Landlords Across the Country Can Start Evicting Tenants Again. Many Have Nowhere to Go.

“It’s going to be a true nightmare,” a legal aid attorney told VICE News.
June 1, 2020, 8:59pm
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UPDATE 6/1 8:53 p.m.: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended Florida's eviction moratorium to July 1 on Monday night. Previously, it was set to expire June 2.

Nicole White hasn’t paid the $1,500 rent for her home in Lee County, Florida, since March. That was right around the time she lost her customer service job at a call center, just when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to take hold in her state.

She figured her family of five would be able to catch up eventually, as long as her full unemployment benefits kicked in. But it's June, and they still haven’t. Every day, she accumulates more late fees and grows more indebted to her landlord, who calls often to ask when she’ll pay. She had $13 in the bank as of Sunday.

“It’s a pressure cooker — it’s going to explode,” said White, who also never received her stimulus check. “One of these days, I’m going to wake up and have an eviction notice on my door.”

If White gets evicted once proceedings in Florida start back up on Tuesday, she and her family can’t afford another place to stay. Like millions of renters across the country in the last few months, she's been protected by a patchwork of rules that barred evictions from taking place. But in the last several days, those moratoriums have ended in several states, including Nebraska, Iowa, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. In some cities, landlords are reportedly lining up to boot tenants already.

“What are they going to do with us? Are you going to make camps for these people?”

By the end of this week, about half of all U.S. states will have no eviction protections — even though people like White are still grappling with the lack of income that made paying rent impossible in the first place.

Nearly 40% of Americans making less than $40,000 a year lost their jobs in March, according to data from the Federal Reserve. The eviction moratoriums were swiftly enacted at the onset of the pandemic in an effort to shield the newly unemployed from winding up on the streets, especially since the virus threat forced people to stay indoors.

Housing advocates and progressive legislators have pleaded for extensions on the protections and warned that the crisis isn’t over; the coronavirus is still spreading, and people are still suffering. Many states are still struggling to process unemployment benefits and get checks out to the newly poor.

“You’re going to have so many families with no income, and no prospect of income — they’re not going to be able to pay rent and get new housing because they don’t have a job; they don’t have deposit money,” said Russell Fowler, director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee. “It’s going to be a true nightmare.”

Evictions don’t just strip a person of their home, either; they often damage credit and leave a black mark on a person’s rental history, making it difficult to find replacement housing. Since homeless shelter beds are in short supply across much of the nation, those renters could be soon forced to live in their cars or even tent encampments.

“It’s not that you’re allowing a lazy person to stay and avoid eviction for one more month; if you have a moratorium you’re allowing the economy to recover a little bit,” said Edwin Cordova, the housing rights supervising attorney at Legal Aid Service of Broward County. “What do you expect if you don’t do that? You expect families being on the street. Is that what you want?”

When local schools and day care centers shuttered over the coronavirus pandemic, White told her boss she had to stay home to watch her three kids. In the weeks that followed, her family was forced to barely scrape by on her husband’s income as she waited in vain for her unemployment checks to arrive.

Then her husband lost his ability to work a few weeks ago, too, when an accident on the job crushed his hand, requiring surgery. That was the final blow.

Now, even buying tampons, shampoo, or pull-ups for their toddler is a financial stretch. Pleading with the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity for aid has become her full-time job, and paying rent this month was entirely out of the question.

“My kids — my 10-year-old, she knows. She’s smart,” White said. “She’s like, ‘What’s going on? Why are you so upset all the time?’ I try to save her and say, ‘Don’t worry about it, Mom’s got it.’ But I don’t know if I got it.”

White’s struggles aren’t unique. Frustration over legislative inaction has boiled over for some tenants and resulted in rent strikes and demonstrations nationwide. Recently, renters have been tweeting at Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, to beg him to stall evictions considering the widespread unemployment delays.

“Pay US OR UNEMPLOYMENT....CANT YOU HEAR ALL OF US DISPLACED HARD WORKERS??? WE ARE DYING, RISKING HOMELESSNESS, WE HAVE CHILDREN...WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU???” one person wrote on Twitter Saturday, addressing the governor. “I'm actively looking for work but have depleted my savings...RENT IS DUE IN A DAY.”

In Tennessee, where eviction protections are also ending despite lingering unemployment issues, Palmetra Williams anticipates she’ll soon be taken to court for factors outside of her control, too. The 46-year-old from Nashville was furloughed from her job as a salary manager in the hotel industry and hasn’t paid her $1,094 rent since March. She’s been waiting for her unemployment checks to arrive for seven weeks.

Williams is now left to consider her grim options. She has multiple sclerosis, so she doesn’t feel safe going to a homeless shelter where she may be exposed to coronavirus. The stress of delayed unemployment benefits alone caused a flare-up of her disease that landed her in the hospital. She’ll likely live in her car.

“It’s sad because I’ve always been a person to make my money, I never had to rely on food stamps, unemployment or nothing,” Williams said. “The other night I got out the shower and fell on the floor crying.”

‘It’s Just Bad Timing’

Despite eviction proceedings starting back up in many states, most tenants won’t be thrown out immediately due to bottlenecked court dockets and various laws on how quickly they can be removed.

In Florida, for example, Cordova said there’s a statewide judicial order temporarily suspending the last step of the eviction process. Some individual counties and courts are also choosing to prolong proceedings further by enacting their own moratoriums. Plus, a federal eviction moratorium still exists for renters whose landlords receive government funds.

That’s why legal aid attorneys expect that the coming onslaught of evictions will arrive in a series of fits and starts, rather than all at once. But they know it’s coming, nonetheless. Three legal aid offices in Tennessee told VICE News they were either recruiting more attorneys to handle the anticipated increase in cases or preparing to assign staff who typically didn’t deal in landlord-tenant law to the cause.

But landlords — some of whom are suffering without rental payments, too — say they still need to get their money, some way. Amanda Gill, government affairs director at the Florida Apartment Association, said her organization supports emergency rental relief to fill that need.

“While well intentioned, eviction moratoriums are not a cure for this crisis because they do not address the underlying symptom that has led us to where we are today,” Gill said in a statement. “The problem is many Florida residents do not have the financial resources to pay for their basic needs, including rent, due to sudden and unexpected loss of employment.”

White’s landlord was understanding at first, she said, and even offered to help her file for unemployment. When White finally received two federal CARES Act-guaranteed unemployment checks earlier this month, totaling $1,200, she forked over $900 to her landlord immediately.

But she still owes thousands, and her landlord wants at least $725 this week. White hasn’t gotten most of the $237 weekly checks she said she’s owed by the state — although she was approved for unemployment benefits earlier this month. (She received a random $213 check Monday from the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity, she said.)

As a last-ditch effort, she recently applied for a local $2,000 emergency rent grant in her county, which she desperately hopes to receive.

“What are they going to do with us? Are you going to make camps for these people?” White said. “I get it: You have to be responsible and pay your rent and be a productive citizen. But I was. My husband was. It’s just bad timing. I will literally — excuse my French — I’ll shovel shit before my kids are on the street.”

Cover: A woman wearing a mask walks past a wall bearing a graffiti asking for rent forgiveness on La Brea Ave on National May Day amid the Covid-19 pandemic, May 1, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)