Housing guaranteed, rent payments went toward food
Rental eviction moratoria enacted early in the COVID-19 outbreak reduced hunger and emotional stress for U.S. renters, particularly among African American households, a study indicates. With rent demands on hold, vulnerable households increased spending on food and reported lower levels of anxiety and depression, according to the working paper by Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Xudong An, UCLA Anderson’s Stuart Gabriel and Northwestern’s Nitzan Tzur-Ilan.
The study focuses on eviction embargoes issued by state and local governments at various times between March and August 2020 — the UCLA Anderson’s Ziman Center has a map of the eviction moratoria nationwide — before federal mandates extended the protection to all of the nation’s 43 million renting households in September. The research targets ZIP codes with high percentages of renters and high unemployment to assess spending, food insecurity (inability to consistently afford sufficient nutrition) and mental health changes when evictions are put on hold.
The researchers estimate that a 12-month eviction moratorium generated a 16% increase in credit card spending and a 14% increase in credit card payments in the ZIP codes dense with renters and unemployed workers and where households were able to defer rent. Much of the extra spending went to grocery stores and other businesses that sell food, the study finds.
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By comparison, in the pandemic’s early days, average credit card spending in the study was down 25% in April 2020 from April 2019, the authors note. Prior to an eviction ban, spending trends in those target ZIP codes mimicked the broader trends.
To further assess effects on food insecurity, the researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey, which has been administered weekly since April 2020. Where evictions were halted, the number of households reporting that they didn’t have enough to eat the previous week declined, according to the study. Google searches for “food stamps” and “food banks near me” also dropped significantly when rent moratoria were enacted.
The Census Bureau Pulse Survey also showed improvement in renters’ mental states when the threat of eviction was lifted, according to the researchers’ analysis; the percentage of respondents saying they felt anxious, down or constantly worried declined.
The study finds effects most pronounced among African American households, which have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Some 26% of African American renters reported being unable to pay July 2020’s rent, compared with 13% of white renters, according to the August 7 Pulse Survey. In the same survey, nearly half of African American renters had slight or no confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent. By diverting rent money to food, the researchers estimate that each additional week of a state eviction moratorium resulted in about a 2% decline in food insecurity among African American households.
Eviction moratoria were enacted to ensure that unemployment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic did not force renters into homelessness or more crowded housing that would further spread the disease. As job losses sent many incomes down, by December, more than half of all renter households’ monthly rent bills equaled half or more of their income, according to the Pulse data. That represented a 28% increase in affordability-constrained renters from pre-pandemic time, the researchers note.
While the moratoria allow renters to defer rent payments, they do not wipe out the debts. More than $70 billion in unpaid rent was owed at the end of 2020, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the amount of missed payments the average renter household will owe is $5,400, even with money from COVID-19 relief bills, the study notes. Without policies to address these accrued shortfalls, the authors state, the expiration of eviction moratoria could spark a wave of homelessness, food insecurity and mental health declines that they once helped to prevent.
Arden Realty Chair; Distinguished Professor of Finance; Director, Richard S. Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA
About the Research
An, X., Gabriel, S.A. and Tzur-Ilan, N. (2021). COVID-19 Rental Eviction Moratoria and Household Well-Being.