Right now, hundreds of thousands of our neighbors in Raleigh and throughout the state are facing eviction and homelessness during a pandemic. This crisis is not an inevitable consequence of COVID-19. It was created by a dual policy failure: unemployment and renter protections that perpetuate systemic racism and make moderate-income households vulnerable. North Carolina residents who have done nothing wrong, including families with children, will lose their homes and have to search for shelter if action is not taken.

The state’s unemployment system is built on the premise that minimal support for unemployed workers will provide an incentive to get them back to work. This approach fundamentally does not work if it is unsafe to work or if jobs are not available. On every measure, our state ranks behind national trends: Denial rates are high, payments are small, and benefits often expire after 12 weeks, which means workers laid off in April have already run out of benefits. Federal CARES Act funds provided supplemental income but expired at the end of July.

This means that by this month, the majority of the 500,000 workers who lost their jobs this spring will have no income. The state’s reopening has replaced some jobs, but limited reopening, caregiving needs, and a resurgent virus mean many are unable to return to work.

Like many Southern states, North Carolina has weak protections and limited access to legal services for tenants. Weak tenants’ rights make it quick and inexpensive for landlords to evict. Prior to COVID-19, eviction rates in three of the state’s cities were among the highest in the country, and the statewide eviction rate was almost double the national average.

The governor’s moratorium on evictions, put in place at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, kept families in their homes, but it expired on June 21, which means households began to be evicted by late July.

Between unemployment and exploitative eviction laws, hundreds of thousands of households and families will be forced from their homes, while the state’s infection rates are at their highest level since the beginning of the pandemic.

The pain this will inflict will be severe yet not borne equally. Renters with an eviction record may face difficulty finding housing for years. Black and Hispanic households are both more likely to be renters and to have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. These groups will represent a disproportionate share of the households who will be forced from their homes.

In the near term, rising homelessness will be a barrier to reaching stabilization for the state’s health crisis and employment rates. It will overburden social services, stretch thin local budgets, and further challenge school districts. Landlords throughout the state will also lose as they face vacancy and must cut rent to attract households that are still employed. No one will be better off as a result of mass evictions.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many ways the state of North Carolina could solve this problem, but only one that does not depend on the state legislature. North Carolina could reform and improve its unemployment insurance system and provide households with months of additional assistance through this crisis. It could dedicate state funding to emergency rental assistance to helping households make rent and mortgage payments as federal moratoriums expire.

The obstacle is that each of these actions would require the legislature to act to protect working households. To avoid mass evictions and a widespread homelessness crisis, Governor Cooper must reinstate the eviction moratorium immediately. While the moratorium is in place, the governor and the legislature can work together to appropriate funding and address the impending homelessness crisis.

Eventually, COVID-19 and the economic crisis it has sparked will pass. It will be important not to forget the lessons it teaches us—unemployment is rarely a choice, and tenants rarely fail to pay their rent by choice. We all need programs that provide us with support if we fall upon hard times. Now we need to find a will to make these programs a reality. 

UPDATE:

Yesterday, Governor Cooper announced statewide funding for eviction prevention, but as we have seen in similar programs put in place in the rest of the country, funding is likely to run out quickly without advancing long-term stability for impacted households. To avoid mass evictions and a widespread homelessness crisis impacting, Governor Cooper must reinstate the eviction moratorium immediately. While the moratorium is in place the Governor and the Legislature can work together to appropriate funding and address the impending homelessness crisis.

Eventually COVID-19 and the economic crisis it has sparked will pass. It will be important we not forget the lessons it teaches us – unemployment is rarely a choice, and tenants’ rarely fail to pay their rent by choice.  We all need programs that provide us with support if we fall upon hard times.


NOTE: The story was originally run in print under different bylines and has been updated to include the correct author. 

Sarah Kirk is a Director at HR&A Advisors, an economic development firm, and is based out of their Raleigh office.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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