In late November, Rian de Laat reached the end of her rope. Over the past year, her mom had received a cancer diagnosis, her dad had undergone major surgery, and de Laat, 44, had been laid off from her job at a biotech startup. But her chief concern was the fact that she was now responsible for the mortgage not only on her own home–a quaint one-story bungalow just south of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood–but also on an investment property, an unassuming two-bedroom condo eight miles north in Shoreline. Her tenant, Ollie Aldama, had lost his job at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, began struggling to make his utility payments and ultimately stopped paying his monthly rent of $1,800. By Thanksgiving, he owed de Laat more than $20,000.
State and national eviction moratoriums prevented de Laat from kicking Aldama out amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet her own financial situation wasn’t flush enough to float him indefinitely. After months of anxiety, she decided to use a loophole in the law: she could force him out by moving into her rental condo herself.
But when it came time to deliver the final notice of eviction on Nov. 30, de Laat, who has previously faced housing insecurity, broke down. De Laat had become friends with Aldama, who had been the bar manager at a local goth club where she was a regular. She knew if she evicted him, he and his partner, who is laid up with bad hips, would have nowhere to go. “He teared up, and I teared up,” de Laat recalls. “I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t, in the middle of a pandemic, evict them.”
Landlords and tenants across the country are navigating similar situations. As COVID-19 shuttered bars and restaurants and devastated the blue collar job market, millions of Americans watched their financial security vanish. While the unemployment rate has leveled off in recent months, more than a third of U.S. adults are still struggling to pay basic household expenses, according to a January Census Bureau survey, and 11% reported that their households didn’t get enough to eat the prior week. Nearly 12 million U.S. renters were expected to owe an average of almost $6,000 in late rent and utility payments per household by January, according to a December analysis by the economic research firm Moody’s Analytics.
So far, many of those tenants have gotten a reprieve. Several cities, like Seattle, and states, including Washington, have made it temporarily illegal for landlords to evict most tenants for nonpayment during the pandemic. In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strengthened these protections by issuing a federal ban on most evictions through January, which President Joe Biden extended through March 31. But these short-term fixes leave open the question of what happens when the eviction moratoriums expire in the coming months. Housing advocates predict both a tsunami of evictions and a significant rise in homelessness. “If we do not find a way to keep people in their homes, it’s going to be overload,” says Jeanice Hardy, regional director of family and related services for the YWCA serving Seattle and King and Snohomish counties. “There’s not enough shelters to go around.”
On social media, the looming eviction crisis is often rendered in Dickensian caricature: greedy fat-cat landlords pushing vulnerable tenants into the street amid the worst health crisis in a century, while activists demand that the government “cancel rent” entirely. The reality, as the case of Aldama and de Laat shows, is more complicated. More than 70% of properties with four or fewer rental units aren’t owned by fat cats at all, according to the National Association of Realtors, but rather people like de Laat: mom-and-pop landlords who often live nearby; manage the property themselves; and rely on the rental income to pay their own mortgages, health care bills and monthly expenses. Almost half the nearly 49 million rental units in the U.S. are owned by individuals, who tend to offer more affordable housing in their communities than the billion-dollar conglomerates that build high-rises with marble counters and rooftop pools.
These small landlords are shouldering a huge burden during the pandemic. For many, it’s increasingly untenable. De Laat, who has since found a good new job working in gene therapy for a pharmaceutical company, is on better financial footing now. She remains “morally opposed to putting people out if they can’t pay, especially under these circumstances,” she says, but notes that “every bit” of the extra income she’s making goes toward paying for Aldama’s housing. “It’s not sustainable,” she says. “But I also don’t see a means for them ever to be able to work on paying stuff back.”
Ollie Aldama’s story may sound painfully familiar to millions of working-class Americans. After suffering a severe bout of necrotizing pancreatitis in 2014 that left him in a three-month coma, he struggled to get back on his feet, plagued by a rare condition that causes his bones to grow where they shouldn’t. His knees, basically fossilized, preclude him from taking a trade job, and his weakened immune system makes in-person roles particularly dangerous amid a pandemic. While he was once a phlebotomist, his health certifications have long since expired.
