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Why pausing evictions likely won’t help kids harmed by housing uncertainty and instability

If struggling families can’t get rental assistance, they continue to live under a cloud of uncertainty that negatively impacts entire communities, experts warn

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended to Oct. 3 the moratorium on evicting tenants behind on paying for housing during the pandemic. The extension applies only in counties with “substantial” or “high” levels of community transmission of COVID-19.

Not all tenants are shielded: They must be able to show they struggled financially because their incomes fell during the pandemic, they applied for rental assistance and they have paid as much as possible along the way.

Even with the risk of immediate eviction pushed back, potential long-term harm to children continues to mount along with the pressure on parents, experts told Deseret News. While watching their debt climb if they can’t get rental assistance — unlikely to cover all their housing debt — families are living under a cloud of uncertainty that spills out to entire communities.

Kids disproportionately bear the brunt of the economic problems created or worsened by the pandemic, according to research for the Council on Contemporary Families by Ohio State University professor and sociologist Kristi Williams. She found two of the biggest challenges struggling families have faced in the pandemic, housing insecurity and food insufficiency, “have cumulative negative consequences that endure throughout the life course” when they are experienced by children.

The assertion is backed by years of research, including a study by a panel of national experts in Pediatrics nearly a decade ago. “Early experiences and environmental influences can leave a lasting signature on the genetic predispositions that affect emerging brain architecture and long-term health,” they wrote, noting “extensive evidence of the disruptive impacts of toxic stress” that link early adversity with learning and behavior problems, as well as physical and mental illness.

“Many adult diseases should be viewed as developmental disorders that begin early in life and that persistent health disparities associated with poverty, discrimination or maltreatment could be reduced by the alleviation of toxic stress in childhood,” the study said.

In signing the extension Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that “mass evictions and the attendant public health consequences would be very difficult to reverse.”

Meanwhile, many doubt the extension will hold up if it’s challenged in court.

Families struggling

A 2017 study in the American Journal of Community Psychology found “relatively high risk of family separation among families experiencing housing instability and homelessness.”

In a Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey before the moratorium was extended, 3.6 million people said they feared they could face eviction within two months.

“This is a terrible time for people, especially families,” said Kyle Nelson, who studies evictions and is a doctoral candidate at the University of California Los Angeles. He describes the moratorium as helpful, but not a long-term solution to a problem that grows with every bill a family cannot pay, including rent. After the Great Recession, he said, it took years for economic recovery, especially for the hardest-hit families. But at least families have had some financial help during COVID-19, he added.

Children need stability to thrive, and a family’s financial crisis creates instability. If families lose housing, they may find themselves in a cycle of moving from one temporary situation to another, which further erodes a child’s sense of safety and normalcy, said Kevin Shafer, Brigham Young University associate professor of sociology. And it may expose them to risky, unhealthy environments.

Children whose families move around a lot don’t do as well on cognitive tests, in school or in social environments, he added. Unstable housing can impair development, behavior and health, with long-term effects.

“Whatever the fallout is going to be, it’s going to be so much worse for families and kids,” said Nelson of the pandemic-sparked crisis. Predictable negative outcomes include not just impact on physical and mental health, he noted, but disruption to their schooling, setting them back both academically and socially.

Buying time?

The impact of housing instability doesn’t just hit one family and miss another. Lack of enough affordable housing paired with widespread economic challenges can have serious consequences for the entire local economy, according to research published in the July 2021 North Carolina Medical Journal.

The University of North Carolina researchers wrote that “rents, late fees, excessive utility bills, and repair costs make it hard for low-income tenants to keep up. The consequences are dire: Households are pushed deeper into poverty and homelessness; they lose possessions too costly to move; their kids’ schooling is interrupted and health put under stress; landlords incur lost rent, vacancies, legal fees and court costs; and burdens are placed on homeless shelters, social services, hospitals, courts and sheriff departments. Neighborhoods with high rates of evictions and housing instability continue the cycle of deterioration.”

Landlords say eviction bans, when not accompanied by funds to pay what they are owed, puts an unfair burden on those who own rental housing. Bob Pinnegar, National Apartment Association president and CEO, told The Associated Press, “The eviction moratorium is an unfunded government mandate that forces housing providers to deliver a costly service without compensation and saddles renters with insurmountable debt.”

When the association sued to stop the moratorium, the group said property owners had lost about $27 billion in rent that was not covered by existing aid programs, the AP reported. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which allowed the moratorium until July 31, but said only Congress could extend the moratorium after that date,

The CDC stepped in after the Biden administration had said it would let the moratorium end July 31 because of the Supreme Court decision. The ban on evictions lapsed for three days before the CDC issued the new extension.

That order may simply buy time for state and local governments to get federal aid to renters. So far, the release of roughly $46 billion to help those falling behind on housing payments has been sluggish and many people don’t even know where to apply. The U,S, Treasury Department has a list of agencies facilitating emergency rental help.

“The emergency rental assistance that should be helping both families and landlords has been really slow getting out,” Nelson said. “You can probably describe it with the word ‘boondoggle’ at this point. It feels just like a joke.” He said the application process is complicated to the point “it’s almost impossible for people to do on their own.”

The New York Times reported only 7% of the emergency rental assistance funds had been disbursed by Aug. 1 and thousands of applications were backlogged. Some courts had begun hearing eviction cases.

Even before the new order, though, some states were preventing tenants from being evicted for nonpayment of rent, including California, New Jersey and New York, according to the legal analysts at NOLO Network. Deadlines vary, though some of those are looming. And Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae halted evictions by landlords of multifamily properties whose mortgages the government agencies back until at least Sept. 30.

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