The shortage of affordable housing in the United States has resulted in many low income individuals and families experiencing housing instability, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While measures are being taken at local, state and federal levels to address these issues, examining whether these efforts will be enough was the topic of a virtual panel at Georgia State Law on November 17.
The Center for Law, Health & Society, Center for Access to Justice and Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth co-hosted “COVID, Housing and Health Disparities: Eviction During a Pandemic,” a collaborative session examining a critical legal issue at the intersection of the three centers. Professors Courtney Anderson and Lauren Sudeall along with law student Lisa Hwang (J.D. ’21) discussed the importance of secure housing to public health in the midst of a global pandemic.
Associate Professor Courtney Anderson, who recently authored A Pandemic Meets a Housing Crisis, says the United States only has enough affordable housing for 65% of Americans living at or below the poverty line.
“What are the other 35% to do? They have to choose between their basic needs and housing in light of the Fair Housing Act that promises them otherwise,” Anderson said. “If they don’t, then they have to face the consequences of being homeless, which includes high rates of chronic illness and infectious disease.”
The outbreak has worsened these health disparities as many people have lost their jobs and struggle to make rent or utility payments. This could create situations where people are doubled up with other families, which increases the proximity to other people and makes it very dangerous to safely shelter in place.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered an eviction moratorium through the end of the year after the federal CARES Act moratorium lapsed, Anderson says some landlords are finding loopholes to impose late fees and other charges.
Lisa Hwang, who is a graduate research assistant at the Fulton County Housing Court Assistance Center, echoed these concerns. Even prior to the pandemic in 2019, nearly 700 people came into the clinic for help annually.
“If you were evicted in March, once the CDC moratorium ends in January, that accumulated rent is up grabs for a landlord,” Hwang said. “These are low income and more marginalized individuals and families in Atlanta who are going to have to be facing judgment from the court of thousands of dollars for non-payment of rent.”
Backlogs of eviction proceedings are another concern, though Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Access to Justice Lauren Sudeall says it’s hard to determine the extent of the problem because of the lack of consistency throughout jurisdictions during the pandemic. Some courts have remained open, while others have moved hearings online, and yet others are not hearing cases at all.
Sudeall has co-authored two reports—one issued in May and the other in November—in conjunction with Sociology professor Daniel Pasciuti and several graduate students. In the latest report, Sudeall and her co-authors determined there was no statistically significant association between pre-COVID case volumes and the decision by courts to hear dispossessory cases. There was also no statistically significant association between rates of confirmed cases and the decision whether to keep the courthouse open or closed.
“The lack of consistency across counties makes it a lot harder for litigants to figure out what the procedures are in their court,” said Sudeall. “Every court has their own set of policies in place and yet, most individuals are going to turn to the internet for answers. What they find online may not be relevant to their county, if there are so many different policies across the state. This can make a confusing process even harder for people to navigate, particularly people who are already in a stressful situation, in danger of losing their home during a pandemic.”
The panelists agree that the policies currently in place act more as temporary fixes, and there is more that needs to be implemented to prevent housing instability in future emergencies.
“We need to take an honest look at what was happening prior to the pandemic, and how these laws and policies haven’t been enough,” Anderson said. “We need to look at how the courts interpret emergency orders and what public housing authorities can do to allocate funds and resources, and eviction assistance for low income tenants, especially.”
Written by Mara Thompson