When Robert Pettigrew finally saw the sign in August, he believed the “good Lord” had placed him in front of it.
The message: “Facing eviction? You could be eligible for up to $3,000 in rent assistance. Apply today.”
The sign appeared after Wisconsin had lifted a ban on most evictions during the coronavirus pandemic and after a landlord had filed paperwork to evict Pettigrew and his wife, Stephanie. Only then did Pettigrew glimpse the paper sign while being paid $20 to wash windows at Boost Mobile on Atkinson Avenue.
“There were nights I would lay in bed and my wife would be asleep, and all I could do was say, ‘God, you need to help me. We need you,’ ” Pettigrew said. “And here He came. He showed himself to us.”
Pettigrew’s household is among more than 4,000 in Milwaukee that have been faced with eviction since the coronavirus began spreading, according to data compiled by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which is tracking evictions in 17 cities during the pandemic. The Milwaukee filings eclipsed pre-pandemic averages in June and July but fell below averages for August.
Between March 15 and Sept. 19, landlords in Eviction Lab-tracked cities had filed for more than 50,000 evictiond, including about 11,600 in Houston, 10,900 in Phoenix and 4,400 in Columbus, Ohio. As many as 40 million Americans were faced with a looming eviction risk in August as millions remained jobless, having inconsistent access to public assistance, according to a report from 10 national housing and eviction experts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited that estimate on Sept. 1 in ordering an unprecedented nationwide eviction moratorium through the end of 2020.
That the country’s top public health agency ordered the moratorium again sends a message that experts have preached for years without prompting major policy action: Housing stability and health are intertwined.
Mounting research illustrates that even the threat of eviction takes a physical and mental toll on tenants. Children raised in unstable housing are more prone to hospitalization than children with stable housing. Homelessness is associated with delayed childhood development, and mothers in families that lose homes to eviction show higher rates of depression and other health troubles.
Patchwork of rental aid
A U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted before the CDC’s order estimated that 5.5 million American adults — including tens of thousands in Wisconsin — feared they were either somewhat or very likely to be faced with eviction or foreclosure in the next two months.
State and local governments nationwide are offering a patchwork of help in response.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers lifted the state’s 60-day moratorium on May 26, opening the gates to a surge of eviction filings: at least 8,275 were made statewide through Sept. 15, according to a search of an online database of Wisconsin circuit court cases.
Milwaukee has seen nearly half of those filings, which are disproportionately hitting Black-majority neighborhoods, according to an Eviction Lab analysis.
Evers also set aside $25 million in federal pandemic dollars for statewide renter relief. But there have been various barriers to the use of that program, including backlogs of applications and requirements that leave out some renters in need.
In the Pettigrews’ case, Community Advocates in August paid more than $4,700 in the Pettigrews’ rental payments, late charges, utilities and court fees. It also referred the couple to free legal help through the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, which moved to seal the eviction case to avoid damageing the Pettigrews’ renting record.
“Community Advocates really did what they needed to do to help people,” Stephanie Pettigrew said.
That helped guarantee the family housing at least through September. And the CDC order added more security as Robert awaits word on whether he must undergo lung surgery that would require a weeks-long recovery.
The federal eviction moratorium, if it withstands legal challenges from housing industry groups, “buys critical time” for renters to find assistance through the year’s end, said Emily Benfer, founding director of the Wake Forest Law Health Justice Clinic.
“It’s protecting 30 to 40 million adults and children from eviction and the downward spiral that it causes in long term, poor health outcomes,” she said.
But the moratorium is not automatic. Renters have to submit a declaration form to their landlords, agreeing to a series of statements under threat of perjury, including, “my housing provider may require payment in full for all payments not made prior to and during the temporary halt and failure to pay may make me subject to eviction pursuant to state and local laws.”
Confusion surrounding the CDC’s order means some tenants are still being ordered to leave their homes.
Doctor: Evictions akin to ‘toxic exposure’
Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, said at least a third of the 14,000 families whose children are seen at the center have fallen behind on their rent, a figure mirrored in national reports,
Hospital officials worry that a spike in evictions will lead to a great increase in the number of patients who are homeless, a condition often associated with high medical costs. One study from 2016 found that stable housing reduced Medicaid spending by 12%. That is because although primary care use increased 20%, more expensive emergency room visits dropped by 18%.
Sandel said the real way to avoid a rapid increase in evictions is to offer Americans substantially more emergency rental assistance along the lines of the $100 billion included in what House Democrats deemed the Heroes Act. Boston Medical Center is among the 26 health care associations and systems that signed a letter urging Democratic House and Republican Senate leaders to agree on rental and homeless assistance as well as a national moratorium on evictions for the entire pandemic.
“Without action from Congress, we are going to see a tsunami of evictions, and its fallout will directly impact the healthcare system and harm the health of families and individuals for years to come,” the letter stated.
Groups representing landlords urge passage of rental assistance too. They point out that property owners must pay bills as well and may lose apartments when renters can’t or won’t pay.
“Not only does an eviction moratorium not address renters’ real financial needs, a protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, said in a Sept. 1 statement.
In Milwaukee, Community Advocates is helping the Pettigrews look for an affordable apartment. Robert Pettigrew continues to search for safe work and look to the future with a sense of resolve — and a request that no one pity his family.
“Life just kicks you in the butt sometimes,” he said. “But I’m the type of person — I’m gonna kick life’s ass back. I’m going to…do what I have to do to make sure that my family’s okay until they put me in the ground. And then after that, it’s up to God.”