‘Housing is healthcare’: Evictions have exacerbated Covid-19 pandemic, research shows

“This is a time where it’s not an overstatement to say that for many people, eviction can lead to death.”

SOURCECommon Dreams

“There is no way for a vaccine to be successful without addressing the eviction crisis.”

That’s how housing justice advocate Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University, put it when describing her co-authored research, which found that the premature expiration of state eviction bans led to more than 433,000 excess Covid-19 cases and 10,700 preventable deaths in the United States between March and September.

Although the CDC issued a national eviction moratorium in early September to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus, thousands of tenants across the United States had already been displaced prior to that as a result of uneven state-level protections. 

In the new analysis—released online Monday ahead of peer review—a team of scholars focused on the relationship between evictions and the spread of the coronavirus between March 13 and September 3, before the CDC measure went into effect. 

Because states provided and removed tenant protections at different points during the crisis, the study “leverag[ed] variation in the expiration of these state-based moratoriums during the summer of 2020 as a natural experiment [and] tested whether lifting eviction moratoriums was associated with Covid-19 incidence and mortality.”

Controlling for the effects of stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, school closures, testing rates, and other state-level regulations in order to “better isolate the impact of eviction moratoriums,” researchers found that “lifting eviction moratoriums was associated with significant increases” in coronavirus infections and deaths, “supporting the public health rationale for use of eviction moratoriums to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

According to the analysis, 16 or more weeks after states lifted their eviction moratoriums, Covid-19 incidence and mortality rates were 2.1 and 5.4 times higher, respectively—amounting to an estimated 433,700 excess cases and 10,700 avoidable deaths nationwide during the study period (March 13-September 3). 

“Stable housing is even more important than wearing a mask,” tweeted medical anthropologist Jason Wilson. “Getting out of this pandemic means following all the CDC guidelines—including the one about not evicting people during a global pandemic.”

Tenant lawyer Charlie Issacs said that “this is a time to shelter in the safety of a home, not to spread out in search of a new one.”

It is important to note that thousands of additional households still lost their homes after September 3, despite the CDC’s intervention, thanks to landlord-friendly provisions—all but guaranteeing that the study substantially underestimated the extent to which evictions have exacerbated the Covid-19 pandemic.

Moreover, nearly 19 million Americans are in danger of being dislocated when federal limits on evictions expire on December 31, CBS News reported Friday. 

As Common Dreams reported in September, progressives have criticized the federal government’s refusal to cancel rent and/or provide substantial economic assistance that would make payments possible, since failing to do so means that tenants who owe back rent are still destined to “fall off… a financial cliff,” as National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) president Diane Yentel put it. 

Economist Nancy Vanden Houten explained to CBS News that requiring tenants to quickly repay rental debt is a hardship that “will fall predominantly on lower-income families who have already been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis.”

In addition to a ban on evictions, “what we really need is rental assistance,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the NLIHC. “The underlying problem is renters struggling to pay their rent because we’re in an economic crisis.”

With research confirming that the inadequate protection of economically marginalized renters is correlated with worsening health outcomes amid the Covid-19 pandemic and with continued uncertainty about whether Congress will pass a relief package before year’s end, fears are growing about what will happen in January 2021. 

Helen Matthews, communications manager at City Life/Vida Urbana, a housing nonprofit in Boston, told CNBC on Friday that “this is a time where it’s not an overstatement to say that for many people, eviction can lead to death.”

Several epidemiologists and social justice advocates have argued that greater socio-economic rights, including a right to housing, represent preventive tools that are indispensable to improving public health. The lack of guaranteed access to quality housing, for instance, increases the risk of living in an overcrowded environment and makes physical distancing more difficult.

“When people are evicted, they often move in with friends and family, and that increases your number of contacts,” Kathryn Leifheit, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told CNBC on Friday. “If people have to enter a homeless shelter, these are indoor places that can be quite crowded.”

It’s not too late, researchers said, for the federal government to distribute financial aid to stave off evictions and foreclosures, which can prevent deleterious health outcomes. 

“Our study,” tweeted Benfer, “shows housing is healthcare.”


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