John A. Wilson Building
The John A. Wilson building where D.C. Council normally conducts hearings and meetings. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The D.C. Council voted on Dec. 15 to give the Mayor authority to extend the end date for the pandemic-related state of emergency from Dec. 31 to March 31, 2021, which in turn would extend the city’s eviction moratorium. While this continues to prevent legal evictions from being filed in the District, the uptick in COVID-19 cases and continued economic fallout are exacerbating homelessness in the city.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the District. Twice in the past three weeks, the city has recorded more new cases in a single day than ever before: 371 new cases on Nov. 28 and 392 new cases on Dec.5.

Such high numbers had not been seen since May 1, near the start of the health crisis, when 335 new cases were detected.

“In light of the new COVID surge, it is clear that in order to continue to protect public health, the Mayor must continue the emergency for the foreseeable future,” D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson wrote in the bill.

The rising infection rate is threatening to coincide with — and in many cases is worsening — other growing crises across the country and in D.C.

Housing

 

Assuming Mayor Bowser uses this authority to extend her emergency orders and Congress does not interfere, evictions will be banned in the District until at least June 2021. The Centers for Disease Control also halted evictions for nonpayment of rent nationwide until Dec. 31 but has yet to extend that deadline.

Despite these laws, evictions are still happening in the District. In a story for the D.C. Homeless Crisis Reporting Project’s annual “news blitz” in October, WAMU/DCist reported that “invisible” evictions were on the rise, where landlords harass tenants, change the locks, or scare renters out of buildings with eviction notices. A July report by the National Housing Law Association surveyed 100 legal aid and civil rights attorneys, and found that 91% of respondents reported illegal evictions in their area.

[Read more: Opportunity to pass permanent eviction record-sealing bill fades as need continues to grow]

The consequences of removing or ignoring this kind of safeguard against evictions can be severe. Twenty-seven states lifted eviction moratoriums in the summer when the number of COVID-19 cases was dropping steadily. However, a joint study between the University of California, Los Angeles and John Hopkins University directly tied lifting moratoriums with an increase of positive cases and deaths.

The study concluded that lifting eviction moratoriums resulted in an excess of 443,660 cases and 10,731 deaths. D.C. has avoided contributing to these numbers, as it has never lifted its moratorium.

“By maintaining an eviction moratorium between March 15th and September 3rd , we estimate that the District of Columbia prevented 3,900 cases of COVID-19 … and 170 COVID-related deaths,” said Kathryn Leifheit, one of the lead researchers of the project.

But Leifheit also predicted that if the moratorium expired on Dec. 31 amid a rise of COVID-19 cases, it could have spelled more trouble for the city.

“We’re in a much different phase of the pandemic right now,” Leifheit said. “So you worry that displacing people right now, in the context where there is a lot of virus circulating within populations, might have a larger effect on cases, and ultimately deaths.”

The study is not yet peer reviewed, but Leifheit said she shared it in the interest of informing policymakers as soon as possible.

Income

 

While legal evictions are on hold, rent and mortgage payments continue to add up for those struggling to make ends meet. The U.S. Census Bureau reports 26.9% of adults in the District live in households not current on rent or mortgage payments, where eviction is at least somewhat likely. This is compounded by the ongoing harm the pandemic has done to the labor market.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported 853,000 unemployment claims were filed in the week ending on Dec. 5 in the U.S., much higher than the 716,000 claims filed the previous week, and the highest number since mid-September. The analytics and forecasting website Trading Economics says this is well above market expectations “amid rising COVID-19 cases and new lockdowns across the country.”

D.C. is still seeing an increase in the total number of unemployment claims filed every day. The number of unemployment claims filed in the first week of December spiked to 1,419, the highest number since mid-October, according to data on the Department of Employment Services website.


New unemployment claims made per week in D.C. Chart by Athiyah Azeem.

A study by Columbia University professor Dan O’Flaherty in May directly links unemployment to homelessness. By analyzing data from the Great Recession in 2008-2009, he predicted that for every 1% increase of the unemployment rate, there will be a 0.65% increase in rate of homelessness in the U.S. per 10,000 people. When the unemployment rate was at its highest at 16% in April, he concluded that homelessness was projected to rise nationally by as much as 40-45%.

As of November, the U.S. unemployment rate has dropped to 6.7%, but D.C. maintained a higher rate at 8.2% in October. The District has not released data for November yet. Using O’Flaherty’s model, D.C.’s homelessness is projected to rise by roughly 6.6%.

