Millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic have fallen thousands of dollars behind on rent and utility bills, a warning sign that people are running out of money for basic needs.
Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. Last month, 9 million renters said they were behind on rent, according to a Census Bureau survey.
Economists say the data underscore the deepening financial disaster for many families as the pandemic continues to shut off work opportunities.
With coronavirus cases at an all-time high, the economic recovery has stalled and job opportunities remain scarce. Only 245,000 jobs came back in November, the slowest pace since the recovery began. Restaurants and retailers cut jobs, and more small businesses are closing, data show.
The numbers of those behind on rent and utilities were especially high for families with children, with 21% falling behind on rent, and among families of color. About 29% of Black families and 17% of Hispanic renters were behind, the Census Bureau reported. A separate analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, looking at people who had jobs before the pandemic, found that 1.3 million such households are now an average of $5,400 in debt on rent and utilities, after those people had lost jobs and their family’s income plunged.
More than 260,000 renters in the Philadelphia metropolitan area are not confident or only slightly confident that they can pay next month’s rent, according to a Census Bureau survey.
Although eviction moratoriums are in place, landlords have filed to evict more than 2,600 Philadelphia households since Municipal Court began accepting filings again in July. Before the pandemic, the city averaged 1,500 eviction filings a month. Temporary rental assistance, a city eviction moratorium, and the requirement that landlords attend mediation with tenants through the city’s Eviction Diversion Program before filing for evictions have helped delay some lockouts.
“The tidal wave is coming. It’s going to be really horrible for people,” said Charlie Harak, a senior lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center. “The number of people who are now 90 days behind and the dollars they are behind are growing quite significantly.”
Nashville mother Nikki Cornwell is $4,000 behind on rent and fears that she will be evicted right after Christmas. Her water was shut off last week. Her landlord filed the paperwork already, and her court date is set for Jan. 5 — just after the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire.
“I am behind on my rent. I will get evicted soon with my kids who are in virtual school and need internet,” said Cornwell, who lives with her mother and two kids. “I’ve had bad moments, but never anything like this.”
Cornwell, 36, lost her job in March at a factory that packages tea. She contracted the coronavirus in May. One fearful night she called 911 because she couldn’t breathe. She has mostly recovered but still can’t smell anything. She had a job offer last month, but it got rescinded as coronavirus cases soared and the company decided to pull back on hires. She was getting $275 a week in unemployment, but that just ended. She has pawned jewelry and her son’s beloved PlayStation to pay for food.
“This is like a Charles Dickens novel,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. “It’s an evolving story of how people at the bottom are suffering.”
Many unemployed Americans were able to delay paying rent this fall under eviction moratoriums. But those protections end soon, and landlords and utilities are eager to get paid because they have their own bills and taxes to pay. Economists warn that low-income families won’t be able to suddenly pay back three to six months of rent at once.
The federal eviction moratorium is to end on Dec. 31. Researchers at the Philadelphia Fed say even their conservative forecast warns that evictions will spike 50% higher next year.
Shelbie Selewski is $2,100 behind on rent and utilities after losing her job as a medical receptionist in Macomb County, Mich. Her landlord has taped eviction papers to her door three times, and her electricity was shut off in September — on her son’s third day of virtual kindergarten. She begged friends and relatives for help to get the electricity back on, but bills are piling up again.
Selewski, 29, receives $200 a week in unemployment and recently sold the family’s TV and PlayStation 4 to prevent another utility shutoff. Her new baby was born with a collapsed lung, putting the infant at high risk during the pandemic. She and her fiance have not been able to find jobs.
“It has been the worst year ever. I’ve watched everything I’ve worked for go away,” Selewski said. “Every time I paid something and felt some peace, it felt like I got a utility shutoff notice three days later.”
Landlords and utilities increasingly worry that they will have to eat this debt. Meanwhile, struggling families such as the Selewskis fear that no one will rent to them again after an eviction in which they were so far behind on rent. Bad credit can hurt families for years.
Many families say they fell behind on bills this fall after the extra $600-a-week unemployment payments ended in late July.
“The longer employment stays suppressed, and people stay out of work, it will make it even harder to catch up on the debt and dig yourself out of that hole,” said Davin Reed, community development economic adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, predicts as much as $70 billion in unpaid debt by January, a painful amount that renters, landlords and utility companies will have to sort out. But he thinks the bigger damage to the economy could come from Americans watching people get evicted in early 2021 — a sign that the federal government no longer cares.
“The economic damage created by this pandemic will be many times more severe if we lose faith that the government has our back,” Zandi said, adding that it could trigger a drop in consumer confidence.
Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association show that $9 billion in rent wasn’t collected in the third quarter. Without that money, landlords are struggling to pay property taxes, insurance and other upkeep costs, adding more strain to the economy.
Utility data are showing equally alarming signs of strain. New Hampshire has seen a 66% jump in the number of families who are 90 days or more behind on utility payments compared with 2019. Pennsylvania has seen a 67% increase over the last year in the number of households in arrears, according to data compiled by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
“For families struggling right now and trying to get back on their feet, we have to find a way to write off this debt,” Wolfe said.