Emily Benfer began her career representing homeless families in Washington, D.C.
Her first case involved a family that had been evicted after complaining to their landlord about the holes in their roof. One of the times she met with the family, one of the children, a 4-year-old girl, asked her: “Are you really going to help us?” Benfer struggled with how to answer.
“I’d met them too late,” she said. “I couldn’t stop the eviction. They had already been sleeping on the subway, and in other people’s homes. And you could see the effects it was taking on them.”
Today, Benfer is a leading expert on evictions. She is the chair of the American Bar Association’s Task Force Committee on Eviction and co-creator of the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Throughout the public health crisis, Benfer has been investigating how states are dealing with evictions and sharing what she finds in a public database.
CNBC spoke with Benfer about the coming eviction crisis and what can be done to turn it around. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
CNBC: How does the eviction crisis brought on by the pandemic compare with the 2008 housing crisis?
EB: We have never seen this extent of eviction in such a truncated amount of time in our history. We can expect this to increase dramatically in the coming weeks and months, especially as the limited support and intervention measures that are in place start to expire. About 10 million people, over a period of years, were displaced from their homes following the foreclosure crisis in 2008. We’re looking at 20 million to 28 million people in this moment, between now and September, facing eviction.
CNBC: You study the intersection of housing and health. What will all these evictions mean for people’s health during the pandemic?
EB: Eviction negatively impacts the trajectory of an individual’s life, and it can do that in a permanent way. Studies have demonstrated that eviction causes increased mortality and causes respiratory distress, which in the Covid-19 pandemic can put people in even greater peril. It results in depression, suicides and other poor health outcomes. And the primary response to Covid-19 has been to shelter in place. If there’s an increase in homelessness [one economist estimates homelessness could rise by more than 40% this year], that could spread the virus.
CNBC: You’ve been keeping track of what states are doing to protect tenants, mostly through eviction moratoriums. How do you feel the efforts have fallen short?
EB: Some of the moratoriums are limited to different segments of the population, and in their duration. They were also not coupled with financial assistance to ensure that renters don’t accrue this backed-up debt and are stabilized enough to stay in their unit. Another issue is that in some states, landlords were allowed to go forward with a hearing on eviction, and even receive an order of eviction, and it was only forestalled at the execution stage. That means that there are a number of evictions that are just waiting for the sheriffs to execute. The moment the moratoriums lift, all of those families will be immediately put out. And right now, 29 states lack any state level moratorium against evictions.
CNBC: Because of the pandemic, a lot of these evictions are unfolding over video or phone instead of in a courtroom. What are the issues that come up here?
EB: Even prior to the pandemic, the system was very challenging for tenants to navigate and to raise their rights — 90% of tenants across the country are unrepresented. When you consider that people are now choosing between rent and food for their families, they’re also unlikely to be able to pay for minutes on their phone, or Wi-Fi, to log into a remote hearing. So appearance itself may be very challenging. And if they fail to appear, if they weren’t able to dial in or if they don’t have the right link to the Zoom, that’s considered a failure to appear, which results in a default judgment for the property owner.
CNBC: What can be done to make this eviction crisis less devastating?
EB: As an immediate measure, we need a nationwide uniform moratorium on eviction, and it has to be coupled with financial assistance to ensure that the renter can stay housed without shifting the debt burden onto the property owner. The owners that are the most likely to be affected by the eviction crisis right now are those who have small properties and don’t have the financial cushion to make ends meet over a period of months when they’re not receiving that rent. Once that’s in place, we really need to start addressing the root causes of the eviction crisis and the lack of affordable housing.