Before COVID-19, Aldama took home about $35,000 a year on average. Now he’s bringing in about a third of that, delivering takeout through DoorDash and Postmates. “I don’t really ever buy new things,” says Aldama, 40, noting that everything that he’s wearing, except his socks and underwear, is used. But no amount of thriftiness is enough to take him out of the red now, he adds, puffing on a half-dozen cigarettes over the course of an hour-long interview. “There’s never been a point in my adult life,” he says, “where I ever thought I would be a hair’s width away from living on the street.”
While COVID-19 has impacted almost all Americans in some way, those with the lowest incomes have been the hardest hit–both by the virus and by the financial crisis that it precipitated. According to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, financially vulnerable counties–as measured through delinquency patterns on debts like credit-card bills and car loans–saw higher ratios of COVID-19 infections and deaths than counties with lower delinquency rates. As of mid-July, the high-delinquency counties saw an average of 4.3 cases per 1,000, while other counties saw 2.8 cases out of 1,000, according to the report. Likewise, while 14% of upper-income earners reported in August that they or someone in their household had lost their job or wages as a result of the pandemic, the share of low-income people in that position was 33%, according to the Pew Research Center. People of color have had it even worse. Black individuals as a whole are nearly twice as likely as non-Hispanic white individuals to die from a COVID-19 infection, and Black and Hispanic people are more likely than white people–by margins of 5 and 9 percentage points, respectively–to have lost their jobs at the outset of the pandemic, according to a Washington Post–Ipsos poll.
Stephen Musa, 29, embodies these racial disparities. After a welding job he’d been promised in Seattle disappeared in October, he fell more than $4,000 behind on rent and has since struggled to provide for himself and his 5-month-old son. His dream job is opening and running a food truck that serves West African soul food, but right now, just getting by is tough. “Everything you hear is that the rest of the world is trying to go to the U.S. to get a better future,” says Musa, who immigrated as a teenager from Liberia. “[But] you come here and see that it is not that easy.”
Musa is grateful to the YWCA, a nonprofit that works to eliminate racism, empower women and advance equity, for working with his rental-property company to forgive his back rent. But settling that debt is just the beginning, he says. Despite applying for at least a dozen jobs, he has yet to secure a consistent source of income and worries about keeping a roof over his family’s head when the eviction moratoriums end this spring. The management of the apartment complex has been sympathetic so far, he says, but that hospitality is unlikely to last forever. “The people that own these buildings have to pay their mortgages,” he says. “They have to make money.”
Racial inequities in housing–a legacy, in part, of decades of racist mortgage and zoning laws–are visible in the eviction threat. Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population, but Black renters like Musa make up 35% of the evictions carried out since March, despite the moratoriums, according to Princeton’s Eviction Lab. The risk is especially high for Black women, who collectively have faced 25% more evictions than Black men since most state and local moratoriums took effect last spring and summer.
Meanwhile, roughly 75% of landlords across the U.S. are white, according to a survey by Foremost Insurance Group. The share of white landlords is even higher in Seattle, per the city auditor. This creates an uncomfortable dynamic, says Edmund Witter, the managing attorney of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, which provides free legal aid to renters facing eviction. When one racial group is “dependent on the other for a basic need,” he says, “there is something that feels inherently wrong about that.” Musa’s rental complex is owned by a trust that lists an all-white senior leadership team on its website.
The federal government has yet to address the looming eviction crisis with a viable long-term plan. In December, Congress allocated $25 billion in emergency rental assistance, which state and local governments can use to reimburse landlords whose tenants haven’t paid rent. This comes after some local governments received block grants from the CARES Act to stave off evictions. But neither contribution is likely to be enough, says Mark Ellerbrook, the division director of housing and community development for King County, home to Seattle.
In an effort to ensure the federal money is distributed equitably, local governments have imposed a patchwork of stipulations. For example, 78% of emergency rental-assistance programs require that landlords not evict their non-rent-paying tenants, with 10% of those programs requiring an agreement not to evict for a period of seven months or longer, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). Other areas require landlords to freeze rent. In King County, tenants must earn 50% or less of the area’s median income and landlords must agree to accept 80% of the rent they are owed to be eligible. De Laat, who is considering applying for the funds, notes that even if she received the aid, she would not be made whole, since Aldama now owes more than the county’s reimbursement cap, which is around $20,000.
