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Evictions fuel COVID flames

As COVID-19 became the dominant presence in American life in 2020, most of us resigned ourselves to a year absent of familiar trappings, hoping the reward for enduring these difficult times would be a return to normalcy in 2021.

But the pandemic was never going to magically disappear by tearing a page from the calendar. For most of us, Jan. 1, 2021, will look like Dec. 31, 2020. But not all. Unless Congress takes action, millions of Americans unable to pay rent because of the pandemic and the economic crisis it set off are in danger of losing their homes when New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day.

This matters for our health and economy.

Research has shown evictions contribute to the spread of COVID-19, as it’s hard to shelter in place if one lacks shelter, just as it is hard to limit contacts if one has to live with extended family and friends. It’s in our national interest to keep people in their homes.

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a national moratorium on evictions as a public health measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The moratorium expires Dec. 31. It wasn’t perfect. Some evictions continued — as the moratorium hasn’t been applied evenly. But it has helped keep people in their homes at a time of national crisis.

“In the context of a pandemic, eviction moratoria — like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing — can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease,” reads the CDC’s edict. “Eviction moratoria facilitate self-isolation by people who become ill or who are at risk for several illnesses from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition.”

The threat of the virus is no less dire and the necessity to facilitate self-isolation is no less urgent now than it was in September. A new Social Science Network Research study supports this by finding that lifting eviction moratoriums was associated with increased COVID-19 incidence and mortality.

The study compared 27 states where eviction moratoriums were lifted with 17 where they were kept in place. Researchers have estimated lifting moratoriums led to between 365,200 and 502,200 excess COVID-19 cases and 8,900 to 12,500 excess deaths.

Congress shouldn’t need this or any other study to understand the economic devastation if it fails to pass a new relief package extending the eviction moratorium, as well as unemployment benefits and assistance to small businesses, including restaurants and bars. The Great Recession is barely in our rearview mirror.

Nearly a week before Christmas, people across this land are living with the uncertainty and fear that they will be uprooted from their homes. Whatever the time of year or the reasons, evictions are heartbreaking acts, sending parents and children into the streets, packed shelters or the crowded homes of relatives and friends.

Beyond the looming humanitarian crisis is the public health threat of newly homeless people carrying the virus to new places they will inhabit or exposing themselves to greater risks, making bleaker an already dark winter.

It would be catastrophic to begin 2021 with an eviction crisis.

* Guest editorial from San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio, Texas.

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