Concerns are growing in the United States after a nationwide moratorium on rental evictions during the coronavirus pandemic expired this weekend, threatening to make millions of Americans homeless as early as Monday morning.
A freeze on evictions expired at midnight on Saturday, triggering a scramble to unlock billions of dollars in stalled rental aid and spurring blame-trading in Washington, DC.
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Renters had been shielded from eviction after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year imposed a moratorium to keep people in their homes during the COVID-19 crisis, which has killed more than 613,000 people across the US and hit the economy hard.
But lawmakers failed to extend those protections and only $3bn in aid has reached households out of the $25bn allotted to states and localities in early February.
With the moratorium’s expiration, more than 3.6 million Americans are at risk of eviction, according to The Associated Press news agency, including some in a matter of days.
Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, told Al Jazeera the situation will differ between states, depending on whether state- and local-level eviction protections have been put in place.
But in some parts of the country, landlords have been able to begin the eviction process during the CDC moratorium, Dunn explained, and they have eviction orders ready to go.
“In some jurisdictions, especially in the US South, like Florida … sheriff’s deputies can actually start physically putting tenants out on the street Monday morning,” he said. “In a lot of places, we could see tenants being not just sued for eviction, but physically removed in large numbers very soon.”
With the clock ticking away before the moratorium expired, the country was braced for heartbreaking scenes of families with their belongings at the curbside wondering where to go.
One of those at risk is Terriana Clark, who was living out of a car with her husband and two stepchildren for much of last year, before finding a teaching job and an apartment in Harvey, Louisiana.
Jobless again and struggling to pay rent after a bout of illness, the 27-year-old told The New Orleans Advocate she applied to a local assistance programme four months ago, but is still waiting for help.
“If it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t,” she told the newspaper. “It’s going to be too late for a lot of people. A lot of people are going to be outside.”
The Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse survey showed that of 51 million renters surveyed, 7.4 million were behind on rent and nearly half of those said they risked being evicted in the next two months.
Nearly 80 percent of households that are behind on their rent as of early July lived in coronavirus hotspots, according to a study by the Jain Family Institute. The US is seeing a spike in COVID-19 infections, spurred largely by the spread of the Delta variant.
Mary Hunt, who makes minimum wage driving a medical taxi, fell behind on her rent on a mobile home because she got sick with COVID-19. She was served with eviction papers, and frets over what she will do with her belongings, as well as her five cats and one dog.
“How do I choose which cats to keep? It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to leave any of them behind,” Hunt told National Public Radio this week.
Calls for action
Meanwhile, the situation has led to finger-pointing – and growing calls for action – in the US capital.
Hours before the ban was set to expire, US President Joe Biden called on local governments to “take all possible steps” to immediately disburse the funds. “There can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants that have been hurt during this pandemic,” he said in a statement.
But lawmakers, including some from Biden’s own Democratic Party, have said they were blindsided by the president’s inaction as the midnight Saturday deadline neared. Some expressed anger that he called on Congress to provide a last-minute solution to protect renters.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said many questions remain unanswered about “the sluggish response” from both Congress and the White House as the end of the moratorium neared.
“You’ve got a situation where this was something that was known, the deadline was known a month ago. Neither the White House nor Congress acted on it until the very last moment. The consequence [is that] millions of Americans now face eviction,” Hanna said.
Progressive Democrats joined Congresswoman Cori Bush on Saturday evening and overnight Sunday as Bush camped outside the Capitol to demand the House reconvene to extend the eviction protections.
“I don’t plan to leave before some type of change happens,” Bush said, though the US House of Representatives had already left for its August recess.
Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Sunday said the House, which is controlled by Democrats, had the opportunity to extend the moratorium but failed to do so.
“There was frankly a handful of conservative Democrats in the House that threatened to get on planes rather than hold this vote, and we have to really just call a spade a spade. We cannot in good faith blame the Republican Party when House Democrats have the majority,” she said in an interview with CNN’s State of the Union programme.
She said, however, that the White House waited until the day before the House adjourned to make its stance clear.
“The House was put into, I believe, a needlessly difficult situation,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The fact of the matter is, is that the problem is here. The House should reconvene and call this vote and extend the moratorium.”
We brought our umbrellas.
It’s an eviction emergency. Reconvene the House. pic.twitter.com/lqdUVy8Yi8
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) August 1, 2021