Another problem is that most local governments, facing their own budget crises, lack the staff to distribute the cash in a timely manner. Instead, some counties are leaning on nonprofits, many of which are also understaffed and underfunded, to manage the new program. Meanwhile, in pricey areas like Seattle, plenty of tenants make more than the local median income yet still can’t afford their rent, Ellerbrook points out. And some landlords may be put off by the bureaucratic hurdles of applying for aid–a reality that may drive mom-and-pop landlords out of the rental market, leading to a long-term decrease in affordable rental housing in communities where it was already scarce.
Alex Brendon, who owns an investment property in the Seattle area, is among a growing group of small landlords considering getting out of the rental game altogether. After losing his own job in July and struggling to support two toddlers, Brendon was unable to evict his tenant, even though that tenant had stopped paying rent three months before COVID-19 began spreading rapidly in the U.S. After 10 months–and more than $18,000 in unpaid rent–Brendon took back ownership of his unit by moving into it himself.
On the presidential campaign trail, Biden proposed ambitious solutions that would ease conditions for both Americans struggling to afford rent and for their landlords. Among those suggestions was making Housing Choice Vouchers an entitlement benefit, akin to Medicaid and Social Security. Colloquially known as Section 8 vouchers, the current program does not guarantee that low-income people who qualify for help will receive it. On average, eligible families wait 1½ years before obtaining a voucher. For some, the delay is much longer: a quarter of the largest public-housing authorities in the country have waiting lists that stretch at least seven years, according to the NLIHC. To avoid making families wait that long, the King County housing authority opts to use a computer-randomized lottery system. But in 2020, that meant only about 2,500 of the 20,000 eligible families who applied for housing vouchers made it onto the waiting list, which attempts to place families in about five years’ time. Expanding the program would ensure that low-income tenants like Aldama and Musa were housed regardless of their employment situation and that landlords like de Laat and Brendon got paid at least part of the rent they were owed–even if tenants fell behind.
Biden has also suggested building new public-housing communities that don’t resemble the dilapidated projects of yesteryear. Low-income housing advocates envision 100-acre, mixed-income neighborhoods sprinkled with coffeehouses, doctors’ offices, public schools, community centers and library branches, all within walking distance.
Greenbridge, a housing community in unincorporated King County just south of Seattle’s city limits, is something of a model. It has 325 subsidized housing units scattered among hundreds of other affordable homes. Families from different socioeconomic groups share parks and more than five dozen public art installations. The subsidized residents are shielded in periods of economic duress: they pay up to 30% of their income toward rent, while public-housing authorities pick up the remainder. If a resident’s income declines because of a layoff or reduction in work hours, their monthly rental burden follows suit. The system is designed to boost residents out of poverty and to prevent their children from falling into the same trap. “We like to say that if we’re raising the next generation of public-housing applicants, we failed,” says Stephen Norman, the executive director of the King County housing authority, which developed the project.
Affordable-housing advocates are enthusiastic about Biden’s proposals but caution that they would be expensive and complicated to implement. Nationally, less than a quarter of American families who meet eligibility requirements for public-housing assistance are beneficiaries of it, according to a 2014 report from the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank, and on average, those who do benefit from public-housing projects wait nine months to be placed, according to the NLIHC. Within the idealistic Greenbridge neighborhood, placement takes much longer: if Aldama met the qualifications for a subsidized one-bedroom unit there, he’d be joining a queue that is currently more than 10 years long.
Like more than 10 million Americans in a similar situation, Aldama doesn’t have that kind of time. The federal eviction moratorium will expire at the end of March, and it’s unclear whether state and local governments or the federal government will extend their bans, or for how long. “I know how close we are to not having a roof over our heads,” Aldama says, adding that he is aware that he and his partner remain in their home largely because of de Laat’s patience. “There’s not a day that I don’t think about how grateful I am,” he says.
But, like de Laat, Aldama knows the current arrangement is unsustainable in the long run. And neither of them sees an easy way out. Aldama will continue to do food deliveries as long as his clunker of a car starts, and he plans to apply for more in-person jobs after he’s vaccinated. But for now, the possibility of making enough to pay his rent next month–much less his back rent–would be laughable if it weren’t so scary. When I set out to leave his condo, he suggests I stop by a homeless encampment down the road. “There’s probably 150 people living there,” Aldama says of the intersection of Lake City Way and NE 125th Street.
Look closely, he adds. He may join them soon.
–With reporting by Mariah Espada/Washington
This appears in the March 01, 2021 issue of TIME.