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Preventing Spike in Evictions Will Help Limit COVID-19’s Spread

If federal policymakers don’t extend a national eviction moratorium — like the one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that’s in effect until December 31 — millions could soon lose their homes and face a higher risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 at a time when cases are already growing rapidly. Further, to prevent (and not just delay) this eviction and public health crisis, policymakers should provide robust rental assistance to help those displaced or at risk of displacement weather the problems that COVID-19 and the economic downturn have caused.

Evictions often force families to live in overcrowded, unsanitary, and transient conditions that, as a new Journal of Urban Health paper explains, could both intensify the pandemic and exacerbate existing health inequities.

Evicted families’ limited housing options increase their contact with others and limit their ability to social distance, quarantine, access appropriate health services, or practice recommended hand hygiene. Finding a new home after an eviction is hard: families must move quickly and many landlords reject potential tenants who were recently evicted.

Displaced people may therefore live doubled up with family or friends, stay at a shelter, or move frequently between living situations. They may also sleep in their cars or outdoors — potentially deadly options in the cold months ahead — where they have no easy access to bathrooms to wash their hands or clean their reusable masks. In addition, many renters with low incomes have jobs that put them in contact with many others.

All of these factors, and the fact that people are often contagious before they show any symptoms, could make an evictions spike especially dangerous. In fact, a preliminary study suggests that states that allowed evictions to resume before September may have experienced hundreds of thousands more COVID-19 cases and thousands more deaths than states in which moratoriums remained in place.

COVID-19 could also compound the short- and long-term health challenges that people face after evictions. Housing instability is associated with certain medical conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including high blood pressure and generally poor health, research indicates. Evictions also take a toll on mental health and are linked to anxiety and depression, which affect the immune system. For children, evictions can affect long-term health and educational success and increase the likelihood of trauma and food insecurity.

A failure to prevent more housing hardship would disproportionately affect families with children and people of color. Renter families with children and renters of color are likelier to be behind on their rent (compared to families without children and non-Latino white renters, respectively), the Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey data show.

Moreover, the CDC reports, people of color, particularly Black, Latino, and Native American people, are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than non-Latino white people. Black people are dying at more than twice the rate of non-Latino white people. The pandemic’s disparate health and economic impacts on communities of color are due to a long history of discriminatory policies and practices. Failing to act now would exacerbate these inequities and cause more preventable deaths.

Policymakers should swiftly extend the CDC order (or a similar national eviction moratorium) and provide substantial rental assistance to help people pay their rent during the pandemic. They should also provide more aid for those who have lost their homes and are living in emergency shelters or other temporary lodging so they can move to healthier, more stable housing. The most effective strategy for addressing these issues is a mix of short- and long-term rental assistance, aid for people who are homeless, and supplemental funding for rental assistance programs to cover the higher federal subsidy costs that tenants’ income losses have caused.