A federal judge in Washington has struck down a national policy that prevented countless evictions during the coronavirus pandemic – a move that advocates worry could push vulnerable families and youth into homelessness, and potentially into the foster care system as well.
Under the crushing economic burden of societal shutdowns since early 2020, more than 11 million American households are now behind on rent or mortgage payments, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But throughout the public health crisis, they’ve been protected by a moratorium on evictions, prompted early last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now, “these households, who are disproportionately minority parents with children, are at imminent risk of homelessness,” said Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare.
Inadequate housing has long been a driving factor into foster care, federal data shows, representing 1 in 10 children entering the system. Thus a growing number of families headed toward eviction poses grave prospects for the child welfare system.
In much of the country, the federal protection against eviction has been “the only piece of public policy that stands between families that have suffered medically and economically during COVID, and the street,” said Susan McDowell, CEO of the Texas-based nonprofit Lifeworks, which works with vulnerable youth and families in Austin.
In Wednesday’s ruling, Judge Dabney Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that despite the unprecedented public health challenges imposed on the American public by the pandemic, the CDC did not have the legal authority to issue the moratorium.
The Biden administration’s Justice Department immediately announced it will appeal the ruling by the Trump-appointed judge.
The CDC order to halt evictions, issued in September and extended this past March, called the moratorium necessary for infected or COVID-19-exposed people to remain isolated, and for local governments to more easily issue stay-at-home orders. Its aim was also to keep homeless shelters – where the risk of spreading coronavirus is especially high – from becoming overcrowded.
“The harm to the public that would result from unchecked evictions cannot be undone,” Justice Department acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton said in a statement Wednesday.
The ruling is on hold until at least May 12, as battles for a longer delay play out.
Once lifted, renters behind on payments in the majority of the country would be unprotected and subject to eviction. Fifteen states, including California and New York, as well as some local jurisdictions that have enacted local eviction bans, would not be impacted by a reversal in the federal policy.
Low-income families with children and young adults have been among those most devastated by the pandemic, quickly losing financial stability as jobs and child care options vanished virtually overnight last spring. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that in nearly half of low-income families, at least one member lost their job or had hours cut and that a third struggled to pay for basic needs like rent and food.
Homelessness for these families means more than an increased risk of catching the coronavirus in crowded shelters or tent encampments, advocates say: Research shows that homeless kids whose families are investigated by child welfare authorities are about 34 times more likely to enter foster care than stably housed children, according to a brief by the public policy, research and service organization Casey Family Programs.
Housing instability can also delay reunification for parents fighting to regain custody of their children who’ve been taken into foster care – a process already hobbled by pandemic-inflicted slowdowns.
Advocates point to the destabilizing effect sudden homelessness can have on former foster youth, who are often clinging precariously to low-income housing. According to a series of national surveys by the nonprofit FosterClub, more than 80% of respondents reported being laid off or losing work hours during the pandemic, many unable to obtain unemployment benefits or access stimulus payments.
After an impossibly hard year, and “right at the time when recovery may be in sight because of the vaccines,” McDowell said, an eviction would be “a real setback.”
White, of the Maryland-based housing center, said whether or not the Justice Department's appeal of Wednesday’s district court ruling is successful, evictions will resume at some point soon: The CDC’s order was set to expire June 30.
And long-term solutions are long overdue for households that will be left with insurmountable debt in back rent and unpaid bills.
To help families working to reunify or those at risk of entering foster care get caught up on rent, child welfare agencies should distribute emergency pandemic relief funding, she said. The agencies should also do a better job of connecting their clients with public housing funds, she added.
“No family should lose their children to foster care because of this,” White said.