The Coming Wave of Evictions Is More Than a Housing Crisis

Evictions disrupt people’s health, relationships, work, and education. Now all those struggles will be exacerbated by the pandemic.

A series of doors stacked up like dominos
Matt Chase

Over the past year and a half, a series of local, state, and national eviction bans has prevented millions of Americans from losing their home in the middle of a pandemic. But last week, a national moratorium put in place by the CDC was rejected by the Supreme Court.

“Really concerning,” “quite bad,” and “a huge problem” are three ways that housing experts I spoke with characterized the wave of evictions that’s now approaching. They told me that millions of American adults and children are at risk of getting evicted, and that Black renters, particularly Black women, are at the highest risk.

Evictions, which will likely rise between now and the end of the year, are known to disrupt many realms of people’s lives—their health, their relationships, their job, their kids’ education. Now all of those struggles will be exacerbated by the pandemic. For many Americans who lose their home, the end of the eviction moratorium won’t just be a housing crisis. It’ll be an everything crisis.

A Housing Crisis

Two important things to understand about evictions in America are what prompts them and where people go next.

First, pandemic or no pandemic, the majority of evictions are not a result of lease violations such as disruptive behavior but of simply not being able to afford rent, Eva Rosen, a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, told me. Second, after people get evicted, some of them go to a shelter, but more commonly they “double up,” moving in with friends or family for as long as they need to, and perhaps sleeping on a couch.

This can tax resources and relationships. “It means more strain on the food supply [in a home]. It means having to get along with many more people in a living environment,” Diana Hernández, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told me. Navigating these social dynamics might be especially fraught during the pandemic, when more occupants means more risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Evictions also make it harder for renters to find their next home, because landlords can look up their history and turn them away—which limits their options and often steers them into rundown housing with leaks, mold, or pests. The experts I spoke with referred to a housing “spiral”: “One eviction begets another,” Peter Hepburn, a sociologist at Rutgers University at Newark and a research fellow at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, told me. “You see people who, once they face a first eviction, have a cycle of instability and insecurity in their housing.”

A Health Crisis

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have linked getting evicted to a number of alarming physical- and mental-health outcomes. It’s associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, as well as with high blood pressure and worse self-reported health overall.

Losing your home makes leading a healthy life more difficult logistically. Hernández pointed out that eating well is harder without a kitchen of your own, and that if you have diabetes and, say, no longer have a fridge, managing your insulin is more complicated.

Eviction wears on people’s mental health in normal times; during a pandemic, the stressors multiply. “People are already living with the challenges of potential wage loss and unemployment, academic stress, caretaking responsibilities, and social isolation,” Hernández said. “And then on top of that, to be evicted … it’s pressure upon pressure that eventually could make people fold.”

Moreover, people who get evicted tend to end up living in a more crowded space—whether that’s a shelter or the home of a friend or family member—and that increases their risk of getting exposed to the coronavirus. Researchers have quantified these dangers: Kathryn Leifheit, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, told me that she and her fellow researchers have estimated that during a six-month span of 2020, the expirations of state-level eviction bans were responsible for nearly 11,000 deaths and more than 430,000 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S.

A Crisis for Children

The numerous harms to children that are associated with evictions can start even before birth: The babies of mothers who get evicted during pregnancy are more likely to be born prematurely and to have a low birth weight (which in turn correlates with a higher chance of dying before age 1 and of not finishing high school on time). “Those facing eviction may engage in behaviors that are particularly harmful during pregnancy, such as forgoing meals and prenatal care or engaging in physically demanding work,” one study noted.

Later on in kids’ lives, evictions are linked to increased risks of developmental problems and lead poisoning. “When we think about forcing hundreds of thousands of children out of their homes now, it’s important to think not only of the immediate health implications like COVID-19 risk but also the ways in which evictions now may impair health for decades into the future,” Leifheit said.

An eviction also makes it harder for kids to attend and succeed in school. They may lose access to a quiet place to do their homework, and to Wi-Fi, which they may need to complete assignments or participate in virtual classes. The past year and a half has already been a turbulent period for kids’ schooling, Hepburn told me, and “the disruption that comes with eviction is a tremendous hardship to go through on top of everything else.”

A Work Crisis

Just as evictions disrupt school for kids, they disrupt work for adults. They can lead to poor sleep, which can affect people mentally and physically at work the next day. And lacking a shower while, say, living out of a vehicle can hurt people’s confidence at work and their co-workers’ perceptions of them.

And the disruption of an eviction (or even just the threat of one), Hernández said, can hinder people’s ability to focus on their job, whatever it may be. “Being cognitively available for work is important, but eviction weighs on people’s minds and spirits in ways that can be almost all-encompassing,” she told me. “It’s a constant worry, like, where are you going to sleep tonight? And if you’re a parent, how are your kids doing?”

Indeed, people who get evicted are more likely to lose their job than people who don’t.

During the pandemic, various eviction bans have been mitigating these ill effects. Hepburn told me that from September 2020 to the end of July, in the states and cities that Princeton’s Eviction Lab monitors—which represent about a quarter of rental households in the country—the total number of eviction filings was less than half of what would be expected in pre-pandemic times, despite the fact that about twice as many households were behind on rent than usual.

In theory, the upcoming crisis could be avoided if Congress passed its own version of the CDC moratorium, but it most likely isn’t going to. Congress has, however, already set aside $46.5 billion to go to renters—Hepburn says it’s plenty of money for people to pay the rent (and back rent) that they owe—but it’s being distributed frustratingly slowly. Hepburn and other housing experts are hoping that more cities and states take steps to slow or halt eviction proceedings, allowing more time for the money to get distributed and prevent a significant number of impending evictions. Otherwise, millions of people stand to lose their home, and a lot more.