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Discussions about the impact of COVID-19 on children have primarily centered around disruptions in education. Some students are approaching a year since they have been in the classroom, and the challenges and inequities of virtual learning are well documented. But as momentum and planning for reopenings have grown, an issue continues to be overlooked: housing and the looming eviction cliff. Housing insecurity undermines children’s education, and unless we address it, the return to in-school instruction will not solve the inequities harming so many children.
Millions of individuals have lost their jobs and been pushed into poverty since the start of the pandemic, creating and exacerbating housing insecurity. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks 5 states and 27 cities in the US, has reported1 that more than 270 000 evictions have been filed since the pandemic began. As of February 2021, about 5.2 million households with children were behind on rent, and 46% of those said they would likely have to leave their home in the next 2 months, while an additional 4.5 million homeowners with children were behind on mortgage payments.2
On September 4, 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an eviction moratorium, which prevents landlords from removing tenants who have not paid their rent.3 While this was a much-needed step, in practice it has 2 fundamental weaknesses. It has not prevented some families from losing their homes, and it does not relieve families of their obligations to pay back rent, fees, penalties, or interest, which means renters could face insurmountable debts when the moratorium expires at the end of June.
First, many renters are losing their homes despite the moratorium. The moratorium still allows landlords to file the eviction; it just cannot be enforced during the moratorium period. Many renters choose to leave when an eviction is filed, because they either do not know their rights or have concerns that an eviction record may prevent them from securing other housing.
If a renter chooses to fight the eviction, they bear the burden of proof on numerous issues, including that they cannot pay the full amount (because of lost income or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses), they have made best efforts to make partial payments, they have no other available housing options, and more. This burden, coupled with a general lack of legal representation, leaves renters at a considerable disadvantage.
Landlords have found other loopholes that prevent renters from claiming eligibility under the moratorium at all. Landlords have the option to nonrenew a lease for any reason or evict for other violations of the contract, such as damaging property.
Finally, in some jurisdictions, certain judges have been reluctant to enforce the moratorium. A judge in Georgia refused to consider a renter’s CDC paperwork, asserting, “The CDC, as far as I know, has no control over Georgia courts,” and, “I think that if the federal government wanted to do this correctly, they would have done it by passing a law.”4 In fact, they did. The CDC’s order was issued under the Public Health Service Act.5
Some federal courts have pushed back. On February 25, 2021, a federal judge in Texas found the eviction moratorium unconstitutional under the commerce clause because “evictions are not themselves economic activity.”6 Then, on March 10, 2021, an Ohio federal judge held the moratorium exceeded the CDC’s authority under the Public Health Service Act.7 The implications of these decisions beyond the particular plaintiffs in the cases will depend on the outcome of any appeals and other challenges to the moratorium, but they create great uncertainty.
All these issues mean that in reality, the eviction moratorium is not working for many families and their children. But even if the moratorium did not have these fissures, housing insecurity would still be a major issue. With the moratorium expiring at the end of June (unless it is extended), many families face the prospect of having months of back rent come due, as well as other fees and interest. In short, we are facing a looming eviction crisis.
The current and impending consequences of this housing insecurity for children are considerable. The impact on affected children threatens to negate the benefits that might be gained from reopening schools, exacerbating rather than addressing inequities. There is substantial evidence that homelessness, defined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as “lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”8(p10)—has significant adverse consequences for children, ranging from higher rates of malnutrition, vaccine-preventable infectious diseases, asthma, obesity, and dental and vision problems to emotional, behavioral, and developmental issues.8 Eviction notices are also correlated with an increase in child maltreatment reports.8 All these adverse health outcomes have negative consequences for educational achievement.
Furthermore, the disruptions caused by an eviction can create instability in a child’s life that interferes with education. Children may miss school while their parents find a new place to live or be forced to change schools altogether. Children who change schools once or more during a school year are 4 times more likely to be chronically absent (defined as missing at least 10% of the school year).9 Chronic absenteeism, in turn, correlates with lower test scores and grades and higher rates of repeating grades and dropping out. Children who experience homelessness are chronically absent at least twice the rate of the overall student population.
Finally, both preeviction and posteviction, housing insecurity spurs toxic stress, leading to anxiety and other mental health harms among children, such that the health consequences of housing insecurity might be felt among children, even if their families are able to stave off eviction. Such toxic stress and attendant health effects can interfere with children’s education.
Intertwined with all of this is that structural racism in employment and housing has led to the pandemic having a disproportionate effect on racial/ethnic minorities.10 Even prior to the pandemic, African American renters were disproportionately evicted. During the pandemic, African American individuals are more likely than White individuals to have lost their jobs and 3 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Job loss and higher medical bills increase their risk of eviction, and in turn, eviction increases the risk of contracting COVID-19.3 The interconnected nature of employment, housing, and health creates a downward spiral with adverse consequences for children.
Addressing housing insecurity and avoiding the eviction cliff is not an easy task. Deep systemic issues undergird housing issues, as is true for health and education inequities. Many landlords are small business owners, and the lack of rental payments have considerable consequences for them as well. All of this points to the need for a comprehensive government initiative to prevent this housing crisis.
In the interim, policy makers and education personnel navigating school reopenings must recognize the impact of housing insecurity on children’s education. Although housing typically is not within a school’s authority, schools cannot ignore the issue. Rather, education officials must partner with other agencies to mitigate the outcomes of housing insecurity on children’s well-being and educational attainment. In addition, clinicians can play a key role in educating policy makers and school officials on the health effects of housing insecurity. In the end, we must ensure that all the hard work that has gone into safely reopening schools does not end up failing to reach the children most affected by the inequities of the pandemic.
Corresponding Author: Jonathan Todres, JD, Georgia State University College of Law, PO Box 4037, Atlanta, GA 30302 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Published Online: June 7, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.1085
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Todres J, Meeler L. Confronting Housing Insecurity—A Key to Getting Kids Back to School. JAMA Pediatr. 2021;175(9):889–890. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.1085
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