New York Times
The U.S. Averted One Housing Crisis, but Another Is in the Wings
A moratorium on evictions did little to address the bigger problem: The country is running out of affordable places for people to live.
By Conor Dougherty and Glenn Thrush
June 16, 2021, 12:01 a.m. ET
The federal freeze was further weakened in several states, including Ohio and Texas, when federal courts struck down all or part of the federal moratorium, which allowed landlords to evict tenants for nonpayment of their rents. That led to higher eviction rates, but ones that fell far short of the most dire predictions.
For all of its shortcomings, the C.D.C. moratorium helped hold off a wave of evictions. And it became a valuable tool after Congress passed more than $40 billion in rental assistance, by buying tenants and their lawyers additional time as they waited for the federal government to review their applications.
“It takes a really long time to process these applications, and a lot of the landlords don’t want to wait six or eight weeks,” said Melissa Dutton, managing director of the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Ohio, which represents about 2,000 tenants a year in housing court. “So the moratorium gave us a little more time, which gave us a little more leverage.”
Tasha N. Temple, 38, a client of Ms. Dutton’s, was able to remain in her two-bedroom apartment after using unemployment assistance to catch up on her overdue rent bill. She called the program, and the moratorium, a “lifesaver.”
Of course, by assisting tenants, the government is also assisting landlords. Neal Verma, president of Nova Asset Management, a Houston landlord with some 6,000 units, said in an interview that his tally of unpaid rents — $1.4 million just a few months ago — had been whittled to about $400,000 thanks to $1 million in government rental assistance. He said he expected to recover even more.
Landlords groups echoed tenant advocates’ frustration with the pace of federal housing aid, and in some cases say they would support a longer moratorium if it meant collecting more rent.
“Getting the funds to landlords has been incredibly slow, and that has impacted those tenants who are truly in need and those landlords who are not getting paid,” said Tom Bannon, president of the California Apartment Association, the state’s biggest trade group for landlords. “We could support a limited short extension, but there has to be a way to get the funds out faster.”
But the moratorium was never much more than a stopgap that has done nothing to address a worsening nationwide housing affordability crisis caused by gentrification, the wealth gap and a chronic shortage of housing for the working class and poor. Even before the pandemic, one in four rental households was paying more than half its pretax income on rent, while homelessness was on the rise. Since then, more than half of renter households lost income, and 17 percent were behind on rent earlier this year, according to the Harvard report.
Moreover, while rents got more affordable last year, the pandemic served to highlight the nation’s longstanding shortage of affordable housing. As the economy opens up, renters at the high end of the market are greeting a world of 10 percent vacancy rates and frenzied competition that has buildings offering as much as five months of free rent.
Tenants in search of a moderate or lower-priced unit will find a vacancy rate that is half as high and essentially unchanged from a year ago. With competition fierce, rents in lower-end units grew at a faster rate in the first three months of this year than they did in the year before the pandemic.
Judge Sergio L. De Leon, a housing court judge in Fort Worth, has seen a steady rise in evictions since the start of the year. As leases that were locked in during the pandemic begin to expire, he said, landlords are now increasing rents.
“It’s sad,” he said.