Arun Venugopal: Welcome to The Takeaway, I'm Arun Venugopal in for Tanzina today and tomorrow. Good to be with you again, Takeaway people, let's get going. On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced an initiative that could potentially steer millions of people from eviction. According to the new rule, renters earning less than $99,000 cannot be evicted before the end of this year, if they don't make rent because of the economic slowdown. The order was issued by the CDC citing the agency's authority to control the spread of COVID-19. It comes after weeks of congressional inaction on rent and eviction relief. The big question is, will it work and how big of an impact will it have? We're going to talk about it, but I wanted to give you the first word here at 877-8-My-Take. How was your housing situation been impacted by the pandemic?
Heather: My name is Heather from Stanton, Virginia. During the pandemic, I filed for a pandemic appointment under assistance program, PUA. I still have not heard back from anyone. Our mortgage company has been lenient with us. We've missed a few payments, but we're getting by, but we have eaten into most of our savings and if the PUA assistance doesn't come in or no one gets back to me, I will be one of the many Americans that was left on the back burner with no help from the government.
Speaker 3: I'm Garth from Brookline, Massachusetts. We've been able to pay our housing. I've been unemployed since March, so it's been working, but the Senate jagging has been quite frankly pissing me off for a month now. It's just a disgusting display of political game playing. Unemployment is disincentivizing my job search. It's just letting us pay all of our bills.
George Morris: George Morris, Dallas, Texas. Melida worked with us to lower our monthly payment due to changes in our income. We've been able to hang in there and haven't missed any payments, but are worried now that unemployment benefits have been sharply reduced. Our pay hasn't come back to fill the gap. In Texas, it seems like city county and state governments are too busy passing the buck to offer any kind meaningful help.
Arun: Joining me now is Monica Arellano, a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Thanks for being here, Monica.
Monica Arellano: Thank you, Arun.
Arun: Also, with us is Matthew Desmond, Principle Investigator at Princeton University's Eviction Lab and author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Great to have you on the show, Matt.
Matthew Desmond: Good to be here.
Arun: Matt, how big is this eviction crisis we're dealing with? How many people are at risk of losing their homes right now?
Matthew: Well, millions potentially. In an average month in America, over 800,000 people are threatened with eviction every month. That's like the population of Seattle threatened with eviction every month around the United States and that's before the pandemic, that's when the economy was supposed to be strong. With unemployment levels that we haven't seen since the great depression, with the expiration of federal benefits and moratoriums until the news release just late yesterday, by some estimates, tens of millions of families were at risk of eviction by the end of the year.
Aru: Tens of millions and Monica. Have you witnessed anything like this?
Monica: No, never. This is unprecedented.
Arun: This is LA. You missed in California it's a huge state. A lot of people who already are have housing insecurity. Is this something that's evident before your eyes?
Monica: Yes. We essentially have seen an uptick in preparation for what folks are calling in Los Angeles, the eviction tsunami, preparing for high volumes of evictions at levels that we've never seen before. That also tenants are not prepared for it. It's a legal process and it's something that folks need attorneys for and folks don't have attorneys.
Arun: Matt, can you explain more though about this new federal action? Who is eligible and how many people could potentially be spared from eviction?
Matthew: Well, when the federal moratoriums came out in the CARES Act a few months ago, they only covered federally backed mortgages or renters that had a housing assistance from the federal government. That covered about a third of all renting households. It helped, but left a lot of people exposed to eviction unless their state stepped in. This moratorium is different. This moratorium covers all rental households, but renters in those households need to meet three criteria. There's income criteria. If you received a stimulus check or if you make less than $99,000 a year or a $198,000 a year as a couple, that's one step in the qualifications, you need to show that you have lost income because of the economic shutdown or because of big medical debts that you've incurred during the pandemic. You need to express a real fear that you would be homeless or doubled up with someone if you were evicted. Now, if you meet those three criteria, you have to declare that to your landlord according to the CDC guidelines. This is just tenants signing a piece of paper saying, "I meet these three criteria. I've declared it to you, here you go landlord" and that according to what we know so far is how it's supposed to work.
Arun: I wasn't really expecting the CDC to be I guess, at the center of a process like this, am I right to be surprised or is this like par for the course?
Matthew: This is unprecedented. The CDC has enacted a really interesting statute and a statute that comes into relevance during a pandemic. In normal times, I don't think you would see the CDC step again in to say, "Hey guys, let's slow down or stop evictions." During a pandemic this deadly and this serious, it's taken pretty extraordinary actions and I'm so glad it has.
Arun: Monica, do you feel similarly, does this feel promising from your approach?
