PORTLAND, Ore. — For almost three years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, states have had an unwelcome but ideal laboratory to test potential solutions to slow eviction, one of the most persistent challenges in preventing homelessness.
Turns out, temporary federal and local eviction moratoriums, coupled with a $46.5 billion federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program launched in 2021, were a huge success: They helped more than a million people avoid displacement at the height of the pandemic.
Eviction case filings were lower in states that slowed or paused eviction proceedings, according to a study by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, and could offer a lesson in how states might help people stay in their homes in the future. There were an estimated 1.5 million fewer eviction filings while various levels of moratoriums were in place, according to USAFacts, a nonprofit that compiles federal data.
Some states had stronger protections in place than others, but helping people at the earliest stages of the eviction process was especially effective at keeping them in their homes, housing advocates said. Rental assistance, in the form of cash payments or repayment plans that allow people to pay back owed rent over time, also proved effective.
"You can see it in the eviction numbers. People did remain housed and at the same time, there was a very large push for rental assistance. And that rental assistance helped tenants," said Kim McCarty, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, an Oregon advocacy group for renters.
For now, though, the federal cash infusion is over, and eviction bans have lifted. That has sparked worries that homelessness could continue to skyrocket. Some states have had to halt the rental aid programs they created during the pandemic. Several governors and mayors have declared housing states of emergency, but public and nonprofit agencies alike are struggling for new ways to help keep residents in their homes.
Many states and local governments ran through their federal aid faster than expected. They were inundated with requests and, as a result, spent all their money and shuttered their rental assistance application portals last year or this month. In Texas, the state's Department of Housing and Community Affairs stopped accepting applications in November 2021. Its website is blunt: "We are currently not accepting new applications or additional funding requests, but may do so in the future if more funds are made available."
Others have paused intake. The Delaware Housing Assistance Program has helped 22,000 people with $122 million in assistance, but it stopped taking new applications Jan. 2 to avoid spending money intended to last through 2025. The state program will continue to process 5,000 applications already in its system, according to Delaware Public Media.
The slowdown in financial assistance comes at a precarious economic moment.
Housing is expected to remain scarce in the coming year, as renters face an increasingly tight rental market pressured by high mortgage interest rates that keep potential buyers priced out of home ownership. The U.S. faces a severe housing shortage, particularly of homes and apartments for lower- and middle-income families. Although housing is a major priority in many places, it could take a decade to meet the demand.
"We see visible homelessness," McCarty said. "We see people living in tents, we know people are living in cars. … And the safety net also essentially doesn't exist. There isn't enough rent assistance, there are not enough shelter beds."
State agencies and nonprofits that help people facing eviction say they're frustrated they won't be able to assist at the same rate they did during the pandemic, at a time it's most needed. Among them is Jesse Tree, an Idaho nonprofit that prevents eviction and homelessness for families with low incomes in the Boise area by intervening in court cases and providing financial help to renters.
The organization received $3.4 million in federal money to distribute over almost two years beginning in 2021, an amount that proved to be a "game changer," said Democratic state Sen. Ali Rabe, executive director of Jesse Tree.
"We were suddenly able to meet 30% of the need instead of 10% of the need," Rabe said.
But they've been worried since receiving the federal money about what will happen "when all of it's gone," Rabe said. Rents in the Boise metro area have increased 40% in recent years, she said. Other costs of living in the region also have increased rapidly.
"And then just inflation of other basic necessities," she said. "Health care, child care, gas, groceries … more and more working families live paycheck to paycheck. And then any unanticipated financial expense or shortfall can easily lead them to an eviction because they even temporarily just can't pay their rent."
As of Jan. 1, Jesse Tree stopped offering security deposit assistance and now faces other cuts to services, including losing one staffer to help manage requests for help.
Rabe points to a study by the Idaho Policy Institute that shows evictions increased by 11% in the state from 2020 to 2021. Jesse Tree found that evictions in the Boise area increased by 34% from 2021 to 2022. The nonprofit's staff fielded 34,000 phone calls or texts from people in need in 2022, compared with 25,000 in 2021.
Unlike Oregon or California, the Republican-led Idaho state legislature is unlikely to shore up rental assistance programs, Rabe said. She's looking for money from private donors and local governments, including the fast-growing Boise suburb of Meridian, which will provide $250,000 to Jesse Tree.
Many governors and mayors of large West Coast cities have taken office this year with pledges to address housing shortages and homelessness in particular. Federal estimates found that California in 2022 accounted for half of all unsheltered people in the country, or an estimated 115,491 people.
On her first day in office, Los Angeles Democratic Mayor Karen Bass declared a homelessness state of emergency. California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a Jan. 9 news conference that he wants to spend $750 million on clearing the state's homeless encampments.
Like her counterparts in California, Oregon's new Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, said housing would be her No. 1 priority in office. She declared homelessness a public emergency on her first day and pledged to support a statewide housing production target of 36,000 new homes per year, a building pace her office said was an 80% increase over current construction trends. Kotek also said she would ask state lawmakers to spend $130 million within a year on finding a place for 1,200 unhoused Oregonians to live.
In Montana, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte last year convened a Housing Task Force aimed at finding ways to ease the state's housing shortage with new construction.
The final report urged the state legislature to consider ideas gaining momentum in many states, including reducing parking minimums and prioritizing denser development, as well as easing zoning and other regulations that will help more homes be built faster. Gianforte's proposed budget also included spending $200 million on water and sewer infrastructure for new development.
Nonprofits working with renters with low incomes say that slowing eviction proceedings is one of their most pressing concerns.
McCarty, of Oregon's Community Alliance of Tenants, said the legislative priorities backed by a coalition of the state's housing advocates all proved useful for keeping people housed during the pandemic and should continue. They include boosting rental assistance, ending fast-track evictions that give tenants only 72 hours' notice, offering more time before people must appear in eviction court, and preventing landlords from refusing payment when people are in eviction proceedings but have money to pay the rent.
The group would also like to see an 8% cap on annual rental increases on Oregon properties that are more than three years old. Other measures advocates seek around the country include sealing eviction records and prohibiting landlords from reporting past-due rent to credit agencies.
"The measures that we took to prevent displacement of tenants worked," McCarty said. "It worked as a public health measure. It worked in terms of stability. It also worked in terms of the economics. So, if we continue to reinstitute these kinds of measures into how we address housing, we have the evidence that we will be better off for it."