Renters Use Credit, Debt to Avoid Eviction as COVID-19 Moratoriums Lift

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In this May 20, 2020, file photo, signs that read "No Job No Rent" hang from the windows of an apartment building during the coronavirus pandemic in Northwest Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
August 17, 2020
Through the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic, with much of the national economy shut down, many tenants still managed to pay their rent through a combination of unemployment assistance, credit card debt, and savings. 
Now, as eviction moratoriums are lifted and extra federal unemployment assistance dries up, there is a broad consensus among housing experts that an evictions crisis is inevitable. 
"These unemployment benefits that have proven so important to so many households have now lapsed, meaning greater financial distress for millions and the potential worsening of America’s housing affordability crisis," David Schwartz, chair of the National Multifamily Housing Council, said in a statement.
But the severity and timing of the crisis is hard to pin down, because tenants will often go to great lengths financially to avoid eviction, delaying the worst outcomes potentially for months. 
"The basic necessity to keep your family safe is a roof over their head, so families will divert all of their resources, all of their other expenses toward the rent to keep their family safely housed, especially during a pandemic," Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University, told Cheddar. "So you'll see increases in credit card usage, increases in food pantry usage, increases in applications for public benefits."
Benfer is one of several academics working with Princeton University's Eviction Lab, a collaborative research group founded in 2017, to track evictions in 17 cities across the country since the start of the pandemic. It counted 34,699 evictions as of Friday. 
While this shows that evictions continued even as many states banned them early on in the pandemic, the kinds of historic increases that some have predicted are still on the horizon.  
A recent report from the Aspen Institute, in partnership with the Eviction Lab, found that an estimated 30–40 million people in the U.S. could be at risk of eviction before the end of the year. The report also noted that 20.8 million renter households, or nearly half of the total, were already cost-burdened before COVID, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent. 
The percentage of income going to rent is likely to increase as tenants tap into savings, credit card debt, borrowing from friends and family, and stimulus money, according to the U.S. Census. 
"Pretty much across the board, all of those sources of rent are being used and depleted by tenants," Benfer said. 
Working down those savings may take some time as well. Back in April, personal savings hit a record 33 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, though it's unclear if lower-income renters make up a significant portion of the extra savings. 
Credit card payments, in particular, have played a crucial role in helping tenants pay their rent during the crisis.  
Zego, a property management platform, reported a 31 percent month-over-month increase in April of credit card usage for rent payments. After unemployment assistance and stimulus money kicked in, it still increased by 20 percent in May. 
While Cheddar was not able to obtain more recent data from Zego, Benfer suspects these numbers have remained heightened or have even increased now that federal assistance is tapering off. 
In addition to determined tenants, the delay is also partly due to the natural buffer that landlords often provide tenants.  
"You won't see a filing until there's been nonpayment for some time," Benfer said. "Many property owners will take partial rent and let you stay in the unit. A lot of property owners are really trying to keep people in housing during this time."
For the week ending August 6, 79.3 percent of renters made a full or partial payment, according to a survey of 11.4 million households from the National Multifamily Housing Council. 
That means 223,000 fewer households, or a drop of 1.9 percent, than in 2019 paid their rent. 
“While President Trump announced executive orders relating to rental assistance and continued unemployment benefits, it is unclear when and if those resources will be available to families, 
Schwartz said. "NMHC continues to urge the Trump administration and congressional leaders to restart negotiations and reach a comprehensive agreement on the next COVID relief package."
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