“The percent increase is small because we set it up to look at absolute increase in homelessness, and D.C. had a very high rate of homelessness in 2019,” O’Flaherty said. The nation’s capital has had the highest rate of homelessness among U.S. states for years.

 

This is based on the 6,380 people experiencing homelessness noted in the 2020 Point-in-Count done in January. The District’s count has steadily decreased over the past four years. But if O’Flaherty’s prediction comes to pass, the number of people experiencing homelessness will be almost as high as it was in 2018.

[Read more: Annual survey reveals a continued decrease in family homelessness, no change for youth, and an increase for single individuals]

Still, even without widespread rent relief, O’Flaherty said that high rates of eviction are not a guarantee at this point. “One big thing is, how eager to evict landlords will be,” O’Flaherty said. He says this largely depends on landlords’ ability to find new renters for their apartment. “If they think new unemployment money is coming soon, they may be willing to forgo eviction.”

While DOES is being criticized by workers and councilmembers for the wait times those in need have experience, it continues to process unemployment claims. Previously traditionally-employed workers can file for pre-pandemic unemployment insurance (UI) claims, as long as you meet specific wage requirements over the last months.

[Read More: Here’s how to claim unemployment in the District]

Self-employed or gig workers and independent contractors do not traditionally qualify for unemployment, but can apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which can also be applied retroactively. The program was created by the CARES Act and is set to expire Dec. 31.

If you are reaching the end of your 26 weeks on UI or your 39 weeks on PUA, there are extensions available, but you must apply again to be eligible. On Dec. 15, D.C. Council voted to qualify District workers for additional weeks of unemployment insurance and pandemic unemployment assistance benefits under the city’s extended benefits program, and the legislation now awaits the Mayor’s approval.

Lack of Funding

 

From Dec. 1 – 11, Mayor Bowser accepted applications from landlords for $10 million worth of Housing Stabilization Grants. The grants would effectively “cancel rent” for tenants, for a several-month period, by paying landlords 80% of arrears as long as they agreed to forgive the remaining 20%. The money came from the District’s remaining CARES Act funds, which are set to expire on Dec. 31. There are also multiple tenant-assistance funds managed by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

However, the mayor’s office is also planning to cut tens of thousands of dollars in funding to nonprofits that help the city’s homeless communities, reported DCist/WAMU. Nonprofit directors said this is the first time the D.C. government has gone back on previously approved grant money.D.C. government currently needs to fill a budget shortage of $211 million this fiscal year. It avoided an expected loss of $600 million due to federally funded unemployment benefits, the Paycheck Protection Program and stimulus checks created by the CARES Act, and the stock market recovering by 30%.

[Read more: Homeless service providers receive millions in PPP loans]

But Congress has yet to pass another financial aid package, and federal COVID-19 unemployment aid programs are still set to expire. According to data by the Century Foundation, this means 12 million Americans may lose unemployment benefits by the end of December, and 16 million unemployed people will enter 2021 with “little to no aid.”

Despite a summer of protests highlighting ongoing racial injustice in the country and a growing emphasis on the role housing plays in racial justice, the impending crisis is still likely to disproportionately affect people of color. According to the 2020 point-in-time count, African Americans make up more than 84% of single adults experiencing homelessness in the District, and 95% of homeless adults in families are African American.

According to the Brookings Institute, minority renters are also more likely to lose their housing due to economic fallout. The majority of renters in the District are Black and nearly 30% of those renters spend half of their income on rent. The Urban Institute reported low-income Latino and African American residents are more likely to rent than buy their homes in the District and are experiencing higher rates of unemployment.

“We already know that Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and we also know those are the same folks that bear disproportionate risk of eviction,” Leifheit said. She worries that as a result, an increase of COVID-19 cases after an eviction moratorium expiration will disproportionately fall on minority communities.

[Read more: DC’s COVID-19 vaccination plan prioritizes the homeless community]

The Interagency Council on Homelessness has anticipated the possible increase of people seeking beds in their Fiscal Year 2021 Winter Plan. They state that in the worst-case scenario, where the moratorium lifts and there are no additional funds from Congress, it would possibly take until early spring to see its effects on shelters.

The ICH wrote in its winter plan it would continue to monitor emerging trends in the housing market, and that the Department of Human Services will be ready to activate overflow beds if they are needed.


Lana Green contributed reporting.