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Why Millions Of Americans May Soon Face Eviction

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 1 out of every 4 renting households in the U.S. paid more than half of their monthly income in rent. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money look at why that financial challenge means millions of Americans may soon be at risk of eviction.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: The rent for the apartment that Kathie Seekircher shares with her husband in Camden, S.C., is $695 a month. And she cannot afford that on her wages from the assisted living facility where she now works.

KATHIE SEEKIRCHER: It's really difficult. My paycheck today was $595, and that's for two weeks.

GARCIA: But when the pandemic started, the federal government, along with state and local governments, they responded with policies to help avoid an immediate surge in evictions.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Congress and the president expanded unemployment benefits in the CARES Act passed in late March, which helped people who lost their jobs keep paying their bills, things like rent. Plus a lot of state and local governments put these moratoriums in place that would stop landlords from evicting tenants. The federal government added its own moratorium on evictions for a lot of housing complexes that it subsidizes.

GARCIA: But the expanded unemployment benefits expired at the end of July. The federal moratorium has also expired, and the moratoriums on evictions in at least 24 of the states that had them had also expired by the end of July, including the moratorium in Kathie's own state of South Carolina.

SEEKIRCHER: To be in that desperate situation - to be in that desperate situation and really feel like you've done everything you possibly can. You know, I'm a frugal person. I know how to pinch a good penny, but there was no pinch.

SMITH: According to the Census Bureau, roughly 1 out of 5 renters could not pay their rent on time in July, and August could be worse. Nearly 1 out of 3 renters said that either had no confidence or only slight confidence that they could pay their August rent.

GARCIA: For months, Kathie says that she herself could only pay partial rent. Her landlord kept a growing tab for her, running into the thousands of dollars.

SEEKIRCHER: My landlord was wonderful to be so patient with us, but he has to make money, you know? And I had reconciled in my head, like, how I was going to get rid of our stuff, how we were going to live in the car. And that was just going to be OK.

GARCIA: Meanwhile, in at least some parts of the country, hundreds of rental assistance programs have been directing their money to help prevent evictions. And a lot of them have received money from the federal government for this very purpose.

SMITH: And one of those organizations ended up helping Kathie. In fact, it was actually her landlord who put her in touch with a local program from the United Way that helps fight homelessness, this program called New Day. Kathie applied and got a grant from New Day. She was approved to receive about $4,000, and that money cleared all the back rent that Kathie owed her landlord.

SEEKIRCHER: I felt like I finally had a chance to get my head slightly above water so that I could breathe and it would give me that time that I needed to get my life together again.

GARCIA: The warning signs are flashing red, but so far, evictions are actually quite low in a lot of major cities.

SMITH: Remember that the expanded unemployment benefits and the state moratoriums on evictions only just expired a few weeks ago, and it could take a bit of time before the struggles that people are having in paying their rent translate into actual evictions. Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

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