The federal government has moved to extend protections that shield people from evictions until later this year, although the extent to which the decision will buy sufficient time for students on the brink of homelessness in an uncertain economy and evolving pandemic remains to be seen.
Controversy over the latest eviction moratorium also highlights the extent to which student homelessness has been difficult for experts to track during the pandemic, even though concerns about youth without stable housing have only grown over the past 18 months.
The new moratorium lasts until Oct. 3, which could result in confusion and disruption among many school-age children and their families, who are some of the most vulnerable students in the K-12 system.
“This is going to be hitting families right as the school year is getting under way, which should be a source of stability for kids,” said Cara Baldari, a vice president at First Focus on Children, an advocacy group, who focuses on homelessness.
On Tuesday, the CDC unveiled a 60-day moratorium on evictions, after a previous federal moratorium expired on July 31. The Biden administration initially said it lacked the authority to extend the prior order, but after pressure from some members of Congress, it unveiled a revised order that put the prohibition on evictions in place “in areas of substantial and high transmission” of the coronavirus, effectively covering much of the nation.
“This moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement, which did not address congregate settings in schools.
However, President Joe Biden appeared to concede that he was uncertain whether the new moratorium, which doesn’t constitute a universal ban on all evictions, would survive a court battle. He indicated that the new CDC order would at least buy people some time.
There’s significant opposition to the eviction moratoriums. As the economy shows signs of improving—alongside concerns about inflation and the rising cost of rent—critics have previously questioned their legal foundation. They have also said landlords are being unfairly hurt by the policy. And one group said Biden “caved to the political pressure” from some fellow Democrats when he issued the new moratorium. A legal challenge from opponents of the new order could soon halt its enforcement well before the start of October.
The moratoriums led to an estimated 1.6 million fewer eviction filings in the U.S. in 2020 than in a “typical year,” according to a report last year from the Eviction Lab, a research team at Princeton University. (Such filings do not necessarily result in evictions.) The group has also subsequently highlighted that small-scale landlords are struggling during the pandemic. Eviction policies can also vary greatly from state to state.
The brief lapse in the previous moratorium at the start of August, the new order, and any court order blocking it could all combine to fuel further confusion for families who are behind on house payments or experiencing housing instability.
Sara Shaw, a research scientist at Child Trends, acknowledged than any such broad moratorium on evictions isn’t going to last forever. But she said that a surge in student homelessness in the fall could make the pandemic worse, and school staffers responsible for working with homeless youth and their families could be burdened still further.
“This issue is impacting families of color more acutely,” Shaw said. “This was true before the pandemic and it has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Data indicates households with children more likely to be behind on housing payments
Congress earmarked $800 million in the American Rescue Plan for students experiencing homelessness. And the U.S. Department of Education has highlighted how the money can be used to identify those students, which is often one of the biggest challenges for educators and others, as well as to provide wraparound and other services.
A Child Trends analysis of U.S. Census Bureau survey data through the first three months of this year found that households with children were significantly more likely than those without children to report that they had little or no confidence of being able to afford the next month’s housing payment, and were also more likely to be behind on their rent or mortgage.
In Florida, for example, which is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases as well as hospitalizations, 18 percent of households with children that responded to the Census Bureau survey said they were behind on rent or mortgage, compared to 10 percent of households without children that reported being in arrears.
And in Mississippi, 31 percent of households with children reported little or no confidence in their ability to make their next housing payment, the highest such percentage of any state, compared to 22 percent of households without children. (The Child Trends data does not equate those households with families because it is unclear from the data if various individuals in the households are related.)
This is going to be hitting families right as the school year is getting under way, which should be a source of stability for kids.
More-recent data collected by Child Trends that extends through May also found that such disparities between the two types of households have persisted.
Other grim statistics are easy to locate. Last November, a study from SchoolHouse Connection (a nonprofit advocacy group) and the University of Michigan estimated that as many as 1.4 million children and youth “may be unidentified and unsupported by their school during the pandemic.” The report also said the number of children identified as homeless and enrolled in school early in the 2020-21 school year had declined by 420,000—a sign not of improvement, but of a spike in the number of students who had fallen off schools’ radar.
In the 2017-18 school year, an estimated 1.5 million students were identified as homeless, an all-time high, although Shaw said that’s “drastically underestimating” the real number. The number of such students had been on the rise before the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, schools have focused first and foremost on locating these students. And educators also tie student and family homelessness to systemic issues.
“The parents who I had the most difficult time helping were those who hadn’t graduated from high school,” Ben Ruch, the homeless liaison for Polk County schools in Bartow, Fla., told Education Week earlier this year. “I see our program as one of the best chances of helping those students end that cycle of homelessness.”
Families experiencing stress can more easily come into conflict with their landlords, who can evict tenants or let rental agreements expire for reasons not related to payments, Baldari said.
The effects of homelessness on K-12 students aren’t difficult to tally up. Every time a student moves, especially when it’s unplanned like an eviction, Baldari noted, it affects their education. Students experiencing homelessness and having to move suddenly can often end up in less healthy and safe neighborhoods than where they were previously, which can also have consequences for their academic and emotional well-being. And homelessness can hit mothers’ mental health particularly hard, she added.
“It just creates a spiral,” Baldari said.
Ultimately, Congress ought to act to protect such families during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
The Education Department released $200 million for homeless students in the American Rescue Plan in April, and released the remaining $600 million in late July. Baldari said the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the child tax credit could help keep many families in their homes, although she added that many families have received those payments for a variety of reasons. Getting federal rental assistance into renters’ hands also hasn’t happened the way many might have assumed.
“There are so many complex pieces. It’s really heavy and challenging,” Shaw said.