CHELSEA, Mass. – As Congress remains deadlocked on the next round of coronavirus relief, evictions are resuming in dozens of states, putting millions of Americans at risk of being kicked out of their homes.
A study released Friday from the Aspen Institute estimated that as many as 40 million people in the U.S. could be at risk of eviction over the next several months. Some 80% of those facing eviction are Black or Latino, the analysis of U.S. Census survey data shows.
For Elizabeth Souffrant, a Black single mother, it's already too late. She's been sleeping in her car with her 7-year-old son in Chelsea, Mass., for the past couple weeks.
"It's hot and uncomfortable and cramped," Souffrant said. "I have to hear him complain, so I have to be patient."
Souffrant said she first lost her job as a hairstylist for homebound seniors due to the coronavirus, then she lost the place where she and her son were temporarily staying after they overstayed their welcome.
"When I have a 7-year-old boy that stares at me and says, 'What next, Mom?'" Souffrant said, swallowing a lump in her throat, "I have to have an answer. I have to be strong. I have no choice."
Although Massachusetts' moratorium on evictions is not set to expire until October, it doesn't cover predicaments such as Souffrant's. Still, with dozens of state eviction moratoriums now expiring, tenants even in secure housing, for the time being, have been worried.
Betty Lewis, 69, has lived in her apartment in Mattapan, Mass., for the past 38 years. When the leasing company raised her rent, she said she could no longer afford it on a fixed income.
"I'm scared," Lewis said. "I'm scared I won't have nowhere to go."
President Trump's executive order this past weekend directed his administration to do everything in its power to stop evictions from happening, but without the help of Congress, the White House can do only so much.
"President Trump is directing his administration to take all lawful measures to prevent residential evictions and foreclosures resulting from financial hardships caused by COVID-19," a senior White House official said Tuesday, adding that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "will consider measures to temporarily prohibit residential evictions of any tenants for failure to pay rent due to COVID-19 hardships to prevent the further spread of COVID-19."
As the legislative impasse over coronavirus economic relief continues, housing advocates have been pleading with Congress to step on the gas.
"The tsunami will hit our community and the tsunami will come hard," said Gladys Vega, the director of the Chelsea Collaborative, a community resource organization in one of the cities hit hardest by the virus in all of Massachusetts. "Our housing caseload is close to 4,000 people that we have in eviction proceedings."
Mitch Matorin, a landlord who owns two properties, said he's taken a big hit due to the pandemic, too. He's suing to overturn Massachusetts' moratorium, saying he hoped to continue eviction proceedings.
"You still have all the costs that go along with operating the property, but none of the income," Matorin said, adding that the last thing he wanted to do was put anyone out in the street in the middle of a pandemic – but his bills were piling up. He said one of his tenants has not paid rent since December, long before the pandemic took hold – and now, his hands are tied. "You still have your property taxes. You still have your property insurance. You still have the utilities and the water in the sewer, which I am paying for the tenant who is not paying the rent," Matorin said.
Steve Meacham of CityLife/Vida Urbana, another Boston-area community resource organization, argued that evicting people in the middle of a pandemic would create more problems than it would solve.
"It is not only heartless, but it would also be a public health disaster and it would be an economic disaster," Meacham said. "I think it's fairly clear now that we can't recover economically until we recover from COVID."
Back in Chelsea, Vega was able to secure Souffrant and her son a hotel room for a few nights, until they could figure something else out.
Her little boy's eyes lit up as they walked into the room and he saw a bed that he could call his own for the first time in weeks.
"Shoes, shoes," he said, placing them under the bed and finding a place for his mask on the desk.
It was only temporary, but it sure beat another balmy summer night sleeping in Elizabeth's car.