Above: Nawaal Walker embraces her daughter, Ca’leah Moore, 8, in their home in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. Credit: Rachel Jessen for HuffPost
In March, Nawaal Walker was on track to finally save up enough money to move into her first house by July. It was going to be a hard-earned 40th birthday present to herself and five of her children who, along with Walker’s son-in-law and two cats, were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Durham, North Carolina.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaving Walker out of work and struggling to keep her apartment, much less move into a bigger place.
Walker, a single mother of seven, was laid off from her job as a counselor at a rehab center that month. She received a stimulus check and unemployment, which just barely covered her rent and some bills through June.
But COVID-19 unemployment and financial relief expired at the end of July, as did the federal government’s initial moratorium on evictions. Walker could no longer pay the rent on the apartment, which also served as a learning space since the five kids were home from school. She struggled to put food on the table. She continually had to fight to get the internet and phone back on. She spent hours on the phone making sure her electricity wasn’t turned off because she needed to be able to refrigerate her 15-year-old daughter’s insulin and plug in her nebulizer for her asthma.
In July, her landlord sent her an eviction notice.
“Everything I’ve done to build myself up has now crumbled back down to the ground,” Walker said. “I feel like nothing right now. I really do.”
Walker was able to connect with an attorney who helped her get covered by a second federal eviction moratorium, implemented in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That moratorium kicked in a month after the first one, included in the CARES Act, expired. The CDC moratorium has helped thousands, but it’s set to expire on Dec. 31. Walker’s next court date for her eviction is Jan. 7. If no government action is taken to extend the moratorium, she and her children will be homeless.
Walker and her family are facing a crisis of government inaction. And women, like Walker, will bear the brunt of the damage. Eviction moratoriums have saved lives and kept people in their homes during a devastating pandemic. Now, with those moratoriums set to expire, nearly 40 million people are at risk of being evicted over the coming months, according to an analysis from the Aspen Institute. Women are both disproportionately likely to be evicted and disproportionately hit by the current economic downturn. Many, like Walker, are sole caretakers for their kids.
If a federal moratorium is not reinstated before Dec. 31, those Americans and their families will become homeless almost overnight, forcing many to live in crowded shelters or bunk up with family or friends ― situations that would likely increase the spread of COVID-19 and could have deadly consequences.
As the expiration for the CDC eviction moratorium nears, experts are urging local, state and federal governments to act quickly. “The eviction crisis that we’re facing right now is both predictable and preventable, but preventing it requires action,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The stress of everything has led Walker to stop eating and sleeping, and the heart monitor she has in her chest due to a heart issue has begun to itch ― possibly, she said, because it was supposed to be replaced three years ago (she doesn’t have insurance).
“The only word I can actually mutter is ‘crushed,’” Walker said when asked how she’s handling everything.
“I’ve struggled my whole life. I’ve worked hard my whole life. I’m a genuine person. I raised my children to be genuine people ― to have faith and love God and themselves and others,” she said. “I can see the beauty in the ugliest of things. But this? This is ridiculous. I’m crushed.”
COVID-19 Is Quickly Becoming A Women’s Eviction Crisis
Women are more likely than men to be evicted, and especially women of color. Eviction has always impacted women of color at higher rates than any other group in part because of the intersections of racism and sexism.
In poor Black and Latinx neighborhoods, “eviction is to women what incarceration is to men,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote in his 2016 book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” In fact, sometimes these crises are intertwined: The disproportionate effect of mass incarceration on Black and Latinx men means they are usually not considered viable leaseholders. Often, this means a wife or girlfriend will put the lease in her name, and when they are evicted, the eviction is filed against her.
Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found in forthcoming research that among renters in 39 states, 341,756 women were evicted annually compared to 294,908 men between 2012 and 2016. That’s a 16% difference. The biggest disparity between genders was for Black renters: Nearly 37% more Black women than Black men were evicted between 2012 and 2016.
Overall, women face higher rates of poverty than men, they earn less due to the gender wage gap, and they experience higher rates of sexual harassment and domestic violence, which can impact finances. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, those disparities are even more pronounced. For example, of the nearly 1,800 eviction cases in one part of southeast Louisiana this year, 89% were families of color and 72% were female-headed households, according to data provided by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, a free legal aid organization for low-income families.
“Women are more likely to be essential workers, but ironically they’re the most likely to have lost their jobs in the pandemic. Then add to that the child-care burden when all of a sudden schools are closed or partially closed,” said Jessica Katz, executive director of Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a New York City housing policy think tank. “You’re really putting women ― in every situation, in every single one of those categories ― in a really impossible bind,” she continued. “And it doesn’t feel like anyone’s listening.”
At least 865,000 women left the workforce in September ― at least four times more than men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent report from the National Women’s Law Center shows that a shocking percentage of women of color are behind on rent: Nearly 15% of Asian women, 20% of Latina women and 25% of Black women were unable to pay rent in October.
