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Millions of Americans could face eviction under President Joe Biden's executive order extending federal protections for renters through March 31.
About one-third of all Americans, roughly 107 million people, are renters. Nearly 40 million have been protected by some form of an eviction moratorium since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the scattershot collection of local, state and federal protections has made navigating the bureaucratic process nearly impossible for the average tenant.
Housing experts and advocates said loopholes within the executive order must be addressed to keep millions safely in their homes in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
Julián Castro, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, told USA TODAY the patchwork of eviction moratoriums at all levels of government exposes renters to gaps in the system.
"In some states, eviction proceedings are still taking place, but the execution of those evictions are paused," said Castro, who co-chairs the Housing Playbook Project, a national coalition calling on the Biden administration to pass comprehensive housing reform.
"Renters can also be evicted for reasons other than nonpayment, and landlords can choose not to renew certain leases," he said.
Renters are not automatically protected from eviction
Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed an extension to the order Friday, saying evictions could hinder measures to slow the spread of the virus that has killed more than 443,000 and sickened more than 26 million people in the United States.
Public health experts from around the country found that more than 430,000 COVID-19 cases and 10,700 excess deaths were linked to the expiration of state eviction protections last summer.
The problem is renters aren't automatically covered under the federal eviction moratorium.
To avoid eviction, a tenant is required to provide their landlord with a signed copy of the CDC declaration.
As a result, Diane Yentel, who leads the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C., said marginalized renters, such as lowest-income people, seniors without internet access, immigrants or others for whom English is not their first language are leaving their homes at an alarming rate.
"They are often the ones that are most in need of the protections but the least aware of the actions they need to take to receive it," Yentel said.
Yentel added that in many cases landlords know the information gap exists and exploit it.
The order also does not preclude landlords from filing for eviction. It forbids them only from being able to remove tenants from the property.
"Many courthouses are still moving forward with eviction proceedings," said Michael Anderson, director of the Housing Trust Fund Project at Community Change, a national civil rights organization. "Until we actually halt the evictions of families during this global pandemic, the federal eviction moratoria will be insufficient.”
Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton University in New Jersey and director of the Eviction Lab, a centralized public database that tracks evictions nationwide, tweeted last week that families often will mistakenly "see an eviction notice as an eviction order."
The stat's relevance to the moratorium is clear: a moratorium that prevents eviction filings will do a much better job of keeping families housed than one that allows filings (but pauses court proceedings).
Many families see an eviction notice as an eviction order.
— Matthew Desmond (@just_shelter) January 28, 2021
In Milwaukee, in 34% of cases in which a tenant received an eviction notice, they moved without going to court, said Desmond.
As of Jan. 23, the Eviction Lab found landlords have filed 227,396 evictions during the pandemic in 27 cities that keep digital records.
Eviction moratorium applies only to those facing economic challenges from COVID-19
Another issue is that Biden's eviction moratorium protects only people who have been directly affected by the pandemic.
"If you’re an essential worker being paid $7.25 and were on the brink of eviction on Feb.1, 2019, the CDC eviction moratorium doesn’t allow that person to receive a stay on an eviction because they don’t qualify," said Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, a community-led advocacy group out of New Orleans.
The Center for American Progress estimated that 34 million people were living in poverty in the United States in 2019, including a disproportionate number of Black and Latino Americans.
Before the pandemic, the Energy Information Administration reported one in three U.S. households found it difficult to pay for utilities.
That figure has jumped dramatically to 79.5 million Americans who said they are having trouble paying their household expenses, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.
Morris said the government should work to ensure tenants have shelter regardless of whether their economic insecurity began before the coronavirus outbreak.
"This includes financial assistance, counseling, relocation, emergency housing and recruiting and retaining quality landlords," Morris said.
Americans need more economic relief to avoid mass evictions
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans are debating Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
Under the president's proposal, households that have lost jobs during the pandemic would receive $25 billion in rental assistance in addition to the $25 billion already approved by Congress last month.
Another $5 billion would be set aside to pay for utilities, and the federal moratorium would be extended until the end of September.
HUD Secretary-designate Marcia Fudge endorsed the administration's proposals, telling lawmakers on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee during her confirmation hearing last week that the housing agency's programs needed to be expanded.
"Currently only one in five eligible households receive housing assistance," Fudge said. "Much like COVID-19, the housing crisis isn't isolated by geography, people in blue states and red states, in cities and towns."
Doug Rice of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that analyzes federal and state government budget policies, called on lawmakers to provide longer-term rent aid in the form of housing vouchers.
"For renters who work in jobs with low wages or volatile hours, or who had histories of homelessness or housing instability prior to the pandemic, short-term rent aid could leave them at risk of eviction and hardship again when it runs out," he said.
Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden's federal eviction moratorium may not protect all renters