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U.S. Faces Rent Crisis As Pandemic Eviction Restrictions Get Rolled Back


Millions of people lost their jobs when the pandemic hit, and with that their means to pay rent. So federal and state governments provided additional unemployment benefits, and they passed measures temporarily prohibiting evictions. But those protections are being rolled back in places like Indiana, New York and Florida, among other places. And affordable housing advocates worry that mass evictions will hit on July 1. Matthew Warren is a staff attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and he joins us now from Oakland, Calif.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of protections are actually in place for tenants right now?

WARREN: Some jurisdictions have prevented the issuance of notices. Some jurisdictions have prevented the issuance of a summons in a court case to start an eviction, and some jurisdictions have provided an actual defense to an eviction - like, a legal defense. Most non-lawyers don't understand how this process works. They don't understand their rights to remain housed. And once the courts reopen and once these eviction cases start in earnest, we're going to see a lot of confused people just forced out of their homes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have a sense of the range of when these protections will start to disappear and what will happen to tenants? I mean, will there be different outcomes for different types of people?

WARREN: That's really hard to say. As we see more jurisdictions opening up across the country, more and more courts are beginning to reopen, and more and more landlords are going into court to start the eviction process. It's our sincere hope that public officials, policymakers keep these protections in place for as long as possible or at least as long as it takes for them to come up with a real solution to keep people housed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am wondering if we see mass evictions as a problem in other economies affected by this pandemic - let's say in Europe. Is this something that is unique to this country because of this kind of patchwork manner, or is this something that affects other places as well?

WARREN: I think this affects America in a much more dramatic way, in part because of what you say - in the patchwork manner of our housing laws - but also because of the nature of property rights in America. We've really valued property rights above and beyond human rights or community interests such that we don't have great protections to prevent homelessness. We've seen this in recent years before the crisis caused by this pandemic where we have hundreds of thousands of people sleeping outside every night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who is most at risk?

WARREN: Black and brown people are most likely at risk. Minorities in this country are most likely to have lost their jobs as a result of this COVID crisis. But they're also disproportionately employed in the very jobs that put them in contact with other people, exposing them to coronavirus. When unemployment benefits go away, they're not going to have any way to come up with this balance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there also worry that these evictions will lead to a surge in homelessness? - because I imagine if people haven't been able to pay their rent until now, that means that they won't be able to find another place, should they be evicted.

WARREN: That's a great concern. That's a really dramatic, awful outcome of this crisis - that more people will end up on the streets. Here in California, we've seen thousands of families doubling up already - tripling up in single-family households. And if they aren't able to stay where they are, they have nowhere else to go. They're going to be forced out onto the streets. And that means not only more homelessness, but more family homelessness, more kids experiencing homelessness. And that's really what none of us want to see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess, finally, are there grassroots groups or organizations that renters in danger of being evicted can reach out to for help? What advice would you give to people in that situation right now?

WARREN: Here in California, we have groups like Tenants Together. We have local tenants unions like the LA Tenants Union, other more local organizations. These groups are really trying to educate people and make sure that people have all the tools necessary because legal services organizations like my own - we just don't have the capacity to help all of the people - the millions of people that really deserve our assistance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Matthew Warren is a staff attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Thank you very much.

WARREN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.