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Eviction Crisis Grows Despite CDC's Moratorium

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a moratorium on evictions, it warned that rising homelessness could increase coronavirus infections. It's not an abstract worry. In cities like Houston and Phoenix, landlords have been filing hundreds of eviction notices per week. Bram Sable-Smith has been tracking the growing eviction crisis for Wisconsin Public Radio. He explains that COVID-19 is just one of the many health risks that come with losing your home.

BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: Even before Robert Pettigrew learned he might get evicted, his doctor gave him some bad news.

ROBERT PETTIGREW: She said, Robert, I want to talk to you and your wife. She took us to another room, and she said, you have an invasive mass on your lung.

SABLE-SMITH: It was March. The doctor advised Pettigrew to leave his job staffing the front desk at a Motel 6 in Milwaukee. She even wrote him a doctor's note saying his lung condition put him at high risk of developing deadly complications from COVID-19.

PETTIGREW: Working at a motel, it's kind of hard to social distance, you know? People are in your face all times.

SABLE-SMITH: Now being out of work has put Pettigrew's housing in jeopardy - the housing he needs to social distance, the home where he can rest and recover if doctors determine he needs lung surgery. In August, Pettigrew's landlord filed to evict him and his wife when they couldn't make rent. Complicating things further, Pettigrew's apartment has gotten fuller since his diagnosis. His daughter arrived in May from St. Louis after the day care where she worked shut down. She brought her 3-year-old son with her.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

PETTIGREW: This is my grandson.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

PETTIGREW: Say hi.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hi.

SABLE-SMITH: For millions of Americans like the Pettigrews, a home is a hard thing to hold on to right now. The CDC's eviction moratorium, announced earlier this month, explicitly tries to avoid housing instability. The idea is that family members should not be doubling up in housing or moving into homeless shelters right now.

Emily Benfer of Wake Forest University researches the link between housing and health.

EMILY BENFER: These are all settings where you increase your contact with other people, and by virtue of that, you increase your risk of contracting COVID-19 and spreading that virus.

SABLE-SMITH: Benfer says a growing body of research also links housing insecurity to other poor health outcomes - depression, delayed childhood development and other respiratory diseases, to name a few. And the health problems can crop up even before families lose their home.

BENFER: Overwhelming data demonstrates the link between the threat of eviction and anxiety and depression and stress.

SABLE-SMITH: Benfer says the eviction moratorium is a good first step, but without additional funds for rental assistance, the order merely stalls America's eviction crisis, rather than solve it. States have directed hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars into housing aid, but it's not enough. One estimate suggests Americans are over $21 billion behind in rent payments right now. Then there are the Americans who have already dealt with losing their homes, like Nicole MacMillan. She was laid off in March from her job managing vacation rentals in Fort Myers, Fla. Soon after, she also lost her apartment, where she lived with her two children.

NICOLE MACMILLAN: I actually contacted a doctor 'cause I thought, mentally, I can't handle this anymore. I don't know what I'm going to do or where I'm going to go, and maybe some medication can help me for a little bit, calm me down, help me focus.

SABLE-SMITH: But that doctor was not taking new patients. Her children are living with their fathers right now while MacMillan gets back on her feet.

MACMILLAN: I need a home for my kids again. It has ripped my whole life apart. I'm sorry (crying). I just want my kids back. I want my life back. And I want some normalcy.

SABLE-SMITH: In Milwaukee, Robert Pettigrew started working odd jobs like mowing yards or cleaning cars - work that limits his exposure to the virus. But it only brings in enough money for food. Then in August, he had a job cleaning some store windows when he saw a sign taped inside - a paper sign offering rental assistance.

PETTIGREW: The good Lord put me where I needed to be.

SABLE-SMITH: A local nonprofit paid his landlord directly for rent through September. He's thankful for the help, but he doesn't want pity. Life, he says, just kicks you in the butt sometimes.

PETTIGREW: But I'm the type of person - I'm going to kick life ass back.

SABLE-SMITH: The CDC's moratorium could help someone like Pettigrew stay in their home through December, but it's not automatic. Renters have to submit a form to their landlords. And starting in January, they may still be on the hook for all the rent payments they missed or face eviction again.

For NPR News, I'm Bram Sable-Smith in Wisconsin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WPR, Wisconsin Watch and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.