The range and complexity of issues and uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the socioeconomic well-being of the United States call for innovative approaches to the development of a strategic response. Recognizing that the scope of some problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftereffects is so great that no one office or even agency sees them as within its portfolio, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine established the Response and Resilient Recovery Strategic Science Initiative (R3SSI).1 This new National Academies initiative, which produced this report, is charged with identifying and addressing these broad, pressing problems and formulating strategic solutions.
For the initiative’s pilot study, the R3SSI Executive Council selected rental evictions and housing instability as a large, timely, and critically important problem that would benefit from a strategic set of interventions. An ad hoc Strategy Group of 22 distinguished experts in the fields of health, economy, housing, modeling, justice, and community engagement related to the pandemic was selected and tasked with analyzing COVID-19 impacts on rental property evictions within low- and middle-income communities and disadvantaged groups in the near and medium terms (6–24 months and 3–5 years, respectively). The statement of task in Appendix A describes the initial charge to the Strategy Group. The group then refined the timeframes to be explored to include the near, short, and medium terms (see below) and focused the scope of the study by formulating the following guiding question: What actions can be taken by the government, private-sector entities, communities, and individuals to reduce rental housing instability2 and rental evictions3 exacerbated by COVID-19–related strains on household finances, and to mitigate the health, human dignity, social, and economic costs or impacts of those evictions that do occur?
To address this question, the Strategy Group generated a set of potential actions using a scenario planning approach, which aided the group in identifying a set of actions that would reduce evictions across a wide range of underlying economic, social, and public health outcomes. Appendix B describes the scenario planning approach in
2 The term “housing instability” is meant to encompass both those undergoing and those at serious risk of eviction.
3 In this report, the term “eviction” is used broadly to include not only the court proceedings held to remove people from housing for failure to pay rent, but also cases in which renters feel forced to leave or are told to leave by the owner or primary renter based on their inability to pay rent.
greater detail. In applying this approach, the Strategy Group recognized that, although considerable progress has been made toward fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus and limiting its harm to economic structures, future conditions for renters at risk of eviction may vary substantially depending on the evolution of the virus, including the possible emergence of additional, more dangerous variants; the public response to the pandemic, including vaccination uptake; the changing conditions for employment; the ability of the government to deliver support effectively; and other factors. Given this uncertainty, rather than focusing more narrowly on the single scenario deemed most likely to happen, the group developed a set of four scenarios based on different combinations of plausible paths for the pandemic and other external disruptors to aid in identifying potential interventions for actors at the national/federal, state, and local levels. The group used these scenarios as prompts for thinking through a range of conditions systematically. While the scenarios should not be interpreted as the Strategy Group’s view of the most likely outcomes, their use resulted in a set of recommended actions the group believes, based on its analysis of the available evidence and the expert judgment of its members, would collectively mitigate and minimize rental evictions both during the pandemic and over the long term across a range of conditions and outcomes.
For each action identified to help achieve the above goals, the rationale is given, and the targeted potential actor(s) are listed. Each action is also assigned a suggested timeframe for its implementation. Appendix C provides a summary of the proposed actions ordered by the suggested implementation timeframes: near term, or weeks to a few months; short term, or 3–12 months; or medium term, or 12–36 months. In the body of the report, the timeframes associated with each action are color coded (green for near term, yellow for short term, or blue for medium term). Note that the Strategy Group could not formulate a timeline for when the impacts of its proposed actions would be felt, given the range of possible conditions captured in the scenarios explored.
The causes of housing instability are intertwined and interdependent. Therefore, the Strategy Group identified actions that would reduce housing instability for any vulnerable renters, with particular attention to historically underserved communities for whom long-standing vulnerabilities have the potential to exacerbate the challenges posed by the pandemic. Members of the Strategy Group believe further that the actions recommended in this report echo the goals and mission shared by housing authorities and communities at large with respect to reducing housing instability during the pandemic and beyond.
Context for the Report
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already severe housing crisis in the United States. Prior to the pandemic, almost half of all renter households were already rental cost burdened4 (Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University [JCHS], 2020), rents were continuing to rise in some places where income remained flat (Myers and Park, 2019), and only one in four eligible renters was receiving federal financial housing assistance (Fischer and Sard, 2016). The recession associated with the pandemic and the
4 “Rental cost burdened” refers to households that pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.
concentration of recession-related job losses among low-wage workers have amplified this problem, causing millions of people to descend into poverty, exacerbating racial inequities and income gaps (Parolin et al., 2020), and increasing housing instability.
