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How evictions impact tenants far beyond scrambling to find housing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

About a year into the pandemic, after millions of people lost their jobs, Congress approved nearly $50 billion to help renters pay back rent and avoid eviction. That money trickled out slowly through a patchwork of state and local programs. Some tenants had a hard time taking advantage of it. Add to that an evolving expiration date on federal, state and local eviction bans. It was a lot to keep track of, said Ann Orshay (ph), a renter in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "KPBS INVESTIGATES")

ANN ORSHAY: Because there are all these different dates floating around and things are changing, like, it can become a full-time job to kind of sort through what the law is today.

SHAPIRO: In August, the Supreme Court struck down the CDC's federal eviction moratorium. And since then, evictions have spiked in some cities. Cristina Kim, the race and equity reporter at KPBS, talked to renters in San Diego, and she shares their stories in a two-part audio documentary. Hi, Cristina.

CRISTINA KIM: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Before we dig into your local reporting, give us a sort of report card on these eviction bans and rental assistance programs across the country. How have they worked out for renters?

KIM: So it's hard to answer that on a national level because, as with all things housing-related, it often looks really different depending on where you live. But what we do know is that eviction bans, even if they were just Band-Aids, did temporarily keep a lot of renters housed, and rental assistance made sure that landlords collected some rent. Last month, the Treasury Department estimated that somewhere between 25 and $30 billion in rental assistance will have flowed out by the end of the year to several million households around the country. But there's still a lot of money left on the table, and the dispersal of these funds really varies by state, even though some states like Texas say all their emergency rental assistance funds have been allocated.

SHAPIRO: So nationally, it sounds like only about half the $50 billion has made it to renters and landlords. But the money is finally getting out there. What have the obstacles been?

KIM: For the most part, some of these programs have gotten a little better at getting the money out over time, but it just hasn't been seamless. In the beginning, it was really confusing, and money was slow to get out. Here in San Diego County, there are three different programs for rental assistance. And the reality is that we know that despite rental relief and eviction protections, some renters were still locked out of their homes, especially early on - renters like Gabriel Guzman. He's a veteran and a father from Chula Vista, Calif., who I spoke to for the podcast. He was evicted in 2020. Here's a clip from the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "KPBS INVESTIGATES")

GABRIEL GUZMAN: We were actually without a place for a month, and that was really scary - and a lot of anxiety attached to that. And even my youngest daughter, my 3-year-old, would always ask when we would go home. She's like, I got to go home. And she would cry. And even now, she'll go from her room at night and cry into ours and kind of check to see whether we're there, that we're in the same place. So we don't know what the long-term effects are going to be on all three of my kids.

KIM: He actually didn't apply for rental assistance early on because he thought it should go to needier families. He and his family did find a new place to live. Unfortunately, that new place is not wheelchair-friendly. So for the time being, his stepdaughter, who requires a wheelchair, is living away from her siblings and living with her grandma.

SHAPIRO: Another story that you tell in the series is about a renter named Vanessa Houston. She and her mother, Frances, were evicted just two days after San Diego County's eviction ban expired. What happened to them?

KIM: Yeah. So San Diego County actually had a really strict eviction ban that prohibited landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent, as well as block landlords from kicking out tenants for other reasons, like if they wanted to remodel the building. But then just days after that county ban expired, Vanessa and her mom came home to white envelopes telling them they had to leave because the unit was being remodeled. Their new landlord offered them the opportunity to move back in but told them that the rent would jump from 1,100 to $1,550 a month. That's a 40% jump in rent. Vanessa and her mom, though - like, they live on limited incomes, and they couldn't afford it.

SHAPIRO: You talked to her a few weeks after she got that news, and the story of what happened to them next is part of the podcast. So let's listen to a chunk of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "KPBS INVESTIGATES")

VANESSA HOUSTON: I'm still at it, still trying to find a place.

KIM: It's hard to find a place she and her mother can afford. The average rent for a place in El Cajon is over $1,400 a month for a one-bedroom, according to Zumper, an online rental marketplace. That's a 7% increase in rental costs in the last year alone. And in nearby San Diego city, the average rent is over $2,000. Vanessa and her mom also face other barriers like credit scores.

HOUSTON: A lot of these places say they want - your credit rate has to be, like, 600. And unfortunately, my mom has 570. I have 470. And we're not getting anywhere.

KIM: The cost of getting their credit score checked is also adding up. Each time they apply, they have to pay a fee to the landlord or management company to run a credit check.

HOUSTON: They're charging 35, $45 per person to do a credit check.

KIM: That's just one expense in a growing list of costs and fees that Vanessa and other people who have been pushed out and need to relocate are dealing with. They also have to pay for things like moving boxes, cleaning supplies, U-Hauls, movers and, as the search for apartments gets tighter, storage facilities.

HOUSTON: The manager told me that it looks good on our end, that we most likely got the apartment. And he said he'll keep me posted. I'm supposed to find out on Saturday. So I'll keep my fingers crossed because my whole intentions was I was getting too tired for this and I'm, like, fighting a losing battle type thing, trying to get an apartment, that I actually was thinking about just go get some boxes, put all my stuff in storage and was going to just leave.

KIM: Putting her stuff in storage will cost her anything from 100 to $300 a month - money she doesn't have. But the idea of selling or donating everything they own doesn't feel possible. The clothes, television, photographs - it's all they have.

SHAPIRO: An excerpt there from Cristina Kim's KPBS podcast - and so how does that story end? Where did they end up?

KIM: Yeah, you can hear Vanessa tried for weeks to find an apartment that was both affordable and had enough space. And she got close so many times. But in the end, it just didn't work out, and she couldn't find anything. Ultimately, she did put her stuff in storage and ended up driving across the country to live with a friend who offered to put up Vanessa and her mom rent-free until they can get on their feet again. I actually talked to Vanessa just a few days before Christmas, and she told me she was really missing San Diego and so was her mom. But she just couldn't afford to stay here anywhere in California.

SHAPIRO: You know, the thing that struck me listening to the podcast was the number of different obstacles there are. It's not like there's one thing you can fix to solve this problem. Prices keep rising. Financial help is available, but maybe somebody doesn't apply or the assistance never comes through. So when you pile all those together, a lot of people are getting evicted. What long-term consequences does that have?

KIM: Right. It really can put people into a cycle of debt and housing instability, as well as increased negative health outcomes. I actually asked Gilberto Vera about that. He's the senior attorney for the housing team here at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "KPBS INVESTIGATES")

GILBERTO VERA: One, they could have an eviction on their record. Two, they're going to get a negative reference, likely from the landlord who is evicting them. And then three, they're going to be saddled with thousands of dollars of rental debt to their current landlord when they do eventually move. So it's going to make it not only hard to find housing, but it's going to impact their credit for years.

KIM: So as you can hear, evictions can really take a toll on families and households for years to come. So as we move into 2022 and if we do continue to see evictions rise, we're going to really have to keep on looking at what these consequences are going to mean for San Diego, for California and for the rest of the country.

SHAPIRO: That's KPBS' race and equity reporter Cristina Kim. Her full reporting on this appears in her two-part series on evictions for the "KPBS Investigates" podcast. Cristina, it's been great talking with you. Thank you.

KIM: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.