Monica: Absolutely. It was a pleasant surprise that someone's taking direct action. It is an improvement on some of the actions we've seen before. It's not flawless. It is more inclusive, but there's always the reality that it's been six months that this has been going on, well, we're going into the seventh month. A lot of tensions have built between landlords and tenants for reasons outside of rental payment and, or in addition to rental payment. It was a pleasant surprise, but there's definitely room for improvement.
Arun: Matt, What are the kinds of hoops that renters need to take advantage of? Is this onerous or do you think it's reasonable?
Matthew: I think the biggest question I have, and I think that Monica's work in legal aid probably she sees this every day is there's a difference between a write on a paper and a right in practice. We need to get the word out. We need to make sure renters know that this new right exists, but we also need to empower renters to exercise that right. For many renters that I've met over the years studying the eviction crisis and housing and security, there's a lot of fear out there, there's a lot of misinformation. I think that this is a first step, but another immediate next step is to make sure people know about this and make sure people feel comfortable going to their landlord and saying, "Hey, I have this eviction protection now, can we figure something out between now and the end of the year."
Monica: Monica, he referred to misinformation. We have enormous powerful interests that are all watching this play out, perhaps could benefit from this information. Is this something that you're seeing play out in the communities that you deal with?
Speaker 3: Absolutely. We get a lot of phone calls that say, "I got an eviction letter or I got an eviction notice, but there's a moratorium. There's nothing for me to do." There's big headlines that say federally eviction moratorium on a County level, on a state level. It really is misinformation, as Matt was saying, it's one thing to have a law that protects folks, but if there's no one to enforce that law, if there's no one to raise this defense, if tenants can't effectively articulate these things or if landlords don't know either. Sometimes landlords don't know that they have responsibilities in these laws also, then it's relying upon multiple parties to engage and effectively execute these laws in order for them to have the impact that was intended.
Arun: California did squeeze through its own eviction moratorium the last minute earlier this week. Does that moratorium still apply in the wake of this federal measure?
Monica: Yes, it does. The federal measure was released not very long ago, so it's still being reviewed and analyzed, but it does appear that the California law would still apply since the order allows for more protective statutes to stay in place. Arguably the California law is more protective.
Arun: Matt, given the enormous interests that operate through pretty much every corner of the nation when it comes to housing and real estate, was there a lot of pushback to this?
Matthew: There will be a lot of pushback. I think that in several states, property owners have challenged eviction moratoriums already, in those cases, they've lost and the courts have upheld the moratoriums. I'm confident that this statute will also be challenged in court as well. I think the bigger picture is that this is going to save lives, eviction would just spread the pandemic. It would deepen our unemployment crisis. It would complicate school openings. There is going to be challenges and Monica is right, this is an airtight and it certainly only delays eviction it does not prevent it. A big question is what happens at the turn of the year when the moratorium lifts? I think that this is incredibly important step in terms of getting the pandemic under control and giving Richard's that breath of relief that they deserve to feel.
Arun: Monica, some critics have argued that eviction bands unfairly favor tenants at the expense of landlords. Landlords claim that without their rent payments, they can't make their mortgage payments or pay property taxes. What should we make of this argument?
Monica: Well, I think this is one of the few times where tenants and landlords are actually on the same boat, they're on the same side. The issue is really that there's a bigger systemic problem. Both renters can't pay their rent and some landlords can't pay their mortgage because they depend on the renters to pay that rent. I think this is one of those situations where their problems is actually really similar. As far as the difference is, if someone is renting a property and they're unable to pay their rent and they're evicted, the data has shown they'll become homeless. If they're homeless, then it really spirals into becoming bankrupt in life, so to speak. Whereas a property owner, if they're unable to pay their mortgage and our property taxes could potentially lose property, does not lose their actual housing. Also, landlords, when they go into renting properties, go into it as a business. When you go into a business, you assess business for risks and you assess business for loss and people have business loss on a regular basis and there's plenty of protections for that. There's also some, for instance, in California, the law that passed assembly bill 3088, protects foreclosure for units of four less owned by individuals. If it's a big corporation that does this on a more massive level, then theoretically, they can afford to lose some of those rents without the high levels of impact that the tenants would be feeling with high rates of homelessness
Arun: Monica, recently a friend of mine, Ruben, recounted a really awful story that he experienced years ago. He was a UPS delivery guy at the time and he was in Midtown, Manhattan when someone jumped from the 27th floor and landed directly in front of him and between him and his packages actually. You remember the time of the day it was 4:04 PM. He remembers the name of the person, Stella, and he knows why she jumped to her death because apparently she was being evicted. What I'm wondering is as you watch all this play out, do you get the sense that Americans, do you recognize the seriousness of this crisis?
