Which states are doing a better job protecting renters from being evicted during the coronavirus pandemic
For millions of renters who have lost income, rent day on May 1 is a looming disaster.
A majority of the country’s 43.8 million renting households have lost at least some of their income in the coronavirus shutdown, a much higher share than homeowners, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll done in mid-April.
This means an increasing number of households are at risk of missing rent payments, which could cascade into a national flood of evictions and forced homelessness.
Facing the coronavirus pandemic, state governments have adopted special rules to protect renters. Landlords, attorneys, judges, sheriffs and renters are all trying to keep up with daily changes in the system.
“It’s a lot of information and it’s not easy to read through it all,” said Hannah Adams of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “It does not mean tenants don’t have to pay rent. Rent hasn’t been suspended or canceled or forgiven by the law. It’s just that the landlord’s remedy of eviction that is on hold.”
The Eviction Lab at Princeton University and Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer have created a scorecard to measure protections for renters. Each state gets a rating from zero to five stars based on how many renter protections and supports it has in place.
Many of the scores are not encouraging for renters. Twenty-three states, with a combined 12.8 million renting households, get less than one star. Six states score a zero.
Renter protections are generally stronger in the Northeast, Northwest and Midwest, and weaker in the more rural areas of the South, Northern Plains and Mountain States.
The Eviction Lab found Kentucky and South Carolina have notably better protections than the rest of the South. Kentucky’s governor has told law enforcement not to carry out evictions during the state of emergency. South Carolina’s Supreme Court stopped evictions until at least next month, according to the lab’s research.
The Eviction Lab scorecard includes 16 measures collected into five categories. The first three categories cover measures that influence the process: initiation of an eviction, litigation in court and enforcement of an eviction order. The other two categories are broader: short-term support for renters and longer-term assistance. (You can see the full methodology here.)
This chart shows how each state fares in each of the five categories, ordered by its overall star score.
Even as these new rules are put in place, it’s not clear how much protection they will afford renters or if they will be evenly enforced.
The federal Cares Act passed at the end of March included a hold on eviction action until late July, with no one being put out of their homes until late August — but the federal rules only apply to properties that have government-backed loans. The Urban Institute estimates that the rule covers almost half of larger buildings with at least five apartments, and a much smaller share of single-family-home rentals and small apartments. Altogether, Urban says the law protects 12.3 million households, or 28 percent of renters.
But local housing courts aren’t used to enforcing federal law, except on discrimination issues under the Fair Housing Act. Renters who very rarely have attorneys may bear the burden of proving the property has government-backed financing or falls under state-ordered protections. Or judges could put the burden on landlords to prove they are complying with the new rules.
Even when renters are protected by the federal law, landlords are still delivering eviction notices. Over about a month, Adams said her Southeastern Louisiana agency dealt with 23 threatened illegal evictions — meaning a landlord changes the locks, puts property out on the street or takes other action without any court eviction proceeding. Eight of those went from threats to action. Three of those were blocked in court, she said, and the other five handled out of court.
“Landlords take matters into their own hands in ways that are not legal,” she said.
One of those renters is Janee, a 30-year-old native of New Orleans, who spoke on the condition of not using her last name for fear of angering her apartment manager.
She got an eviction notice last week demanding, in capital letters, that she must pay her late April rent of $850 “WITHIN THREE DAYS.” It went on, “IF PAYMENT IS NOT MADE AS REQUESTED, DEMAND IS HEREBY MADE FOR YOU TO VOLUNTARILY VACATE THE APARTMENT.”
Janee read it carefully and was angry that the form-style letter said she had not communicated about her late rent. She said she has spoken repeatedly this month with the manager and assistant manager, assuring them she would be paid on Friday and then would be able to make good on the rent.
“I was scared. My heart was racing very fast. I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I have communicated with her the entire month of April.”
Janee is among 600,000 renting households in Louisiana, where tenants are particularly vulnerable. Protection laws in the state are weak and the coronavirus has been extremely deadly. The state’s economy has also been devastated as the tourism and oil and gas industries suffer catastrophically.
Janee said she hasn’t received her coronavirus stimulus payment yet and has her hands full with four children from 15 months old to 12 years old in the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment.
“I did’t have any money to make a payment, she said. This was my hardest month in like two years.”
Janee’s apartment is covered under the Cares Act, her attorney said, so she cannot be evicted, but it is not stopping landlords from trying.
Protections for renters measured by the Eviction Lab are consistently weaker in states like Louisiana that have a larger share of renters living in poverty, the Post-U.Md. poll found. None of the 11 states with a score of at least three stars has more than 23 percent of renters living in poverty, according to census data. But the 23 states with less than one star include nine with at least a quarter of their renters in poverty.
Even though current protections may give some tenants more rights than they have had before, they may go away quickly with a rush to reopen he country,
“Generally people who are living in poverty receive less political power,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. “People who have wealth have influence and power and will work hard to continue to protect that.”
Louisiana’s eviction courts are closed for now, but Hill said the scene is set for a possible wave of evictions when they reopen, which may happen in mid-May.
Princeton University professor Matthew Desmond, a specialist in urban research and principal investigator at the Eviction Lab, said the economic downturn is so vast that landlords can’t just expect to turn out tenants and get new ones. They are going to have to work with people to get paid, he said.
“We’ve become quite reliant on eviction to solve the problem of families overburdened by rent, he said. “It’s like a ‘tough on crime’ policy. I hope this moment gives us a chance to say, ‘This is not the solution.’ ”
Data sourced from the Eviction Lab and reflects data as of April 27.
Graphic: Map of US states color-codes by degrees of protection against eviction. Source: The Washington Post.