By Alex Caban-Echevarria
When you buy a home, there are rules in place to protect you from predatory mortgage practices. The government acknowledges buyers are in a more vulnerable position than banks, guaranteeing protection and guidance. But the same types of protections don’t exist for renters. Depending on where you rent, there may be no rules to prevent a landlord from increasing the rent or refusing to make repairs. They may even be able to kick you out. This was unfortunately made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic when cities like Allentown saw a rise in evictions. Why were so many people able to lose their homes? In order to answer this question, we need to know why Americans see housing as a luxury, not a human right.
“The core issue with rental housing in this country: people who think investments deserve more respect than basic human needs,” says comedian John Oliver as he sits behind a fake news desk for the Last Week: Tonight episode “Rent.” He depicts the affordable housing crisis as “a system designed to ensure that some people just spiral downwards. They can’t move somewhere cheaper if nowhere cheaper exists. They can’t apply for federal assistance if there’s nowhere near enough. They can’t even use that assistance if no one accepts it. They can’t take their landlord to court if the court system is skewed against them. And they can’t depend on rental housing ever again if they’re evicted even just once. It’s a complete shit show.” Despite the comedic nature of his show, Oliver manages to bring up some important facts about the way we approach housing in this country. In particular, he points out that in the United States, housing is a market–a way to make people money–rather than a basic human right. “We’ve prioritized the protection of investments over individuals,” says Oliver.
Eviction is a problem that precedes the pandemic. According to Matthew Desmond, Princeton sociologist and principal investigator of the Eviction Lab, the affordable housing crisis is due to three factors: stagnant incomes, rising housing costs and inadequate federal funding for rental assistance. “For almost a century, there has been a consensus in America that families should spend 30 percent of their income on housing costs,” explains Desmond. “The majority of renting households below the poverty line spend at least half of their income on housing, with one in four of those households spending over 70 percent of their income on shelter costs alone.” In Allentown, 54.7 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent. Meanwhile, rent is expected to rise six percent this year. These costs burden younger households, where 61 percent of renters are under 35, and people of color, where 56.9 percent of renters are Black and 51.6 percent Hispanic. When vulnerable populations of renters can’t pay their rent, they are at risk for eviction.
As the pandemic brought an increase in unemployment, those who were already struggling to pay their rent found themselves in a precarious situation. Losing a paycheck when you spend over 30 percent of your income on housing could mean choosing between paying your rent and buying groceries. In Lehigh County, rent rose 17 percent since the pandemic. So when the CDC announced an eviction moratorium in Sep. 2020, it gave renters breathing room to stay in their homes even if they didn’t pay their rent. The CDC moratorium expired Jan. 31, 2021 and was extended until Aug. 30, 2021. But while the order only banned landlords from throwing out tenants for nonpayment of rent, it did not cancel rent payment or stop the accumulation of owed rent.
Desmond’s Eviction Lab estimates that the CDC moratorium “helped prevent 1.55 million eviction filings, affecting more than 3.7 million people,” Desmond says in a New York Times opinion piece. Desmond describes the eviction moratorium as “among the most important public health interventions of the pandemic. It saved lives.”
Even so, the eviction moratorium didn’t solve the bigger affordability problem, and it created new problems when it came time to pay back the unpaid rent. In Pennsylvania, 19 percent of tenants are behind on their rent, leaving 400,000 households at risk of eviction. In Lehigh County, there have been 9,580 total eviction filings since Mar. 16, 2020 including 5,085 eviction filings that occurred during the CDC moratorium and additional moratoriums instituted by the state of PA and the federal government. The time period between the PA state moratorium ending and the CDC moratorium beginning saw the highest amount of evictions: 517. “Evictions represent a public health crisis now and will do so after the pandemic has passed,” continues Desmond. “That the pandemic immediately set off an eviction crisis in the United States revealed our rental sector to be deeply unsustainable.”
In other words, the pandemic moratorium merely amplified previously existing inequities. For many renters, navigating life after the eviction moratorium is confusing and stressful. Julian Kern, president of the Allentown Tenant Association (ATA) advises renters of their rights, using Facebook and their website to help answer questions and provide guidance during the process of eviction. Kern says evictions in Allentown have always been an issue, but since we have seen price increases in everything from gas to groceries to utilities, renters are feeling burdened. “Sometimes the owners have to raise the rent because of the increase on their end, but then the tenants are also the ones that have to suffer at the mercy of either paying the increase or possibly being homeless,” explains Kern. Kern says this is a common problem that has only been made worse since the pandemic. “I just got off the phone with two tenants whose landlords are just jacking the rent up and they don’t know what they’re going to do because they can’t afford it. Landlords are raising their rents to the point where people can’t afford to rent their place anymore. The rents in the city have gone up and people who live on a fixed income can’t afford it.”
