Extend WA’s eviction moratorium or face a bigger health crisis

We can’t ask our community members to stay home when the very privilege of having a home is being threatened.

envelope that reads 'rent money'

A paper envelope with the words "Rent Money $" on it is left tucked in a lighting pole. Due to the pandemic, Washington state established an eviction moratorium through the end of 2020. With the moratorium set to expire December 31, 2020, some observers are concerned about a "tsunami of evictions" in 2021. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Julia, a mom of three struggling with PTSD, was asked during a primary care appointment why she had decided to see a general family doctor rather than a psychiatrist. Before offering an explanation, she said: “I’ve started to hate myself.” Julia’s job as an administrator was her family’s sole source of income before she was laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic. She is no longer able to afford her PTSD specialist, or rent. As a result, her PTSD is now much more poorly managed, and her anxiety has spiked as she strains to make ends meet. She is exhausted, on edge and feels as if she is constantly yelling at her family. She fears how her children will remember her, and what life will start to look like when Washington state’s eviction moratorium ends Dec. 31.

Julia’s is the story of thousands of Washingtonians who are at risk of losing their homes if the state’s eviction moratorium is not extended. 

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the country, many of us are spending more time than we ever thought possible in our homes. They have become de facto offices, schools and gyms, a reminder that stable housing provides not only shelter, but the chance to maintain an income, continue our education and protect our health. Across the state, many Washingtonians are grappling with how to facilitate a homebound holiday and wrap up this emotionally exhausting year. But for thousands of our unhoused or housing-insecure community members, emotional fatigue is compounded by the fear of eviction.

Health professionals in Seattle and beyond report that mental health crises have skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Financial duress has triggered high rates of depression. Patients who struggle with substance use disorders are showing increasingly complex cases as a result of coronavirus-related challenges. And individuals who want and are willing to receive mental health support are in some cases forced to forgo vital care in order to pay rent.

The Puget Sound region is known for technological innovation and advances in public health research. And yet thousands of renters in Washington face the threat of displacement during an unprecedented health crisis. Over 153,000 renters in our state are currently behind on rent, with Latinx and Black households disproportionately impacted. For those making rent, many are relying on unsustainable payment methods; according to a recent analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, there has been an increase of up to 70% in renters paying rent on credit cards. Without an extension to the moratorium on evictions, our overstretched social and health care systems will be strained further, while communities will face increased community spread of COVID and other preventable deaths. It seems paradoxical, even impossible, to ask community members to stay home when the very privilege of having a home is being threatened. 

We know that evictions disproportionately target communities of color, women and the poor — communities already hardest hit by the economic and health impacts of the pandemic. We also know that lifting state and local eviction moratoriums is directly associated with increased COVID-19 transmissions rates. In a study published last week, researchers found that between March and September, the lifting of state and local eviction moratoriums caused an estimated 433,700 COVID-19 infections and 10,700 deaths across the U.S. In the midst of an unprecedented economic, housing and health crisis, eviction moratoriums are not just vital housing policy, they are a responsible public health response to a virus surging across our state. 

Health is largely determined by social factors, and eviction moratoriums are a form of protection for members of our communities not eligible for other social programs. As housing advocates and health professionals, we have seen how COVID-19 is stretching our resources for people experiencing homelessness well beyond capacity. Pregnant patients, who typically have access to more housing opportunities than most, have seen the timeline to receive housing stretch further and further into their babies’ lives. With the end to the eviction moratorium looming, the cost to our communities and families will not just be empty bank accounts, but also diminished mental and physical health for years, if not generations, to come.

Homelessness is a self-perpetuating condition. Even when the pandemic comes to an end, many will likely transition to chronic homelessness and suffer the associated long-term social, economic and health consequences. This is why it is imperative that the governor extend the moratorium on evictions through March, allowing the Legislature time to put longer-term solutions into place. Legislators should address the impending, but entirely preventable, tsunami of evictions by funding a robust rental assistance program, investing deeply in the construction of more homes for people with the lowest incomes, and taking other steps to get and keep people housed through the pandemic and beyond.