Elizabeth Anderson is the kind of person who goes out of her way to help people in need.
Old folks stuck at home? She’ll clean their bathrooms and vacuum their carpets. Neighbors with hungry kids? She’ll share what she has left in her kitchen. A woman standing at a bus stop with two small children late at night? She’ll offer them a place to stay.
But now the 57-year-old Charleston, South Carolina resident needs help herself. When the spread of coronavirus shut down her bed-and-breakfast cleaning business in March, she lost her income and was unable to pay the rent on her house. That landed Anderson among thousands of Americans staring at the abyss of homelessness as states begin to lift moratoriums on evictions that have been in place since the start of the pandemic three months ago.
So far, 24 states are now processing evictions again, and that number is expected to climb to at least 30 states by the end of June.
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Not all renters in those jurisdictions are vulnerable, though. Nearly 30% continue to be protected by a federal moratorium under the CARES Act that will remain in place until July 25. The rest -- like Anderson -- live in properties that are either not subsidized by the federal government or are owned by landlords with loans that are not federally insured.
For these unprotected renters, the threat of eviction is very real – especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. With tens of millions of workers unemployed and the economy expected to remain shaky until there’s a vaccine and consumers feel safe enough to travel, dine out and go to theme parks and movies again -- homelessness could come at any time.
And like everything else that COVID-19 touches, it’s communities of color that face disproportionate risk.
“Back rent is coming due and renters are no more able to pay it than they were at the beginning of the crisis,” said Diane Yentel, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing. “We are very concerned about a wave of evictions and a spike in homelessness unless there’s some sort of federal intervention.”
Yentel points to the HEROES Act, which calls for $100 billion in emergency rental assistance, as the best solution, saying the money is needed to keep people in their homes and to keep landlords from losing their investments. But the $3 trillion bill, which passed the House of Representatives last month, is unlikely to win approval in the Republican-led Senate, and things could get a whole lot worse when the federal moratorium on evictions expires at the end of July.
“Even before COVID, we were in the middle of a severe housing crisis,” Yentel said. “We had eight million of our lowest-income renters spending at least half of their income on rent. And when you have such limited income to begin with, you’re always one financial emergency away from not being able to pay.
“COVID is that emergency,” she said.
'I know he has a plan for me'
Coronavirus was certainly that emergency for Anderson.
"I have an app that does my scheduling and it just went crazy -- unbooking all my assignments due to COVID on March 17,” Anderson said.
Consistently able to generate about $500 a week from her cleaning business, Anderson made more than enough prior to the crisis to cover $975 a month in rent for the three-bedroom ranch house she lives in with her 29-year-old son, her granddaughter, as well her niece and grandniece, who had been evicted from their own home a short time earlier.
But after the crisis hit, Anderson only had $600 in savings. She said she blew through it pretty quickly, adding that she never expected any relief from her landlord. From the outset, he told her that he understood about the pandemic but still wanted his money -- that as soon as the moratorium was lifted, he was going to file an eviction notice.
True to his word, he filed to evict on May 15.
Contacted by USA TODAY, Marvin Fuzz said Anderson now owed him four months' rent, and he couldn't afford to let her go living on for free.
"I have a mortgage to pay, homeowners insurance and taxes," he said. "If I don't collect any money, the bank will own the house and it won't let her live here for free either."
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In the meantime, Anderson said she has not been able to collect unemployment insurance because of glitches in South Carolina's system. She has also failed to receive her stimulus check in spite of having applied.
The only way her family has been able to survive, Anderson says, is thanks to the generosity of food pantries, and “by the grace of God.”
“I know he has a plan for me,” Anderson said. “I pray every morning, every day. I pray for God to pull me out of this, to pull us all out of this, cause it’s not just about me."
One eviction every 7 minutes
Talk to rental property experts and they’ll tell you that the eviction crisis – or the affordable housing crisis – has been going on for a lot longer than three months.
In fact, it dates back to the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s, when the federal government slashed funding for public housing, according to Yentel. What was once a slight surplus of affordable housing quickly turned into a deficit.
Then came the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when millions of homeowners defaulted on their home loans and moved into rentals. Throw in baby boomers downsizing from homes to apartments and millennials too burdened by student loans to make a purchase, and soon there were too many renters chasing too few rental properties coast to coast.
Since the 1960s, rental costs have spiked 61%, while the wages of renters have stagnated -- only increasing by 5%, Yentel said. Renters ended up paying a greater percentage of their income for shelter, putting them in an increasingly precarious position. They just weren’t able to save for a rainy day.
“Before the pandemic, there was one eviction every 7 minutes – 300,000 every month,” said Alieza Durana, who studies evictions with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “There were more evictions annually than there were foreclosures at the height of the Great Recession.”
The heaviest concentrations of evictions were in South and the Rust Belt, Durana explained. Virginia and the Carolinas -- where Anderson lives -- are among the hotspots. With net migration increasing rapidly, they just weren’t able to build apartment buildings fast enough. And of course, NIMBYism – the desire of communities to block the construction of housing for lower-income neighbors in their back yards -- was another factor that kept the stock of affordable housing from growing.
