DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Millions of Americans are facing the real threat of eviction right now. During this pandemic, renters have been counting on federal aid and also eviction moratoriums through the CARES Act to remain in their homes. But those protections are set to expire later this week. To get a sense of the kinds of communities and the kinds of families impacted by this, our co-host, Noel King, spoke to Matt Desmond. He's the founder of Princeton University's Eviction Lab, which tracks evictions across the country.
NOEL KING, HOST:
This country's economy was doing very well. We had unemployment below 5%. How many people were being evicted from their homes, say, every month?
MATT DESMOND: About the population of Pittsburgh.
DESMOND: So - yeah. Sure. So every year in America, 3.7 million evictions are filed. That's about seven evictions filed every minute. And that number far exceeds the number of foreclosure starts at the height of the foreclosure crisis. So before the pandemic, the majority of renters below the poverty line were already spending half of their income on housing costs - or more. And one in four of those families were spending over 70% of their income just on rent and utilities. You know, when you're spending 70, 80% of your income on rent and the lights, you don't need to have a big emergency wash over your life to get evicted. Something very small can do it.
KING: What does it actually look like when the pandemic takes hold in this country for people being evicted?
DESMOND: It looks very scary for renters. Now, remember, the stimulus checks came. They were about $1,200. Median rent in this country right now is $1,002. So if you're just a typical renter, that stimulus check isn't going very far. And if things go normal, I think we have to expect the rise of homelessness around the country. And in some cities in the Rust Belt, you are seeing evictions go up. Milwaukee and Cleveland evictions have been hovering around 40% higher than they usually are this time in a typical year. That's pretty scary.
KING: Where do you see eviction rates being the highest? In which cities or states is this a particular concern?
DESMOND: When you read the paper or listen to NPR and there's a story about the housing crisis, often that story is about New York or Seattle or San Francisco. And those are really expensive cities. But when you peel back the data and you look at the eviction numbers, you see another kind of housing crisis. You see a crisis that's most acute in places like Tulsa, Okla., Albuquerque, N.M., Richmond, Va. Richmond, Va., sees one in nine renter homes evicted every single year. So this isn't a big city problem. This isn't just an expensive city problem. This is really a national problem.
KING: The CARES act that Congress passed earlier this year was supposed to halt evictions. It does expire at the end of this month. What happens then?
DESMOND: No one really knows, you know? Some landlords will negotiate with their tenants. But others are going to reach for that eviction notice. So across the United States, one in 20 renters faces an eviction every year. But for African American renters, that statistic is one in 11. We've created, in low-income communities of color, kind of a semi-permanent renter class. You know, most white American families own their home. And they are buffered from the exigencies of rent increases. They're buffered from the eviction crisis. But most Black and Latino families rent their homes. And so they're just disproportionately exposed to these problems.
KING: I have this statistic here. The American Bar Association's Task Force Committee on Eviction says that up to 28 million households are at risk of being evicted. Are there practical things that you can advise people to do in this moment to seek relief or resources that they can access?
DESMOND: My advice to you is to reach out to your landlord as soon as possible and start talking to them. This is a difficult thing to do. It's often very awkward. When I'm in these kind of positions, I just kind of want to bury my head in my pillow. But try not to do that. Try to open a line of conversation and keep the conversation flowing.
KING: Have you ever been evicted personally?
DESMOND: My family lost our home to foreclosure. And I remember experiencing that moment as a moment of shame and embarrassment. And that's how a lot of folks that I met in Milwaukee when I wrote my book, "Evicted," experienced their own evictions, you know? They would blame themselves. No one is harder on the poor than the poor themselves.
KING: When this federal law expires at the end of the month and renters don't have the protections that they did for a couple of months while it existed, how would you characterize what you think we might see in terms of evictions?
DESMOND: That's going to mean that our homeless shelter system is flooded and stressed. Shelter systems are really important. But they're horrible for social distancing. You're sleeping next to people that you don't know. You're eating next to people that you don't know. In a moment where the home is the safest thing we can do to stave off this virus, exposing people to the lack of a home is going to spread more disease and pain.
An eviction comes with this mark or a blemish, a court record. And that can prevent you from moving into safe housing in a good neighborhood because a lot of property owners see that mark, and they say no. And that's why studies show that families, after they get evicted, they move into worse housing. They move to worse neighborhoods than they lived in before. You might lose the job that you were clutching hold of during this time of economic hardship. Your kids might have to change schools. So you know, this is utterly preventable. And if we don't prevent it, this is just going to cause more poverty. And it's just going to cause more disease.
KING: Matt Desmond with some bleak predictions there, founder and principal investigator of the Eviction Lab at Princeton. Thank you so much for your time. We really do appreciate it.
DESMOND: Thank you, Noel.
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