Lawmakers now work to address the concerns of ordinary people facing the virus. The question of homeownership and renting is of special concern. To address this, Congress has passed legislation such as the Federal CARES Act.
This makes it illegal to evict renters living in single or multi-family properties living in federally-assisted housing. It also protects the owners of property backed by federal mortgages supplied by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and HUD.
These actions have earned praise from experts in the study of chronic eviction patterns.
As Princeton professor and urban analyst, Matthew Desmond comments, “We’ve become quite reliant on eviction to solve the problem of families overburdened by rent…It’s like a ‘tough on crime’ policy. I hope this moment gives us a chance to say, ‘This is not the solution’.”
Breakdown of the CARES Act on property coverage
These initiatives from the federal government are good steps, but not enough. The bulk of legislation meant to protect renters is left to state governments.
To that end, this piece seeks to analyze the measures that a sample of states have taken to protect renters, their reasons for doing so, and their larger effects on property ownership:
California is the state with the largest population. It also has a burgeoning pre-pandemic homelessness crisis with several outbreaks of the virus. California’s policy decisions may serve as benchmarks for other states on design and implementation.
The major shifts that California has taken to address renting in the time of COVID-19 took the place of two executive actions. These were issued from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office on March 16th and 27th.
Regarding rental agreements, California has legislated that property owners cannot file to evict tenants based on COVID-19 hardship. They can still file evictions for nonpayment of rent and in non-emergency situations. They can also post notices to evict. The courts are not holding new eviction hearings. Deadlines for existing hearings have been extended. The courts have also taken the step of sealing eviction records. As of now, the state has also not made efforts to prevent utility disconnection.
A sample letter from landlords to renters from the California Apartment Association does well in summing up the state’s new guidelines:
If you have suffered a job loss or other substantial loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are unable to pay rent, we encourage you to notify us as soon as possible to discuss potential alternative payment arrangements that may be made to accommodate your situation. Please be aware that if you do not contact us to let us know that you have been affected by COVID-19, we will not know that you may need assistance during these unprecedented times.
If you are not currently facing a COVID-19 related hardship, please continue to pay rent as usual. The eviction freeze was due to expire on May 31st and was recently extended to the end of July.
The state of Colorado has taken firmer official stances on eviction than California has.
Colorado has formally limited the actions of private and public actors such as landlords, banks, and sheriffs. They cannot initiate evictions or charge late fees. They still must pay agreed-upon rent prior to the pandemic. Landlords cannot evict for nonpayment of rent or COVID hardship in these cases. Colorado is also not allowing for utility cutoffs—unlike California.
However, these orders remain directives rather than outright commands. As NBC News has reported, Colorado is still holding eviction hearings with no guidance from the statewide policy.
Although families are still paying rent and collaborating on payment plans with their landlords, the future remains uncertain.
According to Colorado’s report from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, “Without statewide action and supportive measures to address rental debt, Colorado could see a surge of evictions during and immediately following the pandemic.”
New York is the hardest-hit state and epicenter of the U.S.’s COVID-19 outbreak. Its rental policy undergoes constant change.
The latest proclamation from Governor Andrew Cuomo is to evict no one in the state for nonpayment of rent until August 20th. This extends an earlier policy by two months.
Of course, this action does not cancel rent. Property owners and renters must come to an agreement that lets them honor the terms of a lease under these conditions. Landlords cannot charge late fees here but are still allowed to raise rents.
New York has allowed for notice of eviction, but will not allow eviction due to nonpayment of rent or COVID hardships.
It has suspended new eviction hearings but allowed for old ones to go on. In addition, people are clamoring for the voluntary suspension of utility shutoffs across the state. Still, no official directive to stop doing so has come from Albany.
The best summation of the ongoing crisis in regards to rent comes from Governor Cuomo himself: “What’s going to happen on Aug. 20? I can’t tell you…Whatever happens, we’ll handle it.”
The first state to announce a victim of COVID-19, Washington State has taken large steps on a variety of fronts.
Chief among these is an eviction moratorium on renters. Under the edict, landlords cannot evict tenants and law enforcement cannot remove them. Also, Governor put a suspension in place on hiking rent prices that will last until June 4th.
In his words, “People have lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own and we must continue to take steps to ensure they don’t also lose the roofs over their heads.”
People still owe payments under these conditions. Landlords must also input reasonable repayment plans, and the state does not permit utility cutoffs.
Beyond these actions, members of the Seattle City Council are motioning for further protections. They are calling for additional sixth months of rent forgiveness by collaborating with leaders in municipalities across the state.
In all, this crisis has revealed the risks that people face in terms of finding and securing housing. The above actions are good steps forward. Still, their shortness of term shows that we must take greater, further actions. This way, landlords can work in a way that is both fair and freeing to all parties involved.
States should learn what actions to take from each other (i.e. replicating California’s sealing of eviction records or California replicating Colorado’s utility cutoff prevention) as long as no federal policy exists.
As the country recognizes this, expect further actions on the state and federal levels towards alleviation on a wider scale. Our crisis demands it.