By Binyamin Appelbaum

The belongings of a family evicted at the end of July from their home in New Orleans.Jake Clapp/Gambit New Orleans

In Columbus, Ohio, judges have relocated eviction hearings to the cavernous halls of the city’s convention center, to ensure there’s plenty of space for the grim business of throwing families onto the street.

In New Orleans, piles of personal belongings on sidewalks — “eviction cairns [2],” in the haunting phrase of Sue Mobley, a member of the city’s planning commission — are an increasingly common sight.

In Savannah, Ga., the county sheriff, John Wilcher, announced at the start of the month that he would begin moving forward with about 500 pending evictions. Mr. Wilcher told reporters that he hadn’t carried out evictions for the last five months, but that “people after five months should have been able to come up with some kind of deal or something to help themselves out where they wouldn’t be evicted.”
The sheriff didn’t offer any pointers on how to find a job in the midst of a pandemic.

The last time the economy went over the cliff’s edge, in 2008, the federal government encased the banking system in plastic Bubble Wrap and allowed millions of Americans to lose their homes. It’s about to make the same mistake all over again.

I was a housing reporter during the last crisis. I spent long days with young families and old ladies desperately trying to hold on; with sheriff’s deputies tasked with removing people from homes owned by faceless companies; with exterminators sent to prevent mosquitoes from occupying abandoned swimming pools.

The government dismissed the woes of homeowners and renters [3] as personal tragedies that did not require the attention of the Treasury Department. The government was wrong. The millions of individual tragedies required action. A nation is a collection of people; the first job of government is to keep people from harm.

Even on its own terms, the government’s indifference was a mistake.
The massive dislocations shredded communities, as families were replaced by abandoned homes. Schools struggled to help displaced children, whose test scores declined and behavioral problems increased. Businesses lost their customers. Cities starved for property tax revenue slashed spending: Colorado Springs turned off one-third of its streetlights [4].

The accumulation of individual tragedies left lasting scars on the economy and on society.

As the coronavirus spread around the country in the spring, federal policymakers and authorities in many states announced temporary bans on evictions, part of a broader effort to weather the pandemic by suspending economic activity. The federal government also expanded unemployment benefits for people who lost jobs, providing many with the means to keep paying the mortgage or rent.

But the federal aid ended last month. More than 20 percent of households say that they don’t expect to be able to make their next monthly rent or mortgage payment, according to a Census Bureau survey [5]. Some eviction bans have ended, and others will end soon.
Americans once again are beginning to lose their homes.

The dislocations could be worse than last time. Even before the pandemic, the nation was facing a housing crisis [6]. Years of residential underbuilding have driven up prices, particularly in the areas where jobs are concentrated. Tens of millions of lower-income families already were struggling to afford a place to live. Millions already were evicted each year. And many more Americans have lost jobs this time around.

In a policy memo published Friday [7], a group of housing policy experts and affordable housing advocates said, “The United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history.”

Some state and local governments are trying to help.

In 2008, Aisha Wahab was a 19-year-old college student living in her parents’ longtime home in Fremont, Calif. She watched as they lost their clothing store in nearby Oakland, and then their home. She watched as their marriage fell apart. By 2012, Ms. Wahab and her father were sharing an apartment in Hayward, a nearby city with cheaper housing.

Ms. Wahab said her family has never recovered. “I can 100 percent attest to the fact that my family is nowhere near where they were prior to 2008,” she said. Now, at 32, she is the youngest member of the Hayward City Council, and she is doing what she can to prevent another crisis. Hayward has prohibited evictions until the end of September. Alameda County, which includes Hayward, has prohibited evictions at least until the end of the year. Tenants will then have a year to catch up on any missed rental payments. Homeowners, however, must negotiate separately with their lenders. And it’s not clear where renters or homeowners will find the money without federal aid.

Local officials are simply postponing the day of reckoning. Sooner or later, in Hayward and across the country, the eviction moratoriums will end.

“What happens on the next day?” Ms. Wahab said.

The Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond has argued compellingly that eviction is not just a result of poverty — it is also a cause of poverty. The downward trajectory, well documented in research on the last crisis, is the same for homeowners and renters. People who lose their homes also lose their communities. Studies show [8] they generally move to less expensive neighborhoods, and their children end up enrolling in lower-quality schools. Eviction strains the ability to keep a job. People who are evicted suffer from higher rates of mental and physical health problems [9]. If they are married, they are more likely to get divorced. They are more likely to end up homeless.

This new crisis builds on the last one. During the last recession, Renee Matthew lost her job at a New Orleans law firm, and then she lost her home to foreclosure. She didn’t find a new job until 2015, working as a parking lot supervisor at the city’s cruise terminal.
On March 15, Ms. Matthew lost her job yet again. Federal unemployment benefits allowed her to keep paying $929 in monthly rent, but the last of the federal benefits arrived in late July. Now she’s getting just $232 a week in state benefits. She was able to pay her August rent, and she may be able to pay her September rent, but she doesn’t see how she can pay her October rent.

“My life is just at a hold,” Ms. Matthew said. “You feel
depressed. You start taking the little things out on everybody and anybody.”

The federal government has the power to avert a crisis by imposing a moratorium on tenant evictions in each state through the end of the year. That would provide enough time to create a program of federal aid for people who can’t afford to pay rent. The most direct approach would be to give federal housing vouchers to every needy family.

(The apparent simplicity of proposals for rent forgiveness is misleading. That would simply move problems up the food chain. Roughly half of apartments are owned by small landlords, many of whom face foreclosure if they can’t pay their own mortgages. That, too, would lead to tenant evictions.)

This crisis is hitting tenants harder than homeowners because job losses are concentrated among lower-income households, and the last crisis sharply reduced homeownership among such households. But many homeowners need help, too. Congress can facilitate mortgage modifications by changing bankruptcy laws that bar courts from reducing most mortgage debts. President Barack Obama promised to make the change during the 2008 campaign, but failed to do so while in the White House. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has made the same commitment — hopefully with a different result.

I asked Ms. Matthew if she had a message for policymakers in Washington.

“I need help,” she said. “It’s hard to pay the bills on nothing.”

I have a message, too: There is no excuse for making the same mistake twice.

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