This could all get worse when the CDC eviction moratorium expires at the end of December, if officials do nothing. An eviction moratorium that is not extended through the pandemic simply creates “a financial cliff” for renters, Yentel said. When the moratorium expires, back rent is due and renters will most likely still be unable to pay.
“Being put out in the streets in the middle of winter, in the midst of a public health crisis and economic crisis, is a recipe for disaster for women of color,” said Sarah Hassmer, senior counsel for NWLC’s income security team.
SinToria Stringer says she cries herself to sleep some nights because she’s so stressed. The 20-year-old single mom from Toledo, Ohio, is facing the very real possibility that she and her 6-month-old son may be evicted come January. Stringer was laid off this summer just four weeks after she gave birth to her son. Her son, who was born 15 weeks early, wasn’t released from the hospital until October. He weighed just over 1 pound when he was delivered.
“Sometimes I didn’t even want to go see my son in the hospital because I felt like I had failed him. I didn’t want him to feel the pain and the hurt I was feeling,” Stringer said. “So some days I would stay home and try to figure things out so he would actually have a home to come home to.”
Stringer was able to connect with an attorney who filed a motion to get her eviction notice pushed to next year, under the CDC moratorium. But her court date is set for Jan. 1. If the moratorium does not get extended, Stringer and her son could be out on the streets.
Children Are Another Complication
Lynn Stock is a 57-year-old single mom living in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her 19-year-old daughter. Days before the pandemic caused a wave of shutdowns in March, Stock called city housing to report that there was mold growing in their apartment. Her daughter is allergic to mold so it needed to be fixed immediately, but her landlord was not helping.
Stock’s landlord became angry that she reported him to the city and filed an eviction notice against her. She said six sheriffs officers showed up to escort her and her daughter out of their home in August, after the eviction proceedings finished.
“We took whatever we could, but we could only take a couple of things because we had nowhere to go,” said Stock, who was already in government-subsidized housing and had recently lost her job of four years as a customer service representative due to COVID-19.
Stock hired an attorney and in just a few days she and her daughter were back in their house, covered by the federal eviction moratorium. She said the experience has had a lasting effect. “This pandemic, and with people losing their jobs, nobody should be evicted right now,” she said. “You’re just putting them out to make it even worse for them. I don’t wish that on nobody.”
Research suggests that the presence of children increases the likelihood of eviction, because kids can be loud or messy, or in Stock’s case, are simply seen as another burden by unsympathetic property owners.
“When landlords start getting complaints or they have to fix things because kids have broken them, they may turn to eviction more quickly in those cases, and that affects a lot of single moms and their children,” said Dr. Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Newark and a researcher at the Princeton Eviction Lab.
Experts repeatedly emphasized the fact that women are more likely than men to be single parents as a reason women face higher rates of eviction. Children’s well-being impacts parents’ decisions in several ways, including when there are substandard housing conditions. Similar to Stock’s situation, women are more likely to report inadequate living conditions than men are, which can lead to retaliation from landlords.
A ‘Predictable And Preventable’ Crisis
Although there has been some government assistance for Americans facing eviction, it simply hasn’t been enough. There have been multiple eviction moratoriums on the local, state and federal levels since the pandemic hit the U.S., including the moratorium included in the CARES Act and the subsequent CDC moratorium that expires on Dec. 31.
State and local governments created a patchwork of eviction moratoriums that varied widely in protections, and some expired when the CARES moratorium did. This left a one-month gap in coverage for some Americans facing eviction over the summer ― a time when there was a massive surge in COVID-19 cases across much of the U.S.
Lifting moratoriums during this time literally cost thousands of lives. A study published in the Journal of Urban Health in November analyzed the effects of lifting eviction moratoriums on COVID-19 infection and death rates. The report found that ending moratoriums between March and September led to nearly 434,000 excess coronavirus cases and nearly 11,000 additional deaths across 27 states.
Housing advocates are calling for more emergency rental assistance, more resources such as expanded unemployment insurance and stimulus checks, and a uniform federal moratorium on rent for the duration of the pandemic. They say it’s critical that Congress enacts a new COVID-19 relief bill that includes housing protections and, simultaneously, that the CDC extends the eviction moratorium that’s in effect now. Advocates are also pushing mayors and governors to create protections on the state and local levels because it’s likely that Congress will not act in time.
“If we don’t see some combination of these actions, we’re facing a very real possibility of tens of millions of people losing their homes in the dead of winter, during a spike in COVID-19,” Yentel said. “The consequences of that would be catastrophic.”
They’ll also last long after the pandemic and eviction crisis dissipate. “That single eviction filing creates this spiraling down into poverty that can become very difficult for that family to climb out of,” Yentel said.
For her part, Walker said she will continue to fight the eviction proceedings against her because she has no other choice ― her children depend on her. “All of the things that I’ve been through in my life, I did not come this far to fall down,” she said. “I refuse to give up. I refuse to stay quiet.”