Monica: My answer is yes. I think when an individual's in a position of despair, of fear, and especially in places like Los Angeles, where the levels of homelessness have just skyrocketed and it's prevalent everywhere, it's visible everywhere and sometimes people aren't used to this and they see it, I think that the feeling is very real and it's not abstract and it's not happening on some governmental level remote from them, it's in their homes very literally, it's about their housing very literally. I do think Americans are very well aware of the reality that could exist when someone is evicted.
Arun: Meaning, someone else as well using that the society at large does recognize. We are hearing about congressional inaction and all that, albeit we have federal orders happening. You do think that the society at large does recognize how bad this is?
Monica: Absolutely, 2008 was not that long ago. I think folks still know what that feels like, what it feels like with uncertainty, with economic adepts, with inability to pay, not just your rent, but a lot of the bills and also what that feels like. The identity and emotional process that is connected to that. I think that even if you're not the person directly experiencing it, you do have a connection to what others are going through. I think one of the things that pandemic has highlighted is our ability to connect as human beings and to understand the struggle of others. I do very much think that Americans are aware and hoping and willing for action.
Arun: Matt, did much change since the 2008 recession in terms of helping people manage this housing insecurity.
Matthew: No, the opposite happened. Rinse continued to rise, the cost of utilities continue to rise after the 2008 crisis, but incomes for many Americans were flat or they fell in real terms across the country. There was this shrinking gap between what a lot of families were bringing in, what they have to pay for basic shelter needs. Then we didn't have much action from Congress. We didn't have an expansion of public housing or housing vouchers, for example, that allow people to only pay 30% of their income to rent instead of 60% or 70%. We've gotten a situation today where the majority of renters below the poverty line are spending at least half of their income on housing costs. The situation has gotten worse since the last housing crisis not better.
Arun: We hear about so many possible ways of addressing these problems in certain cities like New York or say the Bay area we hear about lack of housing supply. We also hear about NIMBY approaches. We don't want people to be building lots of buildings in our community, in our backyard. We hear about the president suggesting that the suburbs should not allow low-income, code for people of color tenants to come into their communities, all of these obstacles. For you a given the gravity of this, what are the kinds of things that we could hopefully see emerge from all this attention we're having on the housing problem?
Matthew: Now that we have an eviction moratorium in place nationwide, the next step is to figure out what to do about this giant pile of rental debt that has built up since March. Many are calling for written relief, the action for the federal government to pay off that debt. Many other housing order NYCERS are calling for a canceling of their rent. What they're doing in that call is to say, we need to help all families, not some and we need to push this burden off families who are incredibly stressed and under severe conditions about to property owners and ask them to petition the state for relief. There's a lot of calls right now. We also have someone running for president and Joe Biden who has a housing plan that would expand housing vouchers to all families who qualify for them. That's a game-changer. Most families who qualify for this incredibly important anti-poverty program, they don't qualify for that help just because we don't have enough to go around. That would be a game-changer as well.
Arun: Monica, we have a little more than a minute left. Is there anything else you want to add to that in terms of what you hope will happen in the coming months, especially given that we have a presidential election right around the corner?
Monica: I think right now is a time for hope. There's a feeling in the air that anything can happen at this point with all that's already happened in 2020. We do see some effort the State of California did make an effort to switch the rental debt over to consumer debt, but it has its flaws again with the ability to still collect in small claims, potentially garnish wages. It's just really passing the buck and it's really shifting the problem instead of solving it. Really, looking forward to someone actually building affordable housing, giving people equally access to that housing and really seeing a change for the impact that housing has on people's stability on their health and just a whole sense of societal health.
Arun: We'll have to leave it there. Monica Arellano is a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Matthew Desmond is the Principle Investigator at Princeton University's Eviction Lab and also the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Thanks to you both.
Monica: Thank you.
Matthew: Thank you.
Aaron: Hi, this is Aaron from Napa, California. My answer is, yes, the pandemic affected my ability to pay for my housing. Am I facing eviction? No. What is the state doing to help? California is making law to make it impossible to face eviction until February of 21. What does that do to solve the problem? It's like putting chewing gum in a crack at Hoover dam. This is just bringing a bright light onto a much deeper issue, housing, that's been building for many years.
Charlie: Hi, my name is Charlie. I live in Seattle and throughout the pandemic, I wasn't having much financial problems because I'm a veteran and I was going to school on the GI Bill, which was helping me pay for rent and bills. Now that I separated from the military, living in Seattle is expensive and I'm really waiting on Congress to put through the next stimulus check because in October, I'm going to need that money or I'm going to be going negative.
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