One of the coronavirus pandemic’s most immediate consequences was economic catastrophe: Within a week of the initial shutdowns in mid-March, a staggering 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment, a number that grew nearly tenfold by the end of the following month. To prevent the worst from happening, states and the federal government quickly responded by instituting eviction moratoriums across the country — in addition to handing out stimulus checks and generous unemployment insurance — so that tenants wouldn’t be forced out of their homes in the middle of a public health crisis. But last week, despite facing one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, Massachusetts joined several other states in lifting its ban on evictions.
This will probably have serious and long-term consequences for people across the state. “We will have families who will be served eviction notices who will be homeless in a matter of weeks,” said Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George. Since Governor Charlie Baker implemented the moratorium in April, landlords — many of whom have been facing financial strains of their own — have argued that they have no way of ensuring that their tenants will make their rent payments on time, or at all. So now that eviction procedures can resume, many landlords will probably be quick to start them.
“It’s clear that we need a tremendous amount of financial resources to help people be stable right now,” said Rachel Heller, CEO of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a housing advocacy organization in Massachusetts. For his part, Baker has announced a $171 million program to help families make rent in what he has called an “Eviction Diversion Initiative.” But Heller noted that while the governor’s program is essential, it’s simply not enough. “Ultimately the federal government must step in,” she said. “States do not have enough money available. Our economy is struggling. . . . It is really the responsibility of the federal government to be assisting the states.”
Indeed, President Trump and Congress’s unwillingness to pass another COVID relief package has left states with limited resources to help their most vulnerable residents. As a result, two new studies found, 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since May. And though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended a federal eviction moratorium to qualifying renters through the end of the year, the measure could still leave many people behind and lead to even more poverty.
That’s bad news for everyone, because increasing levels of poverty result in a weaker economy and a slower recovery. The logic here is simple: If people have less money to spend, demand for goods and services will drop. Businesses will have a hard time drawing customers, making their recoveries all the more difficult, and the economy won’t be able to sustain many long-term and well-paying jobs as a result. Studies have shown that social welfare programs are good for private business and entrepreneurship, so by stalling on passing a new round of stimulus, the federal government has all but guaranteed a slow economic recovery.
The looming evictions are cause for even more concern. Most people who fall into poverty bounce back within a year, but evictions — which, in many cases, push people below the poverty line — create cycles that make poverty more punishing and inescapable. (And the longer someone lives in poverty, the less likely it is for them to get out.) Until now, the United States has avoided a colossal eviction crisis. But without federal action, it seems the country has merely postponed the unprecedented wave of evictions it is — as of now — sure to face.
That’s why Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s calls to wait until after the Nov. 3 election to pass the next relief package — and potentially downsize it — will be so devastating for people across the country, and for the economy as a whole, in months or even years to come. Congress should pass a stimulus bill now, because states like Massachusetts are in dire need of federal assistance and, barring massive government spending, people and families will continue to face hardships, including homelessness, and businesses will continue to struggle. Local governments should also reckon with the far-too-high rent prices in certain areas and, with federal aid, create more affordable housing. “People were struggling to afford the cost of housing before the pandemic, and it has only gotten harder,” Heller said.
The federal government can bring an end to these crises. But the longer it waits to act, the more poverty it creates. And that, in the end, may be the crisis that lingers — after a vaccine, after reopenings, and long after the pandemic.