The easy way to reduce evictions is for residents to pay their rent or mortgage. But nothing has been simple about the pandemic economy, and efforts to keep people in their homes will be studied for years to come.
Shortly after COVID-19 arrived in the United States, the federal government issued a ban on evictions for failure to pay, a ban that was struck down by the Supreme Court in August 2021. Many states, including Washington, implemented their own moratoriums while still allowing evictions for reasons other than failure to pay.
This was necessary, given the initial economic shock of the pandemic. With an unprecedented number of workers going without paychecks because of mandated business shutdowns, governments and advocacy groups worked to provide rent assistance to help avoid mass evictions. Congress appropriated nearly $47 billion for emergency rental assistance as part of early pandemic relief packages.
Now, with assistance subsiding and eviction moratoriums having expired, the lessons of the response are coming into focus.
In Clark County, The Columbian reports, eviction filings this year are running 5.2 percent lower than the 2016 level. That is a good sign, but it is far short of the statewide trend, where eviction filings are about half as common as in 2016. As reporter Kelsey Turner notes: “About 10.9 percent of Washington’s eviction cases occur in Clark County, even though the county has only about 6.6 percent of the state’s population.”
Eviction rates are an indicator species for the broader economy. They reflect affordability in a region and often are a harbinger of larger trends; when the economy takes a downturn, low-income and hourly workers often are the first to feel the pinch.
The pandemic has altered that formula, leading to uncertainty about why Clark County’s eviction rate is higher than most areas in Washington. The answer likely is related to the ongoing influence of a tight rental market. With demand outpacing supply, landlords are more willing to seek evictions, confident that a replacement renter is available.
All of that is a microcosm of issues that will be studied for quite some time: Were eviction moratoriums warranted and effective? Was rental assistance helpful?
For people who faced unexpected job loss thanks to an unforeseen virus, government intervention provided a lifeline. But, as The Columbian argued editorially last October: “Landlords also have needs, particularly mom-and-pop operators who form a large percentage of landlords and are dependent on rental income.”
Many landlords missed out on rent payments during the height of the pandemic, and they were not allowed to increase their rates. Experts say that is leading to sharp increases now in an effort to recover lost income.
While we can empathize with renters facing increasing costs and job insecurity, landlords also have mortgages and other bills to pay.
Nationally, statistics say eviction rates are roughly at pre-pandemic levels. But Clark County’s experience demonstrates the need to stabilize the rental market throughout the country. For areas that are desirable and attract new residents, quickly rising rental rates point out the need for more housing.
As Forbes reports: “Affordable rental housing is a multifaceted problem that touches everything from supply to government intervention.”
Such intervention was essential two years ago. But its impact is still being assessed.