The latest Census Household Pulse Survey (October 14–26, 2020) reveals that 1.1 million rental households (13.1%) and 395 thousand owners (4.6%) feel that it is very likely that they will lose their home in the next two months due to foreclosure or eviction. An estimated 3.6 million owner households and 5.5 million renter households have “no confidence” that they will be able to pay their next month’s mortgage or rent. No doubt these fears reflect a widespread understanding of some of the costs, economic and others, of the coronavirus pandemic. Not so widely understood is how the pandemic is, in part, a result of evictions and foreclosures. In other words, the causal arrow goes both ways. The pandemic leads to the loss of homes, but the loss of homes also contributes to the pandemic.
Pandemic related evictions are not just a hypothetical problem. Princeton’s Eviction Lab estimates that more than 105 thousand households in just 25 cities, some of which had eviction moratoria in place, were subject to evictions since March. At the very same time as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, many federal, state, and local benefits and protections against eviction are expiring. It is worthy of note that owing to the rise in COVID-19 cases and persistent advocacy, a local Philadelphia court order stays most “lock outs” until December 31, 2020.
As has widely been reported by The COVID Racial Data Tracker and many other sources, people of color are disproportionately affected. Philadelphia is a case in point. Philadelphia’s COVID-19 test positivity rate has been on the rise for the last two months and the city’s Department of Public Health considers the city in a period of “high risk of community transmission.” In plain language, this means that people are getting sick and trackers cannot even figure out how they got sick. It is worth reminding that while the pandemic has not been good for anyone, racially, Philadelphians have experienced the pandemic very differently. Black and Hispanic Philadelphians have a test positivity rate that is 1.7 times greater than that of Whites. The Black and Hispanic hospitalization rates are 2.6 and 2.0 times that of Whites, respectively. And the Black death rate is 1.4 times that of Whites.
How can we understand these differences? The CDC suggests that housing, in part due to over-crowding and in another part due to racial differences in incomes and job stability, is a contributor to observed racial disparities in COVID-19.
Mortgage foreclosures and evictions in Philadelphia undoubtedly contribute to Philadelphia’s COVID-19 problem as well as the racial disparities plaguing the city. Reinvestment Fund tracks eviction filings in Philadelphia dating back to 2010. Eviction filings peaked in 2011/2012 at around 22 thousand and trended down to 18,141 thousand in 2018, then rose to 18,330 in 2019. Like the COVID-19 data though, these overall rates mask substantial household and neighborhood differences. The Black non-Hispanic eviction rate in 2018/2019 is estimated to be 9.0% compared to 6.5% for Hispanics and 2.6% for White non-Hispanic renters.
Rising unemployment contributed to these housing downturns. Philadelphia’s number of unemployed rose from 43.6 thousand from February of this year to 85.3 thousand in September and the unemployment rate over that period rose from 5.9 to 11.7 (preliminary estimate for September), off the peak pandemic rate exceeding 18%.
It is within this economic upheaval that eviction moratoria may well be lifted in the not-too-distant future. Landlords (large or small) cannot serve as the social safety net that historically has been the purview of government. But that doesn’t change the fact that people who are subject to an eviction are likely to end up in households with more people, because of doubling up or a stay in the city’s shelter system or an encampment, and are therefore more likely to encounter other people who are infected. And if they are themselves infected, they will spread the virus to others. A University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist declared that resuming evictions would lead to a significant and substantial number of excess COVID-19 infections.
For many years, several local, national, and even international organizations have advanced the notion that stable housing must be a right, not a privilege. The United Nations, the Right to the City Alliance, among others assert that in addressing the many challenges facing the homeless stable housing is a prerequisite to stable employment, educational achievement, and in this moment, staying safe when there is a deadly virus moving through a community.
When families engage in the legal process of an eviction or foreclosure, they often deal with and encounter lawyers, courts, movers, well-meaning neighbors and others, often including the friends and families with whom they double up. One unintended, though clear, consequence is the increased likelihood of catching and spreading the COVID-19 infection. This is not a time to end renter financial supports, eviction moratoria or mortgage forbearance programs. Keeping people in their homes is a critical component of an effective public health response to the pandemic.
Gregory D. Squires (email@example.com) is a Professor of Sociology & Public Policy & Public Administration, George Washington University. Ira Goldstein (Ira.Goldstein@ reinvestment.com) is President of Policy Solutions, Reinvestment Fund.