By Marc Stier
Pennsylvania is now facing a housing catastrophe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf told legislative leaders that he does not have the authority to extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosure beyond the August 31 deadline. This decision sets the state on the path of a humanitarian and economic disaster. As the governor’s letter to state lawmakers points out, the General Assembly can, and must, take action to prevent that disaster from coming to pass.
The COVID-19 pandemic reduced the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 9.5 percent in the second quarter of the year, or 32.9 percent, on an annual basis. The damage in Pennsylvania has been equally severe.
The pandemic has left many Pennsylvanians short of the funds needed to pay their rent. But they have not been subject to eviction because of the moratorium on evictions ordered initially by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and then by Wolf under the authority of the state of emergency. Once the moratorium ends next week, those who cannot pay current and back rent will be subject to eviction.
We do not have exact numbers about how many households will face eviction.
However, the Census Pulse Survey has asked households whether and how they are paying rent and mortgage in the weeks between April 12 and July 21, 2020. It has consistently shown that about 20 percent of Pennsylvanians were behind in their rent each week.
There are 5.7 million households in Pennsylvania of which 31 percent are renters. If 20 percent are subject to eviction, then 355,432 households may lose their homes soon after the moratorium ends. The average household in Pennsylvania has 2.48 members. That means that as many as 881,449 people will be homeless.
But the problem may be worse. No doubt, the 20 percent of people who say they are behind on rent changes from week to week. Having a home is so important that almost everyone tries to pay their rent. Sometimes they can do so. And sometime they can’t.
The Pulse Survey asked people to report on the sources of income they use to pay rent. On average, only 31 percent said they used regular sources of incomes. Credit cards or loans were used by 28 percent of households to pay their rent.
Money from saving or selling assets was used by 39 percent, while about 49 percent borrowed from friends or family. Unemployment payments were used by 34 percent of households, and the economic stimulus payment was used by 46 percent.
Most of those sources of income vary from week to week. So there is good reason to think that the percentage of households who are behind on their rent is even higher, and possibly far higher, than 20 percent. If 30 percent of renters have fallen behind, then 533,134 households—that is 1,322,173 people—will be threatened with homelessness when the eviction moratorium ends.
If 40 percent of renters have fallen behind, then 710,846 households that contain 1,725,898 people are likely to face eviction soon.
And the problem will only get worse. Many of the sources of income that households have been using to pay the rent are limited in nature. And with supplemental unemployment insurance ending, and economic activity likely to decline again, a major source of income that people are using to pay their rent will disappear.
The threat of eviction can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are Black, brown, or white; native-born or immigrant; Asian or Latinx; poor or rich. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a city, the suburbs, or rural areas, or in one region of the state or another. People everywhere in the state are vulnerable to losing their homes. We’ve seen people who worked as clerks at Walmart, construction workers, and people who do professional child care and house cleaning all fearful of losing their homes.
While everyone is vulnerable, Pulse Survey data does indicate that Asian, Black, and Latinx households are respectively 50 percent, twice, and three times more likely to be behind in rent as white households.
Evictions of those behind in the rent won’t happen all at once. Many renters will fight to stop them. And, perhaps some county courts will use their authority to stop them, as well.
But without legislative action, we are soon going to see an extraordinary crisis of evictions and homelessness.
And when one thinks about how losing one’s home disrupts the relationships families have with friends and neighbors, how homelessness can make it harder to secure work, how limited and dangerous public shelters are, how homelessness disrupts schooling, and how homelessness often tears families apart, an eviction crisis will create almost unimaginable human suffering in our state.
Those evictions won’t even help landlords. Even in good economic times, evicting a tenant and finding a new one is costly for landlords. In these times, when fewer and fewer families have the resources to pay rent, landlords in many parts of the state are likely to see their apartment unfilled for months if not years.
We simply cannot allow a wave of mass evictions to take place.
To stop it, the General Assembly must enact legislation that:
- reinstates the eviction moratorium at least through the end of the year.
- makes the rental assistance program easier to access, raises the cap on monthly rent, and adds $100 million to the program.
- requires landlords to make payment agreements with tenants that allow them to pay their back rent over the course of a year.
- provides funding for tenant counseling and legal services.
The time for bipartisan action to relieve the coming housing catastrophe is NOW.
Marc Stier is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.