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Published — August 13, 2021

The life-or-death consequences of pandemic evictions

Maricopa County constable Lenny McCloskey posts an eviction order on the door of an apartment Sept. 30, 2020, in Glendale, Arizona. (John Moore/Getty Images)


More people died from the COVID-19 virus in places where protection against eviction either didn’t exist or lapsed in 2020, according to new research.

Seven experts from five universities cross-referenced coronavirus cases and deaths with data about where eviction moratoriums existed between March 13 and Sept. 3 of last year. 

During that time period, a federal eviction moratorium was in place for a few months, but it only applied to people in certain types of properties, leaving many renters vulnerable. At the time, states and local governments provided most of the protections for tenants, said Kathryn M. Leifheit, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow in health policy and management at the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enacted a more robust federal eviction moratorium in early September 2020.

Before then, the researchers found 433,700 additional COVID-19 cases and 10,700 excess deaths in places where eviction moratoriums either didn’t exist or lapsed. As of September 2020, there were 6.3 million cases and 193,000 deaths across the country.

“We’re talking about a significant share of those cases and deaths that we found were associated with these expiring moratoriums,” Leifheit said.

Meanwhile, financial assistance has been slow to reach tenants who fell behind on rent because of the pandemic. Nationwide, state leaders set aside at least $2.6 billion from the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund to prop up struggling renters, but a year later, more than $425 million of that — or 16% — hadn’t made it to renters or their landlords, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press.

And less than 20% of the $25 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance allocated in 2021 had been spent as of Aug. 9, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s tracker.We asked Leifheit to tell us more about the study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, and what will happen if the eviction moratorium expires before widespread rent relief reaches tenants.

How broad was your study?

We studied 44 states that ever had an eviction moratorium and among those, 27 of the states allowed their moratoriums to expire and 17 maintained the moratorium. So the way we do the study is by comparing those states that lifted their moratoriums to the states that kept them in place.

What did you find?

Kathryn M. Leifheit
Kathryn M. Leifheit (courtesy of Kathryn M. Leifheit)

After eviction moratoriums expire, we see this steady uptick in COVID cases and deaths. It takes a little time, which makes sense because in a lot of these states folks have to go through the entire eviction process before they ultimately might be displaced. But after seven to 10 weeks, we see a significant increase in cases and deaths. We find these cases and deaths could have been prevented if states had kept their moratoriums in place.

Can you walk us through what happens when families are evicted? How does that increase the likelihood of COVID sickness and death?

When you think about COVID specifically, when people get evicted, they often don’t have many options about where they go next. They might move in with friends and family, they might move into a shelter. Any of those things increase their opportunity for exposure to COVID-19, and it’s going to limit their ability to socially distance and take the kinds of precautions that in general can prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

There also are another couple of things that might be going on. It’s possible that the threat of an eviction leads people to take on work that could involve higher levels of exposure to COVID-19, and another thing we know is that evictions and the threat of evictions increase stress levels. In general when people’s stress levels are higher, their ability to maintain immune defenses are lower.

How did you reach these conclusions? In layperson’s terms, what data did you look at?

The data on COVID cases and deaths comes from Johns Hopkins’ dashboard, which has been monitoring COVID cases and deaths throughout the pandemic. We use a policy database compiled by my co-author Emily Benfer. She’s been working with a team of lawyers to determine when these eviction moratoriums were going into place at the state and local level. They have an incredibly detailed database that breaks down the kinds of protections that were in place. 

And we also use data compiled by my co-author Julia Raifman, who’s been working with a large team to track other social and public health policies that have been going on during the pandemic. And the reason we use those data is because we were trying as much as possible to control for or account for other public health policies that would have been in place at the same time as these eviction moratoriums were expiring. 

For example, you might worry that eviction moratoriums were expiring around the same time as they were reopening restaurants and that could potentially influence the association that we’re studying. So what we do is, we include those other public health measures in the model to try and, as best we can, to isolate the eviction moratoriums. 

Did your study find anything related to race and ethnicity or income levels?

We weren’t able to do that in our study, and the major limitation to the public health survey data we were using is that oftentimes the demographic information like race and ethnicity weren’t well captured, especially early in the pandemic. And then things like class are super important in terms of exposure risk to COVID, but again, a lot of states aren’t reporting out that information, so for this study we weren’t able to break it down, unfortunately. 

I say unfortunately because we know Black and Latinx renters face disproportionate risk of eviction, so we have every reason to believe that the associations we see here are particularly salient for Black and Latinx families and potentially may have exacerbated disparities in COVID-19.

What is a solution to this problem? What steps should politicians be taking to prevent more deaths resulting from evictions?

It was super important that the federal government extend the eviction moratorium at least to give states time to get rental relief out the door and into the hands of the renters who need it. I think that was an important stopgap measure. 

I think we all know, though, that the federal moratorium is facing a number of threats. So I think it’s important to highlight the fact that our study shows that local and state protections are also effective public health measures, so states can be thinking about stepping in and instituting their own moratoriums. 

In the intermediate term, it’s important that we get this emergency rental assistance out and that we help tenants and landlords settle their debts so that we’re not just kicking the can down the road and pushing this wave of evictions off by a couple months at a time. 

In the bigger picture, the research demonstrates that unaffordable housing made the pandemic worse in the U.S. We had this longstanding housing affordability crisis in our country, in which far too many families are unable to afford their rent, which is why so many people were in the precarious situation where they faced the risk of eviction overnight when this pandemic hit. And we saw that this economic crisis from COVID-19 became a housing crisis, which in turn exacerbated the health crisis, so there’s this kind of cyclicality between housing and health. It’s a cycle that’s really difficult for low-income families to get out of.

Sarah Kleiner is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @bysarahkleiner.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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