According to the Eviction Lab, South Carolina has the highest eviction rate in the country. The city of Charleston alone evicts more people from their homes each month than some states.
“If you listen to the chamber of commerce, we have 55 people moving to the region every day,” said Otha Meadows, president and CEO of the Charleston Trident Urban League. “But those who go to work here every day -- teachers, policemen, firemen – can’t afford to live here because of the lack of affordable housing.”
Meadows said his organization tries to save as many people as they can -- including Anderson -- from losing their homes.
"But there are not a lot of options for people who cannot afford their rent," Meadows said.
Dakota Ewing, who used to make $18 an hour at a Charleston pain management company – more than double the minimum wage in South Carolina – said his income wasn’t sufficient to cover expenses. So he took a job in January with a trucking company. Now he spends most of his time driving from one end of the country to the other hauling everything from bottled water to beef.
But the new job still didn’t keep him out of trouble when the pandemic hit.
Ewing’s employer had to shut down for a couple of weeks. He got behind on his bills, and his landlord was quick to evict in May. Ewing, 26, worked it out with a phone call. His realtor set up a payment plan. The eviction got dropped. So did the late fees.
“But it’s crazy that they didn’t even wait for the 30-day mark,” Ewing said. “It would be one thing if I was notorious for not paying on time, but I’ve never been late in my life.”
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The solution to the eviction crisis, Ewing said, is to raise the minimum wage in South Carolina. It might have been enough 15 years ago. But it's not nearly enough today.
And don't be so quick to kick people out of their homes, he said.
"People are going through a lot right now. It shouldn't be that we're making it harder on them."
Hardest hit by COVID-19
There's some disagreement among rental property experts about how many people might be evicted as states begin lifting their moratoriums and how many will have to live in the streets.
Andrew Rybczynski, managing consultant with Costar Group, a commercial real estate research and analytics firm based in Washington, D.C., thinks there will be a spike in evictions. But he says it might not be that large as some people think because a lot of renters are in good shape due to generous government pandemic aid -- the additional $600 in unemployment benefits and the $1,200 stimulus checks.
A survey by the National Multifamily Housing Council, which advocates on behalf of the apartment industry, shows that 93% of renters are making full or partial payments right now.
Rybczynski added that he does not expect a major increase in homelessness because – like in the Great Recession – people will start doubling up. They’ll move in together. They’ll move back with their parents.
“That said, we do anticipate American households coming under strain toward the end of the year,” Rybczynski said.
One thing that rental property analysts agree on, however, is that people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum – especially people of color – will suffer the most.
“The groups most at risk before COVID and the ones being hardest hit by the crisis are minority groups,” said Robert Pinnegar, president and CEO of the National Apartment Association, which represents owners of apartment buildings across the United States.
“From an economic recovery standpoint, many were working in hotels and restaurants that were closed and are just now starting to open, but they won’t return to full employment for a long time.”
Pinnegar says he is keeping a special watch on C-rated apartments that are rented to the lowest-income tenants.
"The next round of stimulus will be critical to maintain their lifestyle and their ability to buy food," Pinnegar said. That has a lot to do with why his organization is advocating for the $100 billion in rental assistance contained in the HEROES Act bill languishing in Congress.
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Solomon Greene, a fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that studies cities and neighborhoods, also believes the coming eviction crisis will take a greater toll on certain minorities groups.
Pointing to a survey involving 133,000 participants conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, Greene said blacks and Latinos were 11% more likely than whites to miss paying rent in May and twice as likely to feel nervous about making rent payments in June.
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A recent Pew Research Center survey only reinforced these disparities, revealing that Hispanics and blacks were more likely to have experienced or to have known someone who experienced job loss due to coronavirus than whites. And members of the two groups were far more likely than whites to report not having enough emergency funds to cover three months of expenses.
Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)
Worst of all, said Joel Roberts, chief executive of PATH, a Los Angeles organization that serves homeless populations in the state, minorities are far more likely to live in the streets. In California, for example, African Americans represent only 6.5% of the state population but 40% of those experiencing homelessness.
Roberts said that homelessness in America had been trending slowly downward prior to COVID-19. The total number of people living on the streets or homeless shelters had dropped from 650,000 to 500,000 since the Great Recession. But Roberts is convinced that the ranks are now poised to swell.
“With unemployment at around 15%, homelessness is predicted to increase by 250,000,” Roberts said.
For many Americans, that outcome is unacceptable.
“This is not a time to force people out of their homes,” said Gina Chiala, executive director of Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, an organization that advocates on behalf of low-wage workers in Kansas City, Missouri, “It will deepen their poverty. It will take them two years to get back to where they were when they had a house."
It’s completely immoral, said Tara Rgahuveer, housing campaign director and founder of for KCTenants, a tenants rights group based in Kansas City.
“If COVID clarified anything, it’s the complete immorality of homelessness,” she said. “There is just no reason it needs to continue in the United States – the richest country in history – in a time of pandemic, when a home is also what we need most to stay healthy”