A Crown Heights building tenant stages a rent strike on May 1 in New York City
Angela Weiss—AFP/Getty Images
September 21, 2020 9:44 AM EDT

Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Marlenis Zambrano is out of money. A 48-year-old single mother in Virginia, she tried her best to get by after being furloughed from her Defense Department daycare job in March by selling homemade face masks and empanadas to help support her two dependent children, both in college. She twice applied for housing relief from Arlington County, but was denied because, at the time, she had $5,000 in savings intended for her daughter’s tuition.

With that money long gone, Zambrano is living off her credit card, racking up $5,000 in charges to pay for her Arlington, Virginia apartment. If she stops paying rent, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s evictions moratorium, enacted earlier this month, should help keep her and her family housed at least until 2021. But with debt piling up and no further financial relief in sight, she feels the CDC rule has merely delayed the inevitable.

“You close one hole, but you open many,” says Zambrano, of trying to keep up with her bills. “We don’t know how we’re going to get out of this situation if I don’t get back to work.”

Under the CDC moratorium, which superseded a patchwork of state eviction orders, families like the Zambranos can submit a pandemic hardship declaration to their landlords, which can block eviction for nonpayment of rent until the end of the year. The rule has postponed the imminent threat of eviction for up to 40 million Americans at risk of homelessness. However, true rent relief, as well as extended federal unemployment benefits and other forms of direct stimulus, remain stalled in Congress. Faced with a severe affordable housing shortage and a prolonged economic downturn amid a seemingly endless public health nightmare, struggling Americans are feeling the effects beyond their bank accounts, as months of uncertainty are wearing down people’s resolve and potentially exacerbating the country’s pandemic-era mental health crisis.

“It’s really stressful,” says Zambrano. “I try my best to be positive, but it’s hard to maintain it because at some point you think, ‘How am I going to make it?’”

Months of such uncertainty can have real consequences. In order to keep a roof over their heads, families may compromise on food, energy and health care bills, experts say. “These things not only take a physical toll, but they take a mental health toll,” says Dr. Megan Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine.

In a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics surveying more than 22,000 U.S. families, Sandel and other researchers found that those who had recently been behind on rent faced quadruple rates of food insecurity, twice the rate of maternal depression, and higher rates of child hospitalizations and developmental delays compared to those with stable housing. During the current recession and unemployment crisis, researchers think two or three times as many people may be feeling those effects. Indeed, recent studies have found that three times as many Americans are experiencing depression during the COVID-19 pandemic than beforehand.

“It’s no longer just a low-income family problem,” says Sandel. “This is something that is hitting more and more middle-income families.” And like so many other effects of the coronavirus pandemic, housing insecurity disproportionately affects households of color, with Black and Hispanic households reporting far higher rates of missed rent payments compared to white households, according to early June reports from the U.S. Census Bureau.

These conditions can have long-term consequences for young children especially. Developmental delays caused by persistent childhood stresses can have enormous effects along the course of a person’s life, reducing their likelihood to graduate high school or their lifetime earning potential. “This is a critical window of time,” Sandel says. “Being able to have that stable, decent, affordable home that allows kids to reach their potential is a public health emergency.”

Experts say the CDC eviction moratorium is only a temporary relief for families. It’s an unfunded program, meaning renters will still be expected to make up for their missed payments eventually. “This pushes the problem down the road,” says Peter Hepburn, an analyst at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “What needs to happen now is that Congress needs to step in to provide some sort of emergency rental assistance.”

Until it does, struggling families are likely to fall farther behind as back rent piles up. As of Sept. 13, nearly 14% of U.S. households failed to make that month’s rent payment—more than a quarter million more than had not paid as of the same date last year, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. Furthermore, while the CDC moratorium prohibits evictions due to nonpayment of rent, it still allows evictions for other lease infringements. That means at least some landlords are likely to claim other non-rent related violations, which in some lease agreements could be as minor as watching television too loudly, in order to kick renters out.

While four months without the threat of eviction is welcome for many on the edge, months of congressional deadlock have left families in a seemingly perpetual limbo. “The tracks are being laid right in front of the train,” says John Gainey, a staff attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. “The uncertainty puts a real strain on tenants.”

One of Gainey’s clients, Monique Jackson, is at least grateful for the bit of breathing room the CDC rule provides. She and her husband Shan fell more than $5,000 behind on rent for their one-story Jonesboro, Georgia ranch house after Shan lost his trucking job in March. Recently, Monique has been juggling her 13-year-old daughter’s remote learning schedule with calls to bill collectors, bargaining for an extra week here, an extra month there, trying to keep the lights on and prevent the furniture from getting carted out the door.

“It’s a little relief that you’re knowing that you have a while before you have to be out, but it’s still going to be a big thing once January comes and you don’t have the money,” says Monique of the CDC moratorium. “It’s just really buying a little bit of time. That’s it.”

The Jacksons worked for years to afford rent on a home they are now likely to lose once the moratorium expires. Shan, now 48, spent a decade working nearly 80-hour weeks in a Savannah sandwich shop. Before that, he spent three years handling 10-pound pork shoulders at a Tyson slaughterhouse in Iowa. Yet for years, the Jacksons could hardly afford decent housing, living in a state where rising living costs and weak affordable housing infrastructure have stacked the odds against low-income residents. In Atlanta, average rents have climbed 65% since 2010, while in Jonesboro, the suburb where the Jacksons live, rents shot up more than 25% in just the past three years. In Savannah, where average rents have increased more than 40% since 2005, Shan, Monique, their daughter Shania, and Monique’s grandson once lived together in a single hotel room.

Now, the prospect of losing their single-family home and all the progress it represents weighs on the Jacksons—though there is some hope. Shan is back to work at a new trucking job, and the family is expecting a check for unemployment benefits backpay that could pull them out of debt.

“We’re just trusting in God that he knows the situation, he knows what we’re going through,” says Monique. “I believe he’s not going to let us be out there [homeless] like that.”

While the CDC moratorium may temporarily keep millions of families in their homes, it’s unclear when, or even if, further assistance will arrive. House Democrats’ $3 trillion HEROES Act, stalled in Congress since May, allocated $100 billion for emergency rental assistance for those at risk of homelessness. A Republican counterproposal included just $3.3 billion for families already receiving federal housing assistance—an amount the National Low Income Housing Coalition called “a drop in an ocean of need.” Some housing experts have proposed federal loan programs, which could help tenants make rent while also keeping landlords solvent as they contend with mortgages or other financial pressures of their own, potentially helping to stabilize the wider economy in the process.

While some are pushing for short-term emergency relief, such measures won’t address what some say is a deeper issue that precipitated today’s crisis: a national shortage of affordable housing for low-income households. For families judged to be “extremely low income”—those at or beneath the poverty line or who earn 30% of their area’s median income—experts say the U.S. is short 7 million units nationwide. Advocates have proposed expanding national Housing Trust Fund state block grants for low-income housing and rental assistance programs like the Housing Choice Voucher program, as well as providing tax credits for rent-burdened families and reforming developers’ subsidies to incentivize building housing for the poorest renters.

“[Local governments] don’t really have the resources to deal with the magnitude of the problem,” says Mel Jones, a research scientist at the Virginia Center for Housing Research. “The problem was so big before COVID, and now it’s that much bigger.”

In absence of substantial help, there’s little for families like the Zombranos and the Jacksons to do but care for their families and hope for the best. “All I can do is go to work and try to make money so I can keep my bills paid the best way I know how,” says Shan Jackson. “That’s all I know how to do.”

Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com.

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