MIAMI — Belkys Peñate began selling off her and her husband's furniture ahead of the federal government's eventual lifting of its months-long COVID-19 eviction moratorium.
"We are both sick. We don’t have the physical strength to take things with us if we are turned out on the street," said Peñate, 54, who stopped paying rent when her leukemia and chronic asthma worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Peñate's husband, a 66-year-old retired law enforcement officer, is also homebound because of chronic heart failure and a mental health condition.
Their landlord filed for eviction in August. The only thing keeping them inside the house is the federal moratorium.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday a 30-day extension to federal protection for renters through July 31. The moratorium prevents tenants who are behind on rent from being removed from housing on public health grounds amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The order itself does not eliminate rental costs for families, leaving millions of families behind on payments.
For Peñate and other rents, the extra reprieve could mean more time to find a place to live and financial assistance to pay off their rent. More than 6 million households are at risk for eviction, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.
But policy experts and analysts said more needs to be done to avoid the largest housing crisis in more than a decade. They want the administration needs to ramp up efforts to distribute Emergency Rental Assistance funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Package passed by Congress in March and protect people like Peñate from being kicked out before the help they so desperately need gets to them.
"The $46 billion in rental assistance has yet to reach the hardest-hit landlords and renters across the country," said Emily Benfer, visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and chair of the American Bar Association's COVID-19 Task Force Committee on Eviction. "If it doesn't before the moratorium lifts, we can expect millions of families and individuals to be pushed out and off the cliff."
She added: "If nothing changes this is going to be the summer of evictions in the United States."
Distribution of federal aid has lagged
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday the moratorium was “always intended to be temporary.” While the White House defers to the CDC on when it is best to lift the federal eviction moratorium, Psaki said, the administration promised additional steps to prevent evictions and stabilize families.
On Thursday, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta sent a letter to state courts calling on them to adopt anti-eviction diversion practices in new guidelines. The White House also announced that it will be convening a summit to coordinate immediate eviction prevention plans and raise awareness about the issue across federal agencies.
One of the biggest criticisms from policy experts and advocates is that deployment of rental assistance has been incredibly slow at a time where eviction filings continue to rise.
Roughly 5,984 evictions were filed the week of June 19, bringing the total number to 378,728 in 29 cities during the pandemic, according to Princeton University's Eviction Lab in New Jersey, which tracks eviction filings across the country.
Available data shared with USA TODAY from the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C., shows Texas at 35% is doing the best at spending down its Emergency Rental Assistance resources, versus Wyoming at 0.2%.
"Allowing evictions to proceed when there are tens of billions in resources to prevent them would be wasteful and cruel," said Diane Yentel, who leads the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C.
John Pollock is coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel and an attorney at the Public Justice Center based in Baltimore. He said one of the biggest issues is that local governments don't know how to quickly distribute the funds.
"They are being asked to manage large amounts of money," said Pollock.
Many landlords want an end to the moratorium
The announcement of the extension comes as a broad real estate coalition urged the Biden administration to sunset the federal moratorium.
The group — consisting of 12 organizations that represent for profit and non-profit housing owners, operators, developers, lenders and property managers — said the national eviction moratorium was put into place over a year ago and was intended as an emergency, short-term approach during the onset of the crisis.
The coalition said the continuation of a nationwide one-size-fits-all, federal eviction policy is at odds with the current economic environment, with 9.5 million job openings, and the CDC’s loosening of mask mandates.
Mike Flood, a senior vice president for Mortgage Brokers Association, which is part of the coalition, said the moratorium hurts mom and pop landlords the most.
“It’s those small apartment owners, the ones who maybe have one to four units who are trying to help out the tenants but may not quite have the reserves that a larger building has,” he said. “I've heard landlords with single tenants who are $30,000 in the hole.”
The building owners are often forced to make some tough choices, he said.
“Do I pay my mortgage? Do I maintain a healthy property,” he said. “They have to figure out what they can do to maintain a healthy property or to maintain the property at all.”
Another coalition of realtor groups led by the Alabama Association of Realtors called on the Supreme Court to block the extension, according to a letter filed Wednesday with the court.
Low-income renters at risk
Even with a month-long extension, researchers are concerned federal housing measures won't be able to prevent an immediate wave of evictions.
"Even if the moratorium is extended, and rental assistance is expanded and optimized, these areas are where housing insecurities persist, placing vulnerable families at risk of displacement and long-term poverty," said Tim Thomas, research director at the University of California, Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project.
Roughly 41% of renters live in neighborhoods with moderate to high eviction risk — with a disproportionate impact on people of color, according to a forthcoming report by the Urban Displacement Project of 53 metropolitan areas with over one million people.
Emergency funds are a temporary "band-aid on a much bigger" housing affordability crisis that has affected Americans because of high rents and stagnating wages, said Alicia Mazzara, senior research analyst of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that analyzes federal and state government budget policies.
"COVID has really shown us how many holes there are in the social safety net. Federal rental assistance programs only reach one in four renters in need due to funding limitations – in other words, most people who need help can’t get it," said Mazzara. "In the long term, policymakers should prevent another crisis like this."
Meanwhile, renters like Peñate fear the worst may be far from over.
"With an eviction filing on my record," she said, "where am I going to go?"
Contributing: Swapna Venugopal in New York.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House announces 30-day extension to the eviction moratorium