Welcome to the Covid Economy, CNBC Make It's deep dive into how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting all areas of our lives, from food to housing, health care to small business. We're focusing on North Carolina, a swing state that has seen rapid economic growth — and growing inequality — since the last recession to learn how residents are weathering the economic consequences of this once-in-a-lifetime health crisis.
When eviction protections put into place by the CARES Act expired over the summer, Josie Williams was deeply concerned about what it would mean for the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 North Carolinians struggling to pay their rent.
As the executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, she had watched for months as her employees fielded three to four times as many calls each day than normal from community members worried they would lose their homes in the middle of an unprecedented public health crisis.
With tens of millions of Americans suddenly out of work, and many physically unable to find new jobs, the housing situation looked dire across the country. Williams and other experts began predicting a "tsunami" of evictions if Congress didn't pass another stimulus package that might include rental relief and an extended eviction moratorium.
"We were getting, literally, thousands of calls a week," Williams says, noting that there were around 600 evictions filed in her county alone at the beginning of August. "I was so overwhelmed by what was happening within our city."
Then in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a "historic" nationwide eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent. Through the end of December, landlords cannot evict most tenants who have signed a "declaration" provided by the CDC stating that they cannot afford their rent because of Covid-19 and have used their best efforts to apply for all governmental housing aid.
It was an unprecedented move by the federal government to ensure that people could stay in their homes during a pandemic that has killed over 230,000 Americans since March, even if they had fallen behind on their housing payments.
There was initially confusion around the order, and organizations, including the National Apartment Association, quickly filed a suit against it. But just over a month after its implementation, the order is working when tenants know that it exists, says Caitlin Cedfeldt, an attorney at Legal Aid of Nebraska's Housing Justice Project. Landlords are still filing evictions, but at least in the communities Cedfeldt serves, judges are siding with tenants who have signed the CDC's declaration.
"The majority of [judges] are respecting what the law is and not ignoring the order," Cedfeldt says.
That's good, experts say, because it hasn't gotten much easier for many tenants to pay their bills over the past few months: More than seven months after states started shutting down their economies, tens of millions of Americans are still applying for unemployment each week, and 1 in 4 renters with children (and 1 in 6 adult renters generally) was behind on rent in September, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Renters of color are more likely to report being behind on payments.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, hundreds of people still call the Housing Coalition each day, says Williams. The need for assistance isn't abating.
"People have said we're in recovery, but whose recovery?" Williams says.
Compounding the problem: There is a knowledge gap when it comes to the nationwide eviction moratorium, Cedfeldt says. Landlords can still technically file for eviction proceedings, and if a tenant doesn't know to sign the CDC's declaration form, they very well could be ordered to vacate their homes.
Despite the measures in place, Princeton's Eviction Lab has counted over 100,000 eviction filings during the pandemic in the 25 cities it tracks.
The CDC's order does not require landlords to inform tenants of its existence, and the judges who hear their cases can't give tenants legal advice. "It's an information game," Cedfeldt says.
Even if they do know about the order, many people have never had to deal with the bureaucracy of applying for government aid or have never faced the court system before. Navigating these systems — in which one wrong move could mean losing your home — in the middle of a pandemic that's upended so much else is stressful, says Williams.
"Many residents have never been in this situation before, and in many cases that's very intimidating," Williams says.
The order also does nothing to address other types of evictions, says Legal Aid's Cedfeldt. Landlords can evict for reasons other than non-payment of rent, refuse to let their tenants resign lease agreements when they expire, or even institute week-to-week leases to make it easier to evict tenants at the first sign of financial strain.
So it was a relief to Jesse McCoy II, a housing attorney and senior lecturing fellow at Duke University, when North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order at the end of October that places the burden on landlords to make their tenants aware of their rights under the CDC order, including the option to fill out a declaration form, before starting any eviction proceeding.
Cooper also designated $117 million from the CARES Act to NC HOPE, a rental relief program. Tenants apply, and the program makes up to six months of direct payments to landlords and utilities companies. McCoy says tens of thousands have already applied.
As far as state-wide responses to the coronavirus housing crisis go, McCoy sees North Carolina's as a model for the rest of the country to follow in the absence of unified federal action.
"Cooper made a make-shift, state-based rental assistance program," McCoy says. "That's great, that's really what's needed nationally."
Still, the eviction bans ultimately just push the problem forward a few months, McCoy says. Come the end of December when the CDC's order expires, households will owe back rent and any associated late fees for potentially half a years' worth of rent or more.
Landlords are already preparing to take their tenants to court in the new year.
"The big question is, what happens in January?" McCoy says. "I can tell you, I personally have 20 eviction cases scheduled for January 6."
That's why now is the time to be proactive, rather than reactive to a new problem, says Williams. Federal rental assistance paid directly to landlords would keep people housed and prevent a larger housing crisis from spiraling out of control.
"The order protects the tenant — and we need to do that — but if the landlord isn't getting paid, what do you think is going to happen to their households?" she says, noting that there could be a "snowball effect" of foreclosures if landlords can't pay their own housing bills.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that $100 billion in emergency rental assistance is necessary to prevent an eviction crisis. Otherwise, an untold number of people won't be able to repay their landlords for months of missed payments.
"A lot of people I worked with through the summer, they're working now, but they can't catch up with the deficit," McCoy says. "There's no time machine that can fix it."
After failing to reach any sort of agreement on another stimulus package, despite months of negotiations, the Senate is adjourned until Nov. 9. Even then, it is not clear if the federal government will pass another stimulus package, especially with a lame duck president.
McCoy is frustrated that after nearly eight months of pain for millions of Americans, Congress still doesn't have a plan, or seemingly the will, to mitigate the financial strains of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I don't think that eviction is an issue of landlord-versus-tenant as people make it," he says.
"This is a colossal government failure."
If you are at risk of being evicted, your first step should be to find a lawyer. If you cannot afford one, then look for your local Legal Aid office.
The CDC's ban requires tenants to fill out this declaration and give it to your landlord. In order to qualify, you must show that you've applied for state aid (otherwise, you could be at risk of committing perjury). North Carolinians can apply to the NC HOPE program by calling 2-1-1 or visitingnc211.org/hope. Other states have similar programs. You can find more information here.
If you're interested in sharing your experiences related to the pandemic, please email reporter Alicia Adamczyk at email@example.com.
More in this series: