May 17th, 2022


About that eviction crisis

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published Jan. 17, 2022

When the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's nationwide eviction moratorium expired on July 31, President Biden acknowledged that it had violated the Constitution and that any attempt to prolong it without congressional authorization was "not likely to pass constitutional muster." He nevertheless directed the CDC to unilaterally extend the unlawful moratorium. Shortly thereafter, as everyone expected, the courts overturned it.

For more than a year, every time it appeared that the eviction moratorium — initially imposed by the Trump administration, then extended under Biden — was going to expire, politicians, journalists, and advocates warned that tens of millions of Americans were going to be turned out of their homes. Some headlines:

"20 Million Renters Are at Risk of Eviction; Policymakers Must Act Now to Mitigate Widespread Hardship" (Aspen Institute)

"Millions of Americans could face eviction in July — and it could ‘destabilize communities for years to come'" (CNBC)

"The Coming Wave of Evictions Will Significantly Worsen America's COVID-19 Crisis" (The Appeal)

"Texas Courts Open Eviction Floodgates: ‘We Just Stepped Off A Cliff'" (National Public Radio)

"SF Tenant Lawyers Anticipate Flood of Evictions" (San Francisco Public Press)

"‘Down the drain': Millions face eviction after Biden lets protections expire" (Politico)

"Supreme Court's Decision Opens Door to Millions of Evictions" (New York Times)

"Evictions Expected to Spike As Pandemic Moratorium Ends" (Associated Press)

"California's eviction moratorium ends, leaving tenants facing ‘tsunami of evictions'" (Yahoo! Finance)

Homelessness is a terrible thing. A renter in dire financial straits who is evicted for nonpayment of rent deserves compassion, concern, and help from fellow Americans. For millions of such renters to find themselves without housing would be a dreadful, calamitous development — a genuine national crisis.

But a curious thing has happened on the way to the predicted "tsunami of evictions." More than two months after the moratorium expired, and nearly six weeks after the Supreme Court confirmed that the CDC had no authority to extend it, the tidal wave of tenants being thrown onto the streets hasn't materialized. Here are some more recent headlines from around the country:

"Housing attorneys in the mountains not seeing the surge of evictions they anticipated" (WLOS-TV, Asheville, N.C.)

"Nonpayment evictions resume in Bexar County, but feared wave yet to materialize" (San Antonio Report)

"Evictions not yet spiking in Hawaii despite moratorium's end" (Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

"Group representing Utah landlords doesn't expect evictions to rise anytime soon" (KUTV, Salt Lake City)

"The feared eviction ‘tsunami' has not yet happened. Experts are conflicted on why" (Washington Post)

To be sure, some communities have seen an uptick in eviction filings since the moratorium came to an end. Countless landlords, many of them working- or middle-class individuals who depend on the rent they collect to pay their own bills, have had to live without much of their rental income over the past year. It would be strange indeed if, after all these months of being forced to provide housing to tenants who weren't paying their rent, landlords weren't invoking their legal rights.

But for the most part, that hasn't been the case.

Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

"[L]awmakers and housing experts mentioned a slew of devastating metaphors — cliff, tsunami, tidal wave — to describe the national eviction crisis they saw coming," Rachel Siegel and Jonathan O'Connell reported in the Washington Post.

One month later, however, many of those same authorities find themselves wondering: Where is the cliff?

In major metropolitan areas, the number of eviction filings has dropped or remained flat since the Supreme Court struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on Aug. 26, according to experts and data collected by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. In cities around the country, including Cleveland, Memphis, Charleston, and Indianapolis, eviction filings are well below their pre-pandemic levels.

The Post quoted sources who cautioned that just because evictions haven't spiked yet, that doesn't mean they never will. But it acknowledged that the staggering nationwide disaster so confidently predicted earlier this year shows no indication of coming to pass:

[E]xperts at the Urban Institute wrote in January that 10 million renters were behind on their rent and at risk of being evicted. Experts at the Aspen Institute estimated in July that it could be as high as 15 million. Meanwhile, recent figures from Moody's showed that some 6 million renters were behind on their payments.

Thus far, however, there does not appear to be concrete evidence that the predicted surge of evictions has materialized over the past month since the ban ended, according to several interviews with housing experts, academic researchers tracking local filings, and administration officials.

Some big cities are seeing the opposite. For example, the Atlanta region with its booming rental market "appeared prime for a fallout" once the eviction moratorium ended, write Siegel and O'Connell. "Yet detailed data compiled by the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning agency, shows that in the first three weeks following the Supreme Court ruling . . . landlords in Atlanta made far fewer eviction filings then they did during the same period in 2019, when the economy was strong. This year, landlords made fewer than 6,490 eviction filings during those three recent weeks, which is 41 percent lower than the more than 11,100 eviction filings for the same period in 2019."

Odd that no one predicted that the end of the eviction ban would lead to a drop in eviction proceedings. But then, that wouldn't have helped fuel a political frenzy about a looming disaster or fed the clamor for government action to prevent it. "The whole aim of practical politics," wrote H. L. Mencken long ago, "is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary." If that was true in Mencken's day, when Americans weren't embroiled in a ferocious culture war and when there was no social media to keep them seething in bitterness and outrage, how much more so does it describe politics in our day?

Surely one reason that evictions haven't surged to tidal-wave levels is that an immense sum of money has been made available to enable renters stay in their homes. That may explain why the vast majority of tenants have been paying their rent. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council , which conducts an ongoing survey of apartment owners, 94.6 percent of tenants paid their rent in May 2021, 95.6 percent made their rent payment in June, and 94.9 percent did so in July.

At the same time, most of the $46.5 billion that Congress has appropriated to help landlords and renters through the pandemic has still not been allocated. Politico reported last month that "state and local officials had disbursed less than 17 percent of federal rental aid as of the end of August as bottlenecks continued to plague" the government's eviction prevention efforts. US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge acknowledged that all that unspent aid reflects badly on the government's ability to efficiently execute the program it so lavishly funded. "There are so many things that we could have done better and should have done better," she conceded last month.

In other words, to the extent that some tenants are in danger of being evicted because the pandemic cost them their jobs or otherwise upended their lives, the fault is more likely to lie with incompetent bureaucrats than with heartless landlords.

Howard Husock, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies housing and urban policies, noted at the end of August that of the $2.4 billion earmarked to assist New York State renters, only $156 million had trickled out. The reason? Government rules that needlessly multiplied complexity:

The slow rate of assistance distribution is the result of a Rube Goldberg system in which tenants must declare that they are in need of financial help — and landlords must open their books to authorities to demonstrate their own need. The Emergency Rental Assistance Program website is a veritable labyrinth: The process is so complex that the ERAP home page includes a training video on how to apply.

There's a "landlord portal" as well — which reflects the fact that both landlord and tenant must apply together for assistance to flow.

It's a system in desperate need of a reality check. Landlords aren't itching to evict needy tenants for sadistic pleasure. No property owner wants a vacant apartment, especially when unemployment remains high and there's no guarantee of finding a new tenant to replace the one who would be evicted.

The hyperventilation about the millions of soon-to-be-evicted tenants reminds me of the 1996 hysterics over welfare reform.

That year, President Clinton, over the vehement opposition of many liberal Democrats, signed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. The legislation was designed to tighten the welfare system, limiting recipients to a maximum of five years on government relief and for the first time imposing a work requirement on able-bodied individuals. It left most of the structure of the welfare state untouched.

Yet the chorus of outrage from the left was deafening. Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children's Defense Fund, warned that Clinton's signature would "leave a moral blot on his presidency and on our nation." Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont denounced the bill as "anti-family, anti-child, and mean-spirited." Hugh Price, the president of the National Urban League, declared that "Washington has decided to end the War on Poverty and begin a war on children."

Over and over, it was said that welfare reform would wreak social devastation, throwing vast numbers of people, including a million children, into poverty. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan excoriated it as "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction," and said that those responsible for passing it "will take this disgrace to their graves."

Peter Edelman, the husband of Marian Wright Edelman and an assistant secretary of health and human services, resigned in protest and condemned the new law in a long article — "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done " — in The Atlantic. It predicted, among other things, "more malnutrition and more crime, increased infant mortality, and increased drug and alcohol abuse . . . increased family violence and abuse against children and women." This "terrible legislation," he concluded, would do "serious injury to American children."

But welfare reform did none of those things. Over the next 10 years, the nation's welfare caseload plummeted by 60 percent, falling from 5 million families to fewer than 2 million. Welfare recipients went to work in droves. The employment rate among those who had been likeliest to slip into long-term dependence — young mothers who had never been married — soared by nearly 100 percent. And as more and more mothers left welfare and got jobs, more and more of their children were lifted out of poverty. Infant mortality and crime went down. Far from throwing a million kids into the streets, welfare reform sent the child poverty rate tumbling, from 20.8 percent in 1995 to 17.8 percent in 2004.

Mencken was right. Politicians and political activists invoke an "endless series of hobgoblins" about the onrushing horrors that will overtake us if we don't support Policy X or pass Bill Y or elect Candidate Z. Climate change alarmists screech that we have only 12 years (or is it 18 months?) to save the planet. Immigration alarmists howl that hordes of foreigners will plunder America's wealth and destroy society as we know it. From the Cold War to COVID-19, from the rise in population to the rise of Big Tech, so much of our political dialogue is dominated by fearmongering and doomsaying — and by the conviction that disagreement is proof of bad faith, ignorance, or both. There is no room for shades of gray or nuance — you're either on the side of the wholly righteous or you're contemptible.

Like the battle over welfare reform a generation ago, the frenzy over the supposed eviction tidal wave was just one more illustration of our Manichean politics. Perhaps that issue will recede as it becomes clearer that no one is going to throw millions of struggling tenants onto the street. But there are plenty of other hobgoblins to take its place and keep our public discourse at an angry boil.