By Chris Adams
As COVID-19 swells unemployment, economists are debating whether the fallout will rival the Great Recession or the Great Depression. One thing does seem certain, however: The economic crisis will put people out of their homes.
One in three renters is already in arrears.
In a National Press Foundation session, four experts on homelessness and housing detailed what may happen this year as rents come due. Matthew Desmond, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” grantee and author of the landmark book “Evicted”; Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness; Alieza Durana of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University; and Juan Pablo Garnham of The Texas Tribune detailed how reporters can access information on evictions and make these stories come alive for readers.
Desmond (bio, Twitter) studied families in Milwaukee living on the razor’s edge of financial peril. Eviction constantly loomed over them. Since 2000, rents have doubled while incomes have flatlined, Desmond reported.
Between 2000 and 2016, more than 61 million eviction cases were filed in the United States.
“And that was before the crisis,” he said during the briefing.
For a Washington Post piece, he recently wrote that “the United States appears headed toward an unprecedented housing crisis.”
Desmond explained data available at the Eviction Lab, which he developed at Princeton. It allows reporters and other users to dig into evictions numbers by state and community, and even to create maps, charts and reports from the information. It is the first nationwide database of evictions. (For a New York Times examination of the data, click here.)
His colleague Durana (bio, Twitter) detailed resources on state and local moratoriums on evictions put into place during the first month of the COVID-19 crisis. As people lost their jobs and incomes, nearly a third of renters didn’t make their April payments, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. And while state moratoriums have clamped down on the ability of landlords to evict renters, there are gaps in those actions that could result in people being shown the curb anyway.
The Eviction Lab has information on the state and local moratoriums and is now creating a scorecard on the strength of those actions.
As Congress was debating coronavirus stimulus legislation, which emerged as the CARES Act, Roman (bio, Twitter) said advocates pushed for $11.5 billion to help the nation cope with coronavirus among the nation’s homeless population. Congress eventually included $4 billion for homeless assistance, to be distributed through emergency grants to states and local governments to aid people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has given guidance on how those grants can be used, such as for shelter operations, transportation service and sanitizing supplies.
Roman said she is working to secure more of the $11.5 billion in follow-up coronavirus legislation. And she’s worried that although these emergency grants might help bring some people in off the streets, the coming evictions might push another group out.
“We might be exchanging one group of homeless people for another,” she said.
For reporters such as Garnham (bio, Twitter), the imperative during a time like this is to help people through the crisis – not just say it’s happening. The Texas Tribune recently wrote, “Rent is due. But thousands of Texas have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.” In response, the news outlet received messages from readers wanting to know about their situations in extended-stay motels and whether they would be covered by an eviction moratorium.
Garnham talked with legal experts and used Twitter to update the earlier story, telling long-term motel guests who effectively act as renters that they should be covered. And Garnham pointed readers to legal assistance organizations in Texas that could help them.
“We have to be very solutions-oriented now,” he said. “This isn’t a time to just report on policy and trends. There has to be a solution.”