Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with cases still rising, time is running out for California to address another crisis: eviction.
The current eviction moratorium protects Californians from eviction until February if they are unable to pay rent due to coronavirus-related hardship. But tenants must pay at least 25% of the total sum they owe for rent between September and January by the end of the latter month to avoid eviction.
When the moratorium expires two months from now, thousands of households will be in danger of homelessness. Low-income, undocumented, Black and Latinx households have faced disproportionate coronavirus-related job losses, and the communities most impacted by COVID-19 will likely bear the brunt of evictions, only compounding the financial stress of job loss and rent with costly medical bills.
The combined crises of eviction and COVID-19 put these communities in an especially precarious position. If the state does not act now, our most vulnerable neighbors may be left without a home or job prospects. As policymakers negotiate solutions, they must consider and protect low-income residents and residents of color from the crippling impacts of COVID-19 and eviction for as long as the state of emergency continues and beyond.
Low-income communities of color have suffered from some of the worst economic impacts of the pandemic. According to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, nearly 1 million renter households in California have experienced coronavirus-related job loss, which is about 1 in 7 renter households. Of these nearly 1 million households, three-fourths are households of color. Among low-income households in particular, which are more likely to use their income on rent, 80% are of color.
This suggests that low-income families of color — which, prior to the pandemic, were already struggling to pay rent in some of the most unaffordable housing markets in the country — are also at the highest risk of losing their homes. A wave of evictions come February will make it harder for these residents to economically recover and, instead, kick-start crushing cycles of poverty.
Eviction is not only a result of poverty but can play a role in perpetuating it, too. Eviction records can show up on tenant screening reports and can affect one’s credit rating; it can also force people to move into unsafe housing or even become homeless. Preventing a massive wave of evictions in February can help curb cycles of worsening poverty during and after the recession.
In addition to preventing households of color from falling deeper into poverty, housing security can prevent the worst health impacts for the same groups at the highest risk of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black and Latinx people are respectively 2.6 and 2.8 times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than white people. They are also 4.7 and 4.6 times more likely to be hospitalized due to complications from the coronavirus, respectively.
Evictions will only exacerbate this suffering. It will be much harder for the thousands of people facing eviction in February to safely quarantine at home. To save a hospitalized COVID-19 patient’s life, medical professionals must provide support and services to help stabilize the patient and quicken their recovery. Preventing eviction can be thought of as a form of social stabilization that complements medical stabilization to avoid the worst-case scenario: suffering from the coronavirus while also experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
The eviction moratorium in California is only a temporary solution that pushes the problem of paying rent down the line, leaving issues of future debt unresolved. In the meantime, landlords dependent on tenants’ rent to pay their own bills are protected from foreclosure but lose income. Still, tenants who have lost income over the course of the pandemic will likely be unable to afford monthly rent, let alone months of accumulated back rent.
Extending the eviction moratorium until the pandemic is over can buy time for Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state legislators to make a better long-term plan that keeps Californians housed and fairly compensates landlords. This will also allow policymakers to innovate and negotiate funding for coronavirus-related rent relief.
In a past legislative session, state Sens. Anna Caballero and Steven Bradford introduced SB 1410. The bill proposes giving landlords a tax break for forgiving rent, as well as allowing tenants to pay back rent accumulated during the pandemic with their taxes over the course of 10 years. The bill, which is now being held in committee, is the type of innovative solution the state needs to address the intersection between the pandemic and housing insecurity.
If the state does not immediately extend the eviction moratorium, any attempt to address housing insecurity will be too late. The lives of our low-income neighbors of color depend on it.
Valerie Nguyen is a UC Berkeley junior studying society and environment.