WASHINGTON — On a recent Friday morning, more than 100 renters facing eviction appeared in court for Arizona Judge Anna Huberman in what is becoming a typical day for her, as a wave of evictions hits Phoenix and other large and small cities across the country.
The vast majority of tenants on that day had missed their October payments a few weeks earlier and were now at risk of being evicted from their homes within days, according to the judge. One woman said that month’s rent money went to pay for her mother’s funeral, a daycare worker said he wasn’t paid for two weeks when his workplace temporarily closed due to Covid, and another man said he he started a new job and had yet to receive his first paycheck, Huberman said.
Eviction filings have been on the rise and were above their historical averages in half of the 1,059 counties monitored by the Legal Services Corp., a federally funded legal aid group, during August or September. The problem is expected to get worse in the coming months as federal rental assistance money dries up and people can’t keep up with rising rents and high inflation for decades, according to interviews with more than one dozen housing advocates, government officials and industry experts. .
“Now that rental assistance is over, and now that local moratoriums are over, we’re trying to catch up with what the pandemic did, and my biggest fear is that the cliff we’ve all been anticipating is here. From now on, it’s going to be a very, very difficult time,” said Tim Thomas, research director of the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley. “I don’t want to be a pessimistic person, but we are probably about to see the worst of what is about to happen.”
During the first year of the pandemic, evictions plummeted after a federal moratorium was put in place that made it extremely difficult for landlords to evict tenants for not paying rent. That moratorium was lifted in August 2021, but even without that restriction, the number of evictions remained well below typical levels in most states and cities due to federal funds that provided emergency rental assistance to the tenants.
But that federal money began to dry up in many areas this summer, and the Treasury Department estimates that less than $7 billion of a total of $46.5 billion remains available, removing the last lifeline of retirement-era protections. pandemic in which more than 7 million tenants have relied. .
The struggle to find affordable housing comes amid heightened anxiety and pessimism Americans have about the economy, which voters have consistently ranked as a top concern ahead of next week’s midterm elections. . A CNBC poll in October found that just 16% of voters think the economy is “excellent” or “good,” and 59% of voters expect a recession in the next 12 months.
Despite a relatively strong job market and historically low unemployment, nearly 7.8 million Americans said they were behind on rent in October and 3 million felt they were likely to be evicted in the next two months, according to a census survey of the same month. That survey found that 2.5 million people had experienced a rent increase of more than $500 in the past year.
“With inflation and the massive increases in rental prices that we have seen in recent years, it is much worse for low-income renters than it was before the pandemic, when we were already in an affordable housing crisis,” said Daniel Grubbs. – Donovan, a researcher at the Eviction Laboratory at Princeton University.
Rent growth has begun to slow as inflation and general economic uncertainty keep more people from moving, according to an analysis by Redfin. Still, rents nationwide rose 9% in September, compared to a year earlier, with more than a dozen cities seeing double-digit rent increases, she said.
In Phoenix, for example, rent increases have slowed in recent months, but in June they were up 24% year-over-year, with a median requested rent of $2,261. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, evictions are at their highest levels since at least 2016, with more than 45,000 filings this year.
“Lately, it seems to be all we’ve been doing,” said Huberman, Maricopa County’s presiding justice of the peace.
Xenovia Johnson is one of those Phoenix renters who has been struggling to stay in her home due to rising rents. She said she didn’t pay her rent in early October and received an eviction notice from her landlord just a few days later. She borrowed money to cover her payment, but now she’s not sure how she’ll pay her November rent with the income from her telemarketing job that can’t cover her bills. Last month, her car was repossessed because she had been prioritizing her rent over her car payment.
“Everything has gone up, I just can’t keep up,” said the single mother of two young children. She added that she wasn’t sure what she was going to do.
The Phoenix area has had one of the highest inflation rates in the country with prices up 13% in August compared to a year ago, including a 14% increase in food prices and a 19% increase in in housing costs. While the price of gas has dropped below $4 a gallon in most parts of the country, it still averages more than $4.50 in Phoenix.
One region that has seen the biggest increases in housing costs is Oklahoma City, where rents rose 24% in September compared to a year earlier to an average of $1,260 a month, according to Redfin data. Rents have been rising, in part there, due to a growing number of large out-of-state real estate investment firms buying properties in the region and raising rents, and a lack of affordable housing for low-income families, local housing said. the defenders.
“Until we can better match wages with housing costs, evictions are going to continue to be an issue, because with rents going up, people are going to have to stretch their budgets even further,” said Sabine Brown, senior policy analyst at Oklahoma. Policy Institute: “A medical bill, a car repair can quickly land someone in an eviction.”
In Oklahoma County, which includes Oklahoma City, evictions have been on the rise this year and are more than 40% above pre-pandemic levels, with more than 1,800 evictions filed in September, according to data from Legal. Services Corp. More than 40% of county residents are considered “rent burdened,” meaning they spent more than 30% of their income on rent.
“They are human and they are families with children, and this is in Oklahoma, the heart of it, if you will,” said Michael Figgins, executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma. “It’s chronic here, just like it’s in places where people seem to think this is where these actions are happening, but they’re happening here, too.”
Even areas experiencing less dramatic rent increases are seeing a spike in evictions as pandemic-era protections end. In Minneapolis, where rent increases have trended below the national average, evictions in September were 37% above their historical averages after soaring in June when the state lifted the eviction moratorium.
“I’m talking to a lot of people who are now getting back on their feet and getting back on a decent economic footing,” said Andrea Palumbo, a housing attorney with Minnesota Home Line, a nonprofit tenant advocacy group. “I hear a lot of people say they just need a little more time: I’ll go back to work, my husband or wife will go back to work, and we’ll be back to where we were. We just need a little more time.”
In Minnesota, it’s not just a problem isolated from major urban centers, but also from rural and industrial communities, where housing costs have also risen, he said. In Clay County, a working-class community across the state line from Fargo, North Dakota, the number of eviction filings in September was three times higher than it was before the pandemic. About half of the county’s 60,000 residents had to spend more than 30% of their income on rent, according to data from the Legal Services Corp.
With emergency rental assistance funds drying up, the Biden administration is urging states and cities to use other funding sources, including remaining money from the Covid stimulus bill passed last year, to continue providing support to tenants or implementing other protection policies. place, said Gene Sperling, White House coordinator for American Rescue Plan funding.
“The old status quo is not a normality that we want to return to,” he said. “No one should want to return to a normalcy where eviction is too often seen as a first resort, not a last resort, where there is little mediation and where the vast majority of tenants have no advice or representation at all.” .
Sperling said more affordable housing is the long-term solution to the problems renters face, but that’s a goal that will take time and additional funding from Congress.
“There is no question that long after the pandemic is over, the affordable housing shortage will be a pain-inducing issue, whether it be from evictions or from people simply not being able to renew their lease or having to cut back on other necessities to make ends meet. housing costs. ,” he said. “That is why there is no question that policies to increase the supply of affordable housing are clearly and deeply intertwined with how we address long-term rental security for families and a top priority of home for us.”