The National Eviction Freeze Is Expiring. What Happens Next?
KELSEY SNELL, HOST:
The federal eviction moratorium is set to expire tonight. President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are among the high-ranking officials who want Congress to extend the moratorium. But unless there is a major shift, millions of renters across the country will face the possibility of eviction. And public health experts worry that the country will face a massive eviction crisis as the delta variant spreads at alarming rates. Here to talk about the moratorium expiring and what it could mean for renters is Emily Benfer. She teaches housing law at Wake Forest University and has thought a lot about this. Welcome.
EMILY BENFER: Thank you for having me.
SNELL: So what exactly happens today as a result of this expiration?
BENFER: I think we can expect to see a wave of eviction across the country. The moratorium was the only intervention preventing the mass eviction of millions of renters and families across the country. Without this moratorium, I think housing displacement is on the horizon, and that's because only a handful of states have any eviction protections remaining. And this will lead to a surge in COVID-19 likely because we know that eviction is associated with increased respiratory transmission of disease as well as a spike in both COVID-19 infection and mortality.
SNELL: As you said, the results of eviction are known. The outcomes are known. But President Biden put the onus on Congress to address the moratorium just a few days ago with really very little time to act. Why can't the CDC just extend the one that expires today?
BENFER: Well, the Supreme Court sent a very clear message to the CDC that if they were to extend the moratorium again without clear congressional authorization, that it would likely be struck down. So this is why last month, when they extended the moratorium, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made it clear that this was the last extension that they could do.
SNELL: So with that in mind, the moratorium that is set to expire today is at the federal level. Will some renters still have protections at the local level?
BENFER: Just a few. Only a handful of states have a state-level moratorium in place, and a few others have partial protections, like additional notice period before an eviction filing occurs or requiring the landlord to participate in rental assistance programs before filing. But that's really it. This moratorium was the only intervention standing between millions of adults and children and housing displacement.
SNELL: Lawmakers anticipated the temporary nature of this moratorium when they were writing it. And along with it, they authorized federal funds given to states and local governments to help tenants pay their rent to the tune of about $47 billion. But it's been widely reported that only a small fraction of these funds have been distributed. So why is that? What's missing here?
BENFER: Tenants across the country have applied for rental assistance, but they've been met with barriers in the form of lengthy applications, inaccessible programs. And landlords and tenants across the country are largely still unaware of the availability of rental assistance. So that outreach to communities is really important in this moment. To date, by the end of June, only 3 billion of the over 46 billion in rental assistance had been distributed at all.
SNELL: So what are you hearing from attorneys and tenants who are facing this in other parts of the country? How worried are they?
BENFER: They're terrified. The tenants who are contacting me are wondering where their children are going to sleep come Monday night. They don't know how they're going to pay the back rent owed without that critical rental assistance. And they don't know where they're going to stay next. And we know that once families and individuals are evicted, they end up living in overcrowded environments and moving from couch to couch just to keep a roof over their head.
And this makes it impossible to comply with pandemic mitigation strategies, which means that we can expect in the weeks following these widespread evictions, COVID-19 rates to increase because the communities - they're at the highest risk of eviction in this moment also have the lowest vaccination rates. And most troubling, 1 in 3 children are facing food or housing loss. And many of them are ineligible for vaccinations. So they will be at heightened risk.
SNELL: Many landlords are saying that they are owed a year of back rent, that they can't wait any longer to receive the money that they need to keep their businesses afloat. How do you respond to that?
BENFER: Congress has made available 46 billion in rental assistance, which is on par with the rental debt owed across the country. And we've seen, even though only 3 billion has been paid out as of the end of June, that that was a dramatic increase from the month before, which means that cities and states are working out the problems within those systems and trying to get that to them as quickly as possible.
And at the same time, the federal government has reinstated its moratorium on foreclosure, and banks are also doing the same. So I urge property owners to wait for that rental assistance, to work with their local leaders to obtain it, to work with their tenants to prevent this eviction crisis that will only lead to a surge in the pandemic.
SNELL: And they're at heightened risk at a time when the delta variant is quickly spreading throughout the country. We know that it's highly transmissible and dangerous. As someone who studies both health and housing law, why is that particularly concerning?
BENFER: Housing stability has always been paramount to health. And in this moment, it is critical to the nation's public health. And this is because with the delta variant, eviction is likely to contribute with a surge in infection and death. Last summer, with a research team led by Dr. Kate Leifheit of UCLA, we examined the effect of expired state eviction moratoria on COVID-19 transmission, and we found an overwhelming association. Just in the summer months, it amounted to an excess 430,000 cases and 10,000 excess deaths. And that was just in 27 states that lifted their moratoria. And here we're looking at the nationwide lift of the only intervention protecting millions of families from this level of harm.
SNELL: So what happens now? What are you keeping your eye on as this deadline is quickly approaching? Is there something that could be done? Could Congress step in and stop this?
BENFER: This takes a whole of country response. Congress, the White House and state and local leaders across the country all have a role to play here and can all institute interventions that can delay and stop eviction and increase the distribution of rental assistance across the country.
At the same time, landlords have a critical role, and the public health of the nation is largely resting on them now. They can wait to evict and apply for this rental assistance, avoiding the costs of litigation and turnover and otherwise and also keeping millions of households safe from both the long-term harm of eviction as well as the COVID-19 increase that quickly spreads across communities.
SNELL: Emily Benfer is a law professor at Wake Forest University, where she teaches courses on health and housing law. Professor Benfer, thank you so much for your time.
BENFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.