A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts news outlet Stateline offers more sobering findings on the national rental housing situation. According to data compiled in the National Equity Atlas, a data and policy tool maintained by the University of Southern California and the research firm Policy Link, the number of U.S. renters behind on payments has doubled from 2017 to 2021.
In North Carolina, from May 24 to June 7, the percentage of renters behind on their payments stayed at 14% — a strong indication that rental assistance is not reaching the hands of struggling North Carolinians fast enough with the end of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction ban set for July 31. The report found a total nationwide rent debt of upwards of $20 billion and more than 5.8 million renters behind on their payments as of June 7.
While the CARES Act and two other emergency rental assistance packages enacted by the federal government have directed billions of dollars to individual states in hopes of getting rental and utility assistance into the hands of Americans in need, the distribution process has not been going smoothly in many places — chiefly because state and local agencies were not adequately prepared to deal with the distribution of such large sums in such short order. As a result, the timing for approval of an application for rental assistance can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on where you are located and what organization is helping you.
Since September 2020, the CDC eviction ban has served as a safety net preventing evictions for these renters. The ban has been extended multiple times, but with final expiration now just days away, many advocates and experts foresee a tidal wave of evictions and other negative consequences throughout the country. These fears would appear to be well-founded. When North Carolina didn’t have an eviction ban in place for the 11 weeks prior to the advent of the CDC’s order, the state saw in excess of 15,000 COVID-19 cases and 300 COVID-19 deaths related to evictions according to a study published by the Social Science Research Network. When the current eviction ban expires on July 31 this influx of cases and deaths could happen again.
Despite the recent sobering data, it’s important to note that the current rental housing affordability crisis predates the pandemic. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in March of 2020, (i.e., pre-COVID) only 36 affordable and available rental homes existed for every 100 extremely low-income renters in need. But, of course, the pandemic made things significantly worse. Almost seven in 10 Americans who are behind on their rental payments lost employment at one point during the pandemic according to the research done by the National Equity Atlas.
While the current bleak situation is forcing families to make tough choices between paying the rent, putting food on the table, and paying the electric bill, there are policy options that would go a long way toward protecting renters from short-term and long-term harm. Here are two:
- Evictions in North Carolina should be paused while every effort is made to make sure landlords and tenants access the hundreds of millions of dollars of rental assistance that remain available in the HOPE (Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions) program to resolve non-payment of rent eviction cases.
- The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should act to seal the eviction records and rental debt of those hardest hit by this pandemic. Doing this would make that information private and help prevent tenants who have struggled during the pandemic to pay rent from being rejected for future housing applications based upon pandemic related financial hardships.
Raquel Harati is a Housing and Health Policy Intern at the N.C. Justice Center.