The CDC’s moratorium on rental-housing evictions, scheduled to expire on June 30, will likely be extended another month. As that deadline approaches, however, we can expect crisis-mongering about housing hardship. Activists have been warning since the start of the Covid pandemic that an “avalanche of evictions” is coming, notwithstanding the tens of billions in federal rental assistance, stimulus payments, and the eviction moratorium, which has been in force since October 2020.
Many progressives argue that the moratorium should be extended “for the duration of the economic crisis,” as New York mayoral candidate Maya Wiley has put it. For the Left, eviction is a dirty word in any circumstance. “Eviction equals Death,” read a placard at a recent tenants’ rights demonstration in Sacramento.
The push to make evictions more difficult, or even to ban them outright, is a misguided effort that threatens the income of rental-property owners of modest means and puts at risk the safety and building maintenance of tenants who do pay their rent.
The current crop of overbroad, permanent restrictions on evictions is based on a misunderstanding of their extent and role in the housing market. Let’s start with some market realities. A review of the data for 12 states shows that preliminary eviction filings (which the moratorium does not prohibit) dropped by more than 60 percent from 2019 to 2020—from 742,00 to 310,000. This decline was the result not only of last year’s federal stimulus checks and renter assistance but also of discretion on the part of property owners, many of whom feared not being able to find replacement tenants amid the pandemic and economic downturn.
Nationwide, only 12 percent of those facing eviction took advantage of the CDC moratorium to avoid it. That’s because the federal moratorium doesn’t restrict landlords seeking evictions for reasons other than nonpayment of rent. Federal regulation specifically permits evictions for “engaging in criminal behavior while on the premises; threatening the health or safety of other residents; damaging or posing a significant risk of damage to property,” among other reasons. When Massachusetts’s state eviction moratorium expired, lease violations, rather than nonpayment of rent, made up the largest share of eviction actions. So strong is the eviction crisis narrative, however, that the case of a Boston apartment complex in which 113 tenants—some of whose rent assistance was mired in red tape—received eviction notices was headlined for its supposed lasting ill effects, even though “few if any” of the tenants will be physically evicted.
Data from Monarch Investment and Management Group, a major property management firm, indicate that only 10.5 percent of tenants facing eviction are physically forced from the premises. The majority go on to stay and pay or leave on their own. In many cases, eviction filings are part of a de facto arbitration process in which property owners, many of whom rely on rental income to meet mortgage payments and perform crucial maintenance, use the courts to work out a compromise on back rent.
Extending the eviction moratorium past June 30 would likely have a disproportionate impact on mom-and-pop rental property owners. As Apartment Owners Association CEO Robert Pinnegar notes, the gap between rent and rental income has reached $10 billion and is growing by about $5 billion every month. “Those are real dollars to real property owners who count on that money to survive and to fund their retirements,” he says.
The University of Pennsylvania Housing Initiative has focused specifically on the impact of the pandemic and pandemic-related policy changes on rental property owners in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Its findings underscore the unique problems facing smaller landlords. In Los Angeles, 38.7 percent of small owners reported that 40 percent or more of their portfolio was behind, compared with 12.6 percent and 13.1 percent, respectively, for large and midsize owners. Landlords with more than six units in their portfolios tended to report that between 5 percent and 40 percent of their portfolios were behind on rent. These results support the conclusion that small rental businesses are operating under more precarious conditions than midsize or large rental businesses.
In Philadelphia, more than 60 percent of surveyed landlords reported being “somewhat” or “very much” affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. A greater share of small landlords (50.6 percent), with one to five units, reported that they were “very much” affected, compared with large owners (40.9 percent), with more than 30 units. Since the pandemic began, the share of owners experiencing issues with tenant nonpayment has nearly doubled, from 25.9 percent to 51.5 percent. Among survey respondents, larger landlords were twice as likely as smaller landlords to have a formal, written eviction policy—70.4 percent compared with 35.7 percent. In addition, landlords reported in interviews that some tenants seemed to be exploiting the moratorium by not paying rent even when they were employed or not experiencing Covid-related hardship. Small landlords in Philadelphia were less likely to know about the city’s eviction-diversion program and less likely to evict tenants.
The impact on minority property owners has been stark. An August 2020 Urban Institute survey of landlords and tenants found that the pandemic and eviction moratoriums were having a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic rental-property owners. The report also found that 48 percent of Hispanic and 42 percent of black rental-property owners offered their tenants rent-payment plans, compared with 36 percent of white rental-property owners.
Extending forbearance for small property owners on mortgage payments can help, but many landlords rely on rental income not just to pay for life’s necessities but also for repairs and maintenance. Evictions are thus an important tool for landlords to maintain their properties for the overwhelming majority of tenants who pay rent in a timely manner. As the renowned analyst of New York City housing markets Roger Starr once put it: “No one relishes the prospect of evicting failed households from housing developments. The process surely does not solve the family’s problem. But like many another practical public act which falls short of the ideal program, it does at least remove the threat to others.”
To treat eviction as a problem in isolation, rather than as one aspect of an overall housing ecosystem, risks distorting the market and harming the property owners and tenants who work hard and play by the rules.
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