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As Renters Accumulate Housing Bills, Can An Eviction Tsunami Be Held Off?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Millions of Americans are likely to spend this fall accumulating unpaid bills for the rent. The people concerned about eventual mass evictions include one of the top stewards of the U.S. economy. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell spoke with NPR earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEROME POWELL: We don't want and we shouldn't allow them, in my view, as a country - we shouldn't let those people lose everything they have and have to move out or be evicted and move in with family. So I do think we ought to do everything we can as a country to keep those people - I won't say make them whole, but I would say to look out for them. It could have significant macroeconomic effects over time, but it's also just the right thing to do.

MARTIN: Steve Inskeep talked with a financial columnist who has tried to game out what happens next.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: For Michelle Singletary, the starting point for understanding this sweeping national story is what it's like to experience a single eviction. She recalls witnessing one before the pandemic.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: A mother with three children were put out. And she knew that, you know, she was having trouble. And my sister was her co-worker, and she called me - because I have a van - to come help. And it just - I tell you, it just breaks your heart, these three little children. And they just take everything out of your home. There's no systematic way about this. And they just put it on the sidewalk. And you have to, first of all, try to figure out how to pack all of the most essential things up, and then people are coming along and picking up the possessions. So you have to actually have people stationed to prevent other people from taking things that are on the street.

INSKEEP: Singletary wants to avoid witnessing that scene on many sidewalks. She is a personal financial columnist for The Washington Post. And she is watching for a crisis that has not quite arrived, although some cities have seen evictions. Federal rent and mortgage aid kept most people in their homes last spring. Congress failed to agree on an extension this summer, but the Centers for Disease Control ordered a stop to evictions for public health reasons through the end of this year. Eventually, though, there will be a problem.

It sounds like we are going to reach a point where, if you're renting, if you're owning, someone is going to say, I need the year of back payments; I need the nine months of back payments, whatever it is.

SINGLETARY: That's right. And so once those moratoriums and landlords can get into court and evict people for nonpayment, there's going to be a huge crisis of folks figuring out where to live.

INSKEEP: Somebody might be listening and saying, listen - millions of people have been getting unemployment insurance, and for a while, there was extra unemployment insurance. People should have been paying the rent. Do you accept that idea?

SINGLETARY: Well, I think - it's very frustrating when people say, well, they've been getting all this money. I mean, recognize that unemployment benefits, you know, barely made it for some folks. So it's - they couldn't necessarily pay the full rental payment or put food on the table. The extra $600 that was available under the CARES Act, which has since ended, helped a lot of folks who were already behind. I mean, it's not as if people were sitting back, kicking their legs up, thinking I'm in heaven because I've got all this extra money; they were making less to begin with, meaning people making just the minimum wage, which is not enough to live on. So they were - you know, they weren't getting a bonus. This money helped them live the way they should have been living.

INSKEEP: It would be tempting to say landlords should just let people stay. Is that a realistic option?

SINGLETARY: The fact of the matter is many landlords are just regular folks renting out homes that they used to have or rooms in their homes or, you know, units. They don't have these multicomplex - maybe they don't have all this money set aside in a bank account. And many landlords use those rental payments to pay their mortgages on the properties. So you can see that puts them in jeopardy. Even landlords are living paycheck to paycheck or rental payment to rental payment.

INSKEEP: So we are facing this moment, which is coming, when people are going to face large amounts of back rent that they can't really pay to landlords who maybe really need the large amounts of back rent or they can't really pay their mortgages. What's a way out of chaos at that point?

SINGLETARY: Well, there was, you know, the Heroes Act, which was passed by the House - did have money, substantial amount of money, for rental assistance, and that pot of money included helping people pay back rent, helping people with current rental payments, helping people pay their utility bills because, obviously, if you can't pay your rent, you may not - also not be able to pay your utility bills.

You know, there's a lot of concern about the federal deficit and what all this aid is going to do, and as someone who writes about personal finance and is constantly encouraging people to save and be very mindful of their money and not overspend, I feel this deeply. I understand it from both sides. But in times of crisis, conventional advice - things that you would normally do under normal situations - have to be put aside. You can't be telling people who don't have money for food or a roof over their head, oh, we got to worry about the federal deficit. That is a problem we need to address later. But right now, right now, before winter sets in, before the natural course of the flu season sets in, we got to put something on the table to keep people in their homes.

INSKEEP: It's risky always to try to sketch out the future. We don't really know what the future holds. But it seems like it might be valuable to imagine what an eviction crisis would look like if it ever happened. I'm thinking it wouldn't be like a hurricane, where thousands of people are made homeless all at once. What do you think it would look like?

SINGLETARY: What I envision is lots of people trying to get into shelters and also trying to double or triple up with families who do have places to live, which could also spread the virus. Let's look at, you know, an example. A hundred people are evicted. Twenty percent may have to go to a shelter, and the other ones have to try to find shelter with other families.

Now you are introducing the possibility of the virus spreading in regular people's homes because if my cousin calls and needs a place to stay, I'm taking my cousin in. But my cousin may have been in an area where they - the virus is spreading, and there are communities where we know it's still spreading. And so this jeopardizes not just those people in the shelter, but people who are living in their homes within the community. And then we can see an uptick in the reported cases of COVID So it is like a domino effect - you know, that one domino falls, and then other things end up smashing down.

INSKEEP: Michelle Singletary, thank you so much.

SINGLETARY: You're so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "GLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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