By Jeff Winkler, head of basic needs, United Way of Northeast Florida
For the first time in his life, a 57-year-old Jacksonville man recently found himself facing the alarming reality of not knowing how he was going to pay his bills. Scott*, like so many in our community and across the world, was furloughed from his job at a local dental office when the practice temporarily closed its doors.
He suddenly found himself at risk of homelessness, adding to the cascade of victims of the economic fallout of COVID-19 in Northeast Florida.
This fallout is leading to growing a number of people finding themselves on the verge of eviction, utility disconnection or wondering how they are going to feed their families. While many safety-net systems have kept thousands in their homes, the bills have not gone away, and they are coming due soon.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued an order declaring a moratorium on qualifying evictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The CDC order only lasts through Dec. 31 and does not waive rent or late fees. A tenant must pay the balance of any amount due by Dec. 31.
Stout, a global advisory firm, estimates Florida will be the third hardest-hit state for evictions when the CDC order expires, only behind California and Texas. On its website, Stout estimates the number of potential evictions by state. The firm projects anywhere between 865,000 to 972,000 renter households in Florida — or about 30% of all renter households — could be at risk for eviction. This data does not include foreclosures.
It’s important to understand, however, the eviction crisis is more than just having a roof over one’s head. What many do not realize is eviction has a devastating “snowball effect” on a person’s life.
According to The Aspen Institute, “Unaffordable and unstable housing has harmful effects for low-income households and dramatically reduces spending on food, transportation, health care, and other basic necessities.”
This aligns with what we’re seeing in our United Way 211 call center. Despite the moratorium and tens of millions already distributed through the CARES Act and Florida’s First Coast Relief Fund for mortgage, rent and utilities (MRU), we are seeing unprecedented need. Call volume for United Way 211 is up 118% compared to 2019, with a 78% increase in requests for mortgage and rent assistance.
Mental stress of evictions is also tremendous. Crisis calls placed to United Way 211 have increased 246% over the past five months alone.
Children are hit especially hard in evictions. Displacement from a familiar place as well as from their schools can be traumatic. These effects can last a lifetime, including a child’s performance in school and, thus, their ability to gain employment and financial security later in life.
The Eviction Lab at Princeton University also speaks to the legal ramifications of eviction. Evictions come with a legal record, which The Eviction Lab states “can prevent families from relocating to decent housing in a safe neighborhood because many landlords screen for recent evictions.” Moreover, “studies also show that eviction causes job loss, as the stressful and drawn-out process of being forcibly expelled from a home causes people to make mistakes at work and lose their job.”
United Way of Northeast Florida and several other local nonprofits are already addressing eviction needs. The City of Jacksonville also distributed $40 million in CARES Act funds through $1,000 gift cards to 40,000 households in Duval County in the spring.
However, the crisis looms and will take innovative partnerships and funding to fully address. For example, efforts are currently underway to explore the development of an eviction/foreclosure diversion pilot program for renters, homeowners and small-business owners through a multitude of partners, including United Way, the City of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Bar Association and others. This pilot would initially use any unspent CARES Act funds and philanthropic donations to help renters, homeowners and small-business owners with rent or mortgage payments.
But it is a complicated problem and will require complex solutions. We all must do our part – corporations, our local government, nonprofits and philanthropists. Now is the time to give back, and one of the best investments you can make is a gift to support basic needs through United Way. Now is also the time to come together, to create solutions that keep people in their homes.
The cost of doing nothing is greater than any of us can imagine and could devastate our community for years to come.
We’re all in this together. It’s time to Live United.