Stephen Zenner/Getty Eviction notice
Millions of renters across the country are now facing the possibility of being removed from their homes after a moratorium on evictions expired over the weekend. While the White House looks into avenues to reinstate the moratorium, the millions of Americans who are behind on their rent hang in the balance.
"It's going to be messy," Kathryn Howell, co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab and an associate professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, says of the expiration of the moratorium. "Whether we see a tsunami of evictions or a constant flood is a bit of an unclear picture."
Here's what to know about the eviction moratorium, and who its expiration will impact.
What Is the Eviction Moratorium?
In September 2020, as shutdowns and closures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting millions of Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted a moratorium that prevented landlords from evicting tenants.
Under the moratorium, those who anticipated that they would miss a rental payment had to attest under penalty of perjury that they had been negatively impacted by COVID by completing a Declaration of Eligibility.
After that, the landlord could still file and get a judgement against a tenant who fell behind on their rent, but an eviction could not take place.
While landlords in some states were able to find loopholes to evict their tenants even before the moratorium expired, the policy was still overwhelmingly successful. Emily Benfer, a professor of housing law at Wake Forest University, tells PEOPLE the moratorium "reduced eviction filings by 46.6% of historic averages. It was the only intervention protecting the mass eviction of millions of people."
Why Did it Expire?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously extended the moratorium from June 30 to July 31. The Supreme Court later ruled that it was up to Congress, and not the White House, to make the decision from that point forward.
Some lawmakers did attempt to extend the moratorium. A House bill known as H.R. 4791 — known as the Protecting Renters from Evictions Act of 2021 — was proposed by California Democrat Maxine Waters and would have extended the eviction moratorium until the end of the 2021 calendar year. That measure failed to gain traction prior to the expiration, however.
As of Monday, two days after the moratorium officially expired, Democratic leadership was still imploring the White House to take federal action to reinstate and extend the moratorium through October.
Who Will Be Impacted the Most By Its Expiration?
"The scale of this is impossible to predict," Benfer tells PEOPLE, pointing to a survey by the U.S. Census, in which 3.6 million people said that they expect to be evicted this month or next. Scaled up to take into account the population of the U.S., that would amount to some 11.4 million people in danger of being evicted across the country.
People of color will be disproportionately impacted, as Benfer notes that 35% of evictions are against Black renters, even though they comprise just 20% of the renter population.
"Much like before the pandemic, this will disproportionately impact families with children, and in particular Black women," Howell concurs. "They were already in distress before the pandemic and were already among those most likely to be evicted. This has exacerbated that."
Children are also among the most at risk. "One in three children live in households that are behind on rent," Benfer says.
In some cases, Howell notes, families are currently as much as five or six months behind on their monthly payments. With the expiration of the moratorium, they'll have to pay back what they owe (plus, in some cases, additional late fees) or face eviction. "We're talking about a debt that's really hard to come out from under," she adds.
Still, Howell notes that laws governing evictions are something of a patchwork in the U.S. Over the past few months, many states and many courts passed judgements saying the moratorium doesn't apply. "So you've seen folks getting evicted already, even before the moratorium expired," she said.
Is There Any Other Sort of Relief Available to Renters Facing Eviction?
There is relief available for some renters — but those programs are largely governed by states, so how much relief one can get hinges on where they live.
Benfer says that, at the outset of the pandemic, "we didn't have a nationwide infrastructure for eviction prevention like this. Many states were building this from scratch."
Some states capped rental assistance, so families behind on rent could never fully repay their debt, while other states made it difficult to access the forms needed to apply for assistance in the first place.
On the flip side, some states (including Michigan and Virginia) have ruled that landlords can't evict tenants until the landlords prove that they've applied for rental relief themselves, offering a safety net for renters.
The difference between state and federal law will likely prove complicated and confusing for tenants everywhere, many of whom might not even know the debate over the moratorium is taking place, adds Howell.
"We have all these things going on at a high level and a lot of tenants don't know. They've lost their jobs, we're in a pandemic," Howell says. "The last thing people are doing is scrolling through Twitter trying to determine what's going on with the CDC moratorium."
Will There Be Any Other Consequences?
The expiration of the eviction moratorium could come with a slew of consequences, the risk to public health chief among them. "One of the most alarming aspects is that this is happening while the country is still in the throes of a pandemic," Benfer says.
Benfer points to a study she co-authored which found that when eviction moratoria lifted in some parts of the country in the summer of 2020, those regions saw increased rates of COVID-19 infection and death. "And those spikes happen pretty quickly, within 3-6 weeks," Benfer says.
As Benfer explains, when a family faces housing displacement or eviction, they tend to move to overcrowded living environments: with friends and family, in to a homeless shelter, from couch to couch, or sleeping in a car and using public facilities throughout the day.
"All of these environments make it impossible to comply with CDC guidelines and because the COVID-19 virus doesn't show symptoms for the first few weeks, that can make it incredibly challenging to control the spread of the virus," she says.
Then there's the issue of the havoc an eviction can wreak on someone's future plans.
"One of the things we have to watch for is questions of credit or eviction on your record," Howell tells PEOPLE. "That's an easy way for landlords to discount you and that can follow you around for literally years, and that means families will be pressed into poorer and poorer quality housing."
The expiration of the moratorium will also impact employment for those who are evicted, as they will face an uphill battle in trying to find work and housing.
"There is a long tail of housing instability," Howell says. "The long-term implications are huge."
Perhaps the part that's "most horrifying," says Benfer, is that one in three children is currently facing the risk of housing loss.
"We know that all else equal, a family with children is three times more likely to be evicted than another tenant owing the same amount of back rent," Benfer says. "And here we are: The people being evicted are families with kids and many not eligible for vaccines and they are going to be thrown into this Delta variant."
Add to that another problem: that vaccination rates are lowest where eviction filing rates are the highest.
"It's this perfect storm," Benfer says. "With the end of these federal protections, we've ushered in a significant public health threat."