Pandemic survey results suggest risk of ‘huge eviction surge’

Bills to provide housing and food aid have stalled in Congress, leaving states and private organizations trying to fill the gap

Grocery bags bound for an apartment building are seen at the Arlington Food Assistance Center in Virginia on May 4, 2020. The center has seen an increase in demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Grocery bags bound for an apartment building are seen at the Arlington Food Assistance Center in Virginia on May 4, 2020. The center has seen an increase in demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 15, 2020 at 6:00am

Food scarcity and concerns about making rent remain high, according to a Census Bureau survey that found those struggles sometimes hitting black and Hispanic communities twice as hard.

About 40 percent of African American households with children reported in May that they don’t always have enough to eat, according to the Census Bureau’s new Household Pulse survey, which has been measuring the pandemic’s impact. That’s double the 20 percent of white households that reported not having enough food.

The data shows a huge spike in food insecurity from the days before the pandemic started, noted economist and Northwestern University professor Diane Schanzenbach. That’s rolled up in a continuing economic crisis where unemployment sits at 13 percent overall but is several points higher among minority groups, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“One of the ways to make this recession as short-lived as possible is smart policy from Congress,” Schanzenbach said. “We’re concerned they are going to take their foot off the gas pedal too early.”

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Census data shows a similar spike in households that haven’t paid rent or don’t know whether they will, said Solomon Greene, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. In the second week of May, about 50 percent of African American households said they had slight or no confidence in their ability to pay June rent.

Overall, about 30 percent of renters said they would not be able to pay their June rent, or had slight or no confidence in their ability to pay, when polled in the second week of May. That measure held relatively constant through the month.

“We face a risk of a huge eviction surge,” Greene said.

Bills to provide aid on housing and food have so far stalled in Congress, leaving states and private organizations working to fill the gap. So far, the federal government has an eviction moratorium through July for buildings with federally backed loans, but Greene said outside of that is a patchwork of policies at the state and local level.

The House passed a $3.5 trillion aid bill last month that included rental assistance and a full eviction moratorium, but the Senate has yet to act on the legislation. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the majority whip, told reporters that the chamber will focus on things other than pandemic relief this month.

“If you look right now at the schedule for the balance of the June work period is DOD, great outdoors, a couple circuit judges. ... I don’t know how you can wedge that in there,” Thune said.

There are a handful of bills in the chamber meant to bite off parts of the pandemic, like the bipartisan measure from Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., that would allow states and local governments to use Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to contract with restaurants to provide meals.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., highlighted the bill at an event last week with The Washington Post when criticizing how Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has handled pandemic response.

“I think there is a crisis in terms of hunger; many other senators do as well. Frankly, this is a decision by the majority leader of the Senate not to take this up and give this floor time,” Coons said.

Other pieces of legislation, like one from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, would provide rental assistance grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Renters are a vulnerable part of the housing ecosystem, Greene noted. As more fail to pay rent, mom-and-pop landlords and commercial rental companies will start falling behind on mortgages. Renters have already gotten hit hard but have received little federal help, Greene said.

“Job loss among renters was much lower during the Great Recession than we have seen during the height of the pandemic,” he said. “In terms of the economic impact writ large, in terms of the job loss, is very accelerated and heightened.”

Schanzenbach said it may take months for any further aid legislation to get enacted. She pointed out that some states like Maryland took three months to get the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program running from the March pandemic response law. 

Every day of delay will have an additional impact on children who may not have enough to eat and whose education has been massively disrupted, she said. Even if Congress does not act, both Greene and Schanzenbach said that allowing current benefits to expire, such as the additional unemployment insurance from the March law, may cause another downward spiral.

That additional $600 in unemployment insurance has been a sticking point with Republicans in Congress who argue it discourages people from seeking a job where they might earn less.

“There is a mountain of evidence in economics that childhood experiences influence your whole life trajectory, and we know that we’re failing to protect these kids from the recession, and they are not having particularly effective schools right now,” Schanzenbach said. “We’re not doing a good enough job protecting kids.”