Rental eviction—which, as noted, includes not only formal legal action but also cases in which renters feel forced to leave or are told to leave by the owner or primary renter based on their inability to pay rent—is not only a symptom but also a root cause of poverty. Evictions and the accumulation of rental arrears increase the likelihood that an individual or family will experience economic hardship (Brennan et al., 2020), the inability to secure future housing (Franzese, 2018), emotional trauma, negative health outcomes, downward moves into more disadvantaged neighborhoods and substandard housing, and homelessness (Benfer et al., 2021; Collinson and Reed, 2018; Desmond and Kimbro, 2015; Greer et al., 2016; Himmelstein and Desmond, 2021; Rojas and Stenberg, 2016; Shinn et al., 2013; Vásquez-Vera et al., 2017). Eviction and housing displacement also increase COVID-19–related and other causes of morbidity and mortality as people move into overcrowded living spaces (Leifheit et al., 2020; Nande et al., 2021; Tobolowsky et al., 2020). And like the pandemic itself, eviction and housing instability impact some population groups, especially women and Black and Latinx households, disproportionately (Eckart, 2020; Greenberg et al., 2016).
Tenants are not the only people hit hard by the pandemic’s effect on renter finances. Months of unpaid rent reduce landlords’ income, with potential downstream effects on the overall stability of the housing stock. The operation and management of rental housing is a low-profit business (National Association of Residential Property Managers, 2019). Among the most vulnerable are individual “mom and pop” landlords, who provide the bulk of affordable housing units for low-income renters (De La Campa, 2021).
In late 2020 and early 2021, the White House and Congress provided tens of billions of dollars for emergency rental assistance and extended a September 20205 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order prohibiting most evictions due to nonpayment of rent, at least through July 31, 2021.6 Many states also offer COVID-19–related tenant protections, including eviction moratoriums, holds on shutting off utilities because of nonpayment, and bans on late-rent fees. While circumstances at the federal and state levels continue to change, these two key efforts form the basis for the legal and regulatory environment that serves as the context for this report and directs the report’s focus. Local and federal moratoriums have addressed some of the challenges discussed earlier by helping millions of families remain in their homes during the pandemic until the government can eventually distribute emergency rental assistance efficiently to address arrears and prevent an eviction crisis (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2021).
Originally, moratoriums were intended as a public health mitigation strategy. Indeed, studies have shown that during the pandemic, they have had a measurable impact on the spread of SARS-CoV-2, especially in metropolitan areas (Nande et al., 2021), and
6 This report is concerned mainly with eviction in cases of nonpayment of rent. All current eviction moratoriums include exceptions for lease violations other than nonpayment, including criminal activity. Some also allow evictions for property-based reasons.
reduced the death rate by 11 percent (Jowers et al., 2021). However, the enactment of additional local eviction moratoriums and variations in the enforcement of their national counterparts have led to widely different levels of protection and effectiveness; as a result, nonprofit organizations, housing research groups, and industry have offered recommendations for strengthening these initiatives (e.g., Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2021). However, the success of these moratoriums is based on the direct effects of eviction on health during a public health emergency. Over the long term, moratoriums are not a lasting solution to housing instability because they do not protect landlords or prevent renters from owing back rent, nor do they address the underlying causes of the housing instability problem. Accordingly, this future-focused report focuses on solutions beyond moratoriums.
Also of note, since it was originally issued in September 2020, the current CDC moratorium has been renewed or extended multiple times7 and has been challenged in multiple courts. Landlords and affiliated groups in at least seven states and the District of Columbia sued to block it,8 arguing that it represents an unconstitutional overreach of the agency’s authority. In three such cases, judges ruled against landlords, essentially upholding the moratorium, although one of those judgments has since been effectively reversed. In May 2021, a federal judge also ruled against the CDC moratorium, a ruling promptly appealed by the Justice Department. This case was unfolding at the time this report was written. The likelihood of more court rulings is great, but landlords and tenants must still abide by state or local bans, emphasizing the need for each state to determine its approach to the problem based on local health and economic measures instead of relying on a national determination.
It should be noted as well that, even though the scenario planning approach used by the Strategy Group was designed to identify actions that would remain robust and effective across a spectrum of possible future states, the group recognized that COVID-19 and the associated housing crisis are rapidly developing, and circumstances are likely to change in the near future. A key area of uncertainty of relevance to this report is the specific authorities that are assigned responsibility for certain aspects of the crisis response. Accordingly, the actors associated with each action proposed in this report may need to adapt the actions over time as the salient circumstances evolve.
Finally, the amount of total past-due rent in the United States is difficult to estimate, but may have been as great as $52 billion nationwide9 as of January 2021. Arrears are still accruing, with one in seven renters (and one in five renters of color) reporting that they are behind on rent, exposing them to housing instability once moratoriums expire and causing challenges for property owners in meeting their own financial obligations and maintaining their buildings (Center on Budget Policy and Priorities [CBPP], 2021).
