More than 15 million people in 6.5 million US households are currently behind on rental payments, according to a study by the Aspen Institute and the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, collectively owing more than $20 billion to landlords.

US Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) holds up her phone while live streaming from the chair she spent the night in to highlight the upcoming expiration of the pandemic-related federal moratorium on residential evictions on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on July 31, 2021.
US Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) holds up her phone while live streaming from the chair she spent the night in to highlight the upcoming expiration of the pandemic-related federal moratorium on residential evictions on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on July 31, 2021. (Reuters)

Millions of Americans have found themselves faced with the threat of homelessness as a nationwide ban on evictions expires, against a backdrop of surging coronavirus cases and political finger-pointing.

With billions in government funds meant to help renters still untapped, President Joe Biden this week urged Congress to extend the 11-month-old moratorium after a recent Supreme Court ruling meant the White House could not do so.

But Republicans balked at Democratic efforts to extend the eviction ban through mid-October, and the House of Representatives adjourned for its summer vacation on Friday without renewing it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said blocking the measure was "an act of pure cruelty... leaving children and families out on the streets," in a tweet late on Saturday.

READ MORE: US House fails to extend Covid-19 residential eviction moratorium

Democrats protest

More than 15 million people in 6.5 million US households are currently behind on rental payments, according to a study by the Aspen Institute and the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, collectively owing more than $20 billion to landlords.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren on Saturday said that in "every state in this country, families are sitting around their kitchen table right now, trying to figure out how to survive a devastating, disruptive and unnecessary eviction."

Several left-wing Democrats had spent the night outside the Capitol in protest – calling out their colleagues over the failure to act.

"We slept at the Capitol last night to ask them to come back and do their jobs. Today's their last chance," tweeted Congresswoman Cori Bush, who has herself experienced homelessness and was joined by fellow progressives Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.

Some Democratic lawmakers early on Sunday were rallying outside the Capitol to call for the ban's reinstatement.

READ MORE: Advised to stay home: but what about the homeless in times of coronavirus?  

Those at risk

One of those at risk is Terriana Clark, who was living out of a car with her husband and two stepchildren for much of last year, before finding a teaching job and an apartment in Harvey, Louisiana.

Jobless again and struggling to pay rent after a bout of illness, the 27-year-old told The New Orleans Advocate she applied to a local assistance program four months ago, but is still waiting for help.

"If it comes, it comes. If it don't, it don't," she told the paper. "It's going to be too late for a lot of people. A lot of people are going to be outside."

Up north in Michigan, Mary Hunt, who makes minimum wage driving a medical taxi, likewise fell behind on her rent on a mobile home because she got sick with Covid-19.

She was served with eviction papers, and frets over what she will do with her stuff and her five cats and one dog.

"How do I choose which cats to keep? It's not going to happen. I'm not going to leave any of them behind," Hunt told National Public Radio this week.

"If I lose this house, then they go in the car with me. And people can think I'm a crackpot, but I'm not giving up my family," Hunt said.

READ MORE: Record numbers of Americans are quitting their jobs

Calls to distribute aid

Unlike other pandemic-related aid that was distributed from Washington, such as stimulus checks, it was states, counties, and cities that were responsible for building programmes from the ground up to dole out assistance earmarked for renters.

The Treasury Department said that as of June, only $3 billion in aid had reached households out of the $25 billion sent to states and localities in early February, less than three weeks after Biden took office.

Pelosi in another tweet Saturday urged "state and local governments to immediately disburse the $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance approved by the Democratic Congress so that many families can avoid eviction."

Immediately after taking over, the Biden administration had eased paperwork and eligibility requirements for an emergency rental assistance program, but it has stressed that management remains in the hands of state and local officials.

"There can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants that have been hurt during this pandemic," Biden warned Friday.

READ MORE: California governor seeks $1.4B for homelessness crisis

Fears of virus spike

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered the eviction moratorium in September 2020, as the world's largest economy lost over 20 million jobs amid the pandemic shutdowns.

The CDC feared homelessness would boost coronavirus infections.

Although more than half of those jobs were since recovered, many families still have not caught up on missed rent payments.

"Putting people out on the street is probably not going to have good effects on community transmission rates," the institute's housing policy researcher Paul Williams told CBS MoneyWatch.

The CDC eviction moratorium and other protections prevented an estimated 2.2 million eviction filings since March 2020, said Peter Hepburn, a research fellow at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Some states like California and New York have chosen to extend eviction moratoriums beyond July 31. Federal agencies that finance rental housing on Friday urged owners of those properties to take advantage of assistance programs and avoid evicting tenants.

READ MORE: Fauci “very frustrated" over rising Covid figures fuelled by anti-vaxers

Source: AFP