look around and everybody’s knees are shaking like, What’s going to happen?”

Ms. Brewer applied for rental assistance in September, but she said her application was rejected because she accidentally marked “no” in response to a question about whether she had been impacted by Covid-19.

Her appeal of the decision is pending, and she doesn’t know how much longer she has before the judge will approve the eviction.

“I’m in limbo,” said Ms. Brewer. “I’m about to get evicted. I’m 61 years old, and I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Some landlords say that the red tape of the rental assistance program has caused problems for them, too.

Activists during a news conference on evictions outside the U.S. Capitol in September.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

William Tran, who owns 38 properties in the Milwaukee area, said he is currently short $40,000 in unpaid rent, as some of his tenants have struggled to navigate the application process and others face long delays.

“It’s just a really cumbersome process and it can be really overwhelming for a lot people,” said Mr. Tran.

Overall, though, landlords collected rent during the pandemic about as regularly as they did before the pandemic, according to data collected by the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord industry group.

Howard Spellman, a landlord with 37 rental units across California and New Mexico, said that his tenants who were behind on rent received rental assistance without much difficulty.

“I’ve done better during the pandemic because of the help from the government than in previous years,” said Mr. Spellman.

The true extent of the crisis facing tenants is understated by the available numbers on eviction, housing advocates and experts say. “The eviction avalanche is absolutely here across the country,” said Katie Goldstein, a housing justice campaign director with the Center for Popular Democracy.

There is no national database of evictions, and the haphazard patchwork of local policies and record-keeping methods in courts across the country poses severe obstacles to creating one. One-third of all U.S. counties have no available court eviction data at all, according to New America, a left-leaning think tank.

And most tenants are forced to leave their rental units not because of formal eviction proceedings, but because they’ve been illegally locked out or their utilities have been shut off, or because they want to avoid an eviction being added to their record by leaving on their own. There were 5.5 of these so-called informal evictions for every one formal eviction in 2017, according to the Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey.

A recent survey of low-income tenants in Washington State found that one in five tenants were subjected to a method of informal eviction during the pandemic, compared with one in eight before the pandemic.

In September 2020, just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its eviction moratorium, Antionette Cobb came home to find her St. Louis apartment almost entirely empty. She’d fallen behind on rent after losing her job as a housekeeper at a hotel months before because of the pandemic. By August she had exhausted her savings. Ms. Cobb’s landlord rejected her offer to pay over half of her $550rent for that month, she said, and decided to seize the property instead.

Tenesa Sanders, an organizer for Detroit Action, notified a tenant last month about the available resources for avoiding eviction. Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

“My heart just dropped,” she said, recalling the remnants of her furniture strewn around the apartment: the couch with its cushions removed; the box spring and headboard without a mattress on top; the legs of the coffee table without its glass top.

“I can’t go to the store and buy things that I’ve had for years, stuff that my grandma gave me, picture frames,” said Ms. Cobb. “It was heartbreaking, it was like I was nothing.”

Ms. Cobb has been staying with a friend in Ohio and searching for a place in St. Louis that she can afford. But after months of looking, she hasn’t yet found an apartment that she qualifies for with the income she makes from Instacart deliveries.

“Eviction is just one piece of a much larger problem,” said Mr. Camp, the tenant attorney. “It is this access to available housing. It is the debt that has piled up on top of these families that have fallen behind over these months. It is a culmination of different factors that is just affecting housing stability overall.”

Housing advocates say that the rental assistance program has failed to address these larger issues.

“Rental assistance was not designed for tenants; rental assistance was designed to stabilize an industry,” said Tara Raghuveer, the director of KC Tenants, an advocacy organization in Kansas City, Mo., and the housing campaign director at People’s Action, another progressive advocacy group .

Without increased protections for renters and interventions in the exploding rental market, tenants will continue to be displaced through the courts or otherwise, she argued.

June King was approved for over $20,000 in rental assistance to cover months of rent she was unable to pay on her Gainesville apartment after she contracted a severe case of Covid that left her unable to return to her work as a nurse for seven months.

But in October, she found a note stuck on her door saying that her lease would not be renewed and that she had until Dec. 31 to get out.

She’s been searching desperately for a place for her and her husband and two children to move to, but affordable options are slim.

“I’m really scared about being not able to find something and being left out there,” said Ms. King. “Especially during the holidays.”

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