One of the reasons the eviction process is so stressful is because it’s hard to navigate and many renters may not know these basic steps. For example, in PA, a landlord can evict a renter if they do not pay their rent, they do not live up to their end of the lease, or their rental period is up and the landlord wants them to move. Evictions have to go through five steps through the local courts. First, a notice is given to the renter by the landlord explaining the issue and giving a deadline to resolve it, such as, “You must pay back rent of $1,000 before Jul. 30.” If the renter doesn’t pay the owed rent before the deadline specified on the notice, the landlord can file an eviction case, the second step. After the eviction is filed the case gets heard by a judge, the third step. The fourth step involves the court’s decision either in favor of the defendant (which means the renter gets to stay in their home) or the plaintiff (the landlord). If the court decides in favor of the landlord, that means the renter has to pay back the owed rent, or the fifth step, an order of possession can be filed. This is an order that allows law enforcement to remove the renter and their belongings.
For renters who have been protected under these moratoria, they might have had an eviction already filed, but were prevented from getting an order of possession fulfilled–so they have managed to stay, so far. But to help renters pay back their owed rent to keep them housed moving forward, PA set aside $569 million in Emergency Rental Assistance Plan (ERAP) funds from the COVID American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). This rental assistance program covers rent, rent costs, arrears, relocation expenses, utility fees and internet services for households that work from home or homeschool. Households are eligible if one or more residents have qualified for unemployment, are at risk of homelessness or housing instability, or qualify as low-income in their area. This rental assistance pays landlords directly and covers up to 12 months of rent if accrued after Mar. 13, 2020. PA expects these funds to be exhausted by Sep. 2022.
Because the courts were aware that rental assistance funds were available, they listened to tenants when they said they were applying for these funds and did not rule against them, explains Lori Molloy, executive director of North Penn Legal Services (NPLS), a nonprofit organization that provides legal help to low-income residents of Northeast PA. “We were able to advocate in court for people to get enough time to get those funds in place and work with landlords and agencies to resolve issues that might come up.” This process kept people in their homes.
However, this funding may just be a bandage for a much larger problem that money can’t solve quickly enough. “It was definitely a program that was needed and I’m sure it helped a lot of people,” says Kern, referring to the ERAP. “It’s just one step…then what? They still can’t afford the rent. They’re struggling or hopefully they’re trying to save up. But if they can’t, then they are back into the same situation.”
In Jun. 2022, Gov. Tom Wolf set aside money for the PA Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement fund. The Lehigh Valley received $2 million to be split by eight local housing organizations, with The United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley being one of these. They will receive $239,451 to fund NPLS. This money is estimated to help a total of 225 households and prevent 75 evictions through rental assistance or settlement negotiation.
In addition to ERAP funds, the ARPA also includes $57 million for the city of Allentown, with $20 million already allotted to infrastructure projects, $9 million on revenue replacement projects and $10 million on city-funded improvements and initiatives. Mayor Matt Tuerk has created a pool of money with the remaining $18 million that could go toward a range of projects, including nonprofits and businesses that can apply. Project proposals can cover “negative economic impacts” and “public health initiatives” that could alleviate our lack of affordable housing. Still not spent, city council has yet to agree on how or where to spend that money. Suggestions presented to city council range from building homeless shelters to rehabilitating old buildings into affordable homes. “Investing in affordable housing isn’t only necessary to prevent evictions and end homelessness,” Desmond urged the House in 2020. “It is also essential because the success of all other opportunity-expanding initiatives depends on it.”
One way Lehigh County can possibly help renters facing eviction is by establishing a housing court that could help mediate housing disputes, rather than rush to approve eviction, something city council has said they support. “Pennsylvania absolutely has reasons to consider setting up a program that allows for mediation and diversion of cases,” says Molloy, “especially while people are waiting to get rental assistance or trying to work through problems, because the eviction process in Pennsylvania can be very fast. And of course, it has such a serious consequence. A housing court could look very differently depending on where it is, if there’s no statewide program, but there are certainly ways that you could design a system that gets people to resolve their disputes, without the end result being an eviction, which is very difficult for all those concerned.”
But any one of these solutions is still too far off in the future to help those who are currently facing eviction notices. For those working with renters, the immediate goal is to help keep them in their homes and avoid the chaos that evictions can cause. “Eviction causes loss,” says Desmond. “Children often lose their schools; families lose their homes and neighborhoods; they regularly lose their possessions, too, which are taken by moving companies, piled on the sidewalk, or discarded by property owners.” Eviction comes with a legal record, affects future housing, bars families from public housing, causes job loss, affects mental health and is the reason for poverty in this country.
Like Desmond, John Oliver points out that the affordable housing crisis has existed before 2020. On “Coronavirus IX: Evictions,” Oliver makes us question what the last two years have meant for us. “The sad truth is, we’ve already waited too long here. There is absolutely no excuse for not attacking this problem with real urgency. Because while we wait for Congress to act, people…are having to deal with the consequences.”
While local governments debate how to spend ARPA money and how to keep people in their homes, it is time to re-examine our right to housing in this country. “Many countries, including France, Scotland and South Africa have legally codified a right to housing,” explains Oliver on “Rent.” “Here in the U.S., three fourths of Americans already believe that it is a human right.”