8 See, e.g., Brown v. Azar, No. 1:20-cv03702 (N.D.Ga.); KBW Investment Properties LLC v. Azar, No. 2:20-cv04852 (S.D.Ohio); Tiger Lilly LLC v. HUD, No. 2:20-cv02692 (W.D.Tenn.); Skyworks, Ltd. v. CDC, No. 5:20-cv02407 (N.D.Ohio); Chambliss Enterprises LLC v. Redfield, No. 20-1455 (W.D.La.); Terkel v. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, No. 6:20-cv00564 (E.D.Tex); Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Dept. of Health & Human Services, No. 20-cv3377 (D.D.C.); Dixon Ventures, Inc. v. USA, No. 4:20-cv1518-KGB (E.D.Ark.); and Mossman v. CDC, No. 1:21-cv00028 (N.D.Iowa).
9 Alternative estimates have indicated a wide range of values for past-due rents. See https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/many-peopleare-behind-rent-how-much-do-they-owe.
Given these circumstances, the Strategy Group believes that preventing the wave of evictions likely to occur when moratoriums are lifted is a key part of the economic and health-related recovery from the pandemic and the associated recession. Government assistance, while substantial, is not deployed quickly or efficiently enough to help more than a fraction of the renters who have fallen behind on their rent. Facing this impending crisis, many organizations and government agencies have taken some immediate actions to prevent large-scale lasting harm to people, communities, and the nation. Building on these efforts, this report recommends robust actions that can ensure the rapid, efficient, equitable deployment of government resources to reduce housing instability and evictions and mitigate their effects, sustain housing security in the immediate to near future, and assist with a rapid and sustained economic recovery.
Adaptive and Collaborative Strategic Actions
This report identifies actions that could be taken at all levels—national, state, and local—and across different sectors—public, private, and nonprofit—to respond to the sharp increase in the share of renters who are or will be at risk of eviction in the immediate future. Housing policy takes a wide range of forms in the United States, with different programs funded and managed at different levels of government. The federal government uses tax credits, expenditures, and regulations to help homeowners and renters. It also serves as a funder, augmenting the resources available to states and localities for deploying policies aimed at meeting certain housing goals. State governments can allocate program funds and tax credits to areas and populations that need them most, and typically also play an important role in regulating housing. Local governments, in addition to often deploying federal and state-provided funds, have their own set of policies and regulations that can directly address localized housing challenges.
Collaboration, coordination, and cross-sector alignment among organizations at all levels are essential to meeting the needs of renters, service providers, and landlords, as well as reaching the goals of policy makers in the face of the impending eviction crisis occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, federal agencies and national-level organizations set priorities through regulation of organizations that receive taxpayer funds to dispense social, health, financial, and legal assistance, and can thereby influence policy to help people avoid eviction and retain their housing. Partnerships with these entities can establish shared leadership, vision, and adaptive strategic planning based on the recommended actions to meet immediate and future needs associated with the dynamic housing challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. Local and state partners—including public, private, and nonprofit organizations—are uniquely positioned to implement targeted strategies for collecting data and information that are representative of a community’s composition and unique needs without compromising personal information. Private-sector entities, nonprofits, and philanthropies are well positioned to serve social needs that markets and governments cannot or do not serve adequately. With their greater flexibility, they may be uniquely valuable partners in or initiators of some of the actions proposed in this report.
Call for Action
This report proposes a broad range of strategies and actions to be taken in the next three years. The potential actions identified in this report mainly address renter protections, but are attentive as well to the needs of service-providing agencies, landlords, property owners, property managers, and other stakeholders.
These potential actions were crafted to advance four goals critical to addressing the rental housing crisis and permanently improving rental housing choices and security for all in the United States:
Goal 1. Mitigate: Bridge Financial, Social, and Legal Assistance
Goal 2. Inform: Improve the Collection of Data and the Use of Information to Support Affected Communities and Inform Policy Makers
Goal 3. Assist: Make Affordable Housing Fair and Accessible
Goal 4. Secure: Preserve, Provide, and Expand Safe Affordable Housing
Within these four goals, the recommended actions fall under different categories (see Appendix D): Provide immediate emergency assistance to tenants during the pandemic; stabilize housing, families, and communities to support health; support and assist renters and property owners during and after the pandemic; capture and build in existing pandemic-response efforts for the longer term; set research priorities and new partnerships to inform long-term improvements; and promote legislative and regulatory changes to build more resilient systems for future crises.10 If implemented, these recommended actions would promote partnership and could mitigate the growing incidence of severe housing insecurity during the pandemic and over the longer term, reduce discrimination and ensure fair access to safe and affordable housing, and overall ensure a resilient recovery from this crisis, as well as prepare for future shocks.
10 The text of this sentence has been modified from that in the pre-publication version of this document. Two categories were refined to better reflect the potential broad economic, social, and health impacts of the suggested recommendations.