Yes on 21: The Danger of COVID-19 Evictions

Karen Ocamb News

First you cry. Jobless, wracked with worry over providing food, shelter, and safety for your family during the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency assistance stalled or lost in a bureaucratic blackhole with thousands of other claims. Then the doorbell rings, and a stranger delivers the callous news: “Landlord demands that Tenant vacate the Property not later than the date stated in Paragraph B.”

Matthew Desmond, author of the widely praised “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” pulled no punches elucidating the under-reported healthcare dangers of rental evictions in a recent New York Times op-ed. A renowned sociologist and director of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, he knows what he’s talking about.

Desmond shared the heart-breaking story of Jhon Loaiza and his wife, Sugey Bedoya, and their three daughters. Californians are no doubt going through similar experiences. It’s why Proposition 21, the Rental Affordability Act, can’t come soon enough to provide life-saving relief.

Proposition 21 is the November ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases. It protects people against predatory landlords and keeps people in their homes. It’s supported by trusted civil leaders and organizations, such as U.S. Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the California Democratic, and numerous others.

In his op-ed, Desmond explained the despair of Jhon Loaiza. California renters are living with the same thing.

“Mr. Loaiza felt emptied out and powerless; ‘impotent,’ he told me. He began to lose sleep, and the stress snaked through his body like poison,” Desmond wrote. “Mr. Loaiza thought seriously about killing himself. He had never before entertained that obliterating thought, but the sheer hopelessness of the situation was suffocating. Marshals that carry out evictions are full of suicide stories: the early morning rap on the door followed by a single gunshot from inside the apartment, the blunt sound of giving up. From 2005 to 2010, years when housing costs were soaring across the country, suicides attributed to eviction and foreclosure doubled.”

Desmond continued: “Rent — it’s the greediest of bills. For many families, it grows every year, arbitrarily, almost magically, not because of any home improvements; just because. And unlike defaulting on other bills, missing a rent payment can result in immediate and devastating consequences, casting families into poverty and homelessness. If you can’t afford enough food, you can usually qualify for food stamps. If you miss a mortgage payment, you typically have 120 days before your bank can initiate the foreclosure process. But if you can’t pay your rent, you can lose your home in a matter of weeks.”

And given the twin epidemics of COVID-19 and high unemployment in California, people young and old are often willing to put their health in jeopardy by taking an unsafe job that doesn’t follow healthcare protocols or cram into a crowded space to find shelter.  

Desmond noted that this August, “26 medical associations signed a letter urging Congress to provide housing resources to renting families, recognizing the housing crisis to be a health crisis.”

But how many renters will give up or catch COVID-19 waiting for Congress to act?

Meanwhile, late afternoon of September, the Trump administration issued an order “banning landlords from evicting tenants from rental properties they can no long afford to rent due to income lost to the coronavirus pandemic,” according to The Hill. And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB-3088, a bill intended to prevent a projected 5.4 million eviction tsunami.

The actual impact is yet to be determined, both nationally and statewide.

However, a new report by researchers at the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate  about the hardships tenants face during the pandemic shows that among “households in [Los Angeles County] that did not pay rent, either in full or partially, about 98,000 tenants have been threatened with an eviction, while an additional 40,000 report that their landlord has already begun eviction proceedings against them.”

And despite having the same rights as any other tenant, Marketplace reported on Sept. 1 that terrified undocumented immigrants are being specifically targeted by predatory landlords.

“In the COVID period, [undocumented immigrants] have been working in a sector that has been hit particularly hard,” University of California, Davis economist Giovanni Peri, who specializes in immigrant issues, told Marketplace. “In general, in the recession, the undocumented are hit harder, one because they’re younger, a little less educated than natives.” 

Many tenants facing financial hardship are struggling.

“We noticed that landlords are responding with increased harassment, they’re neglecting essential repairs,” attorney Faizah Malik, who is representing tenants in a lawsuit against the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, told Marketplace. “And the big thing we’re seeing in LA, for sure, is an increase in illegal lockouts.”

Proposition 21 provides much needed relief as California convulses through an unpredictable economic and healthcare revolution. “’Building back better,’” Desmond concluded, “begins at home.”

Karen Ocamb is an award-winning journalist and staff writer for the Yes on 21 movement.