Evictions and Pandemic: Deadly, and Preventable

COVID-19 has wrought incalculable tragedy and destruction on Californians, much of which has been exacerbated by an eviction crisis that could have been largely prevented with more robust interventions. A new working paper from UCLA public health scholars finds that evictions due to nonpayment of rent during COVID-19 led to more preventable deaths in the country.

Key takeaways:

  1. States that lifted their eviction moratoriums saw an uptick in COVID-19 cases, with the spread increasing as time went on.
  2. The observed effect was stronger on mortality than incidence, possibly because deaths are easier to count than overall infections. This also suggests that the effect on incidence may be understated in the analysis.
  3. Structural racism and concentrated poverty made low-income Black and Latinx households more vulnerable to the increased spread of COVID-19.

The novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has led to widespread business shutdowns and unemployment with insufficient relief for tenants to continue making rent payments. Since Congress failed to replace workers’ cashflow that they lost through no fault of their own, state governments implemented moratoria on evictions to keep residents in their homes during the pandemic. Allowing evictions for every tenant who couldn’t pay their rent would lead to a cataclysmic spiral of poverty, homelessness, and increased spread of the disease.

But before the CDC stepped in to declare a federal eviction moratorium on September 4, some states allowed their moratoria to lapse, while others renewed or maintained them. These variations set the stage for a tragic and deadly natural experiment. It’s often said that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and that logic is sadly valid here: the findings show compelling evidence that evictions caused more COVID-19 deaths than the baseline mortality rate.

Here’s what that looks like:
Two charts showing incidence rate and mortality rate rise after eviction moratoriums were lifted

It’s worth noting that Leifheit et al (2020) did not study the effect of actual eviction filings in these states, but rather the absence of moratoria that allowed them to proceed through the courts. The Princeton Eviction Lab has tracked the fine-grained data on evictions in each state through its COVID-19 policy scorecards. Nevertheless, the authors conclude: “Lifting eviction moratoriums was associated with increased COVID-19 incidence and 78 mortality in U.S. states,” additionally finding that “[e]ffects grew over time, perhaps due to mounting displacement, crowding, and/or homelessness as evictions proceeded.”

Ten weeks after the expiration of eviction moratoria, states saw an average of 1.6 times more COVID-19 cases, and 1.6 times more deaths after only seven weeks. At sixteen weeks, states saw 2.1 more cases on average, and a whopping 5.4 times more deaths.