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Communities Worry About What Will Happen When Eviction Ban Is Lifted

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In just a few weeks across the U.S., a federal moratorium on evictions is set to expire. This is an especially big worry in communities that were already struggling with rising homelessness before the pandemic. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Spokane, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN TRAVELING ACROSS TRACKS)

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Pulling a huge black pack full of bottled water and clothes, Julie Garcia walks past a railroad overpass looking for a homeless man who has a job interview tomorrow and needs some clean pants. Garcia runs a local homeless aid group. She spots him about a quarter mile later in a park.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I've been sleeping in the park.

JULIE GARCIA: You've been sleeping here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

GARCIA: Why aren't you at HOCA? I thought I took you...

SIEGLER: There was already an affordable housing crisis in Spokane before the pandemic. Now even more people are leaving large West Coast cities and moving to smaller places like this. The rental vacancy rate here is about 1%, and the shelters are mostly full.

GARCIA: We're expecting a disaster. All of the folks that are currently housed are going to be unhoused in June. It's going to be a swap of people and new people who have never experienced homelessness before.

SIEGLER: The man Garcia is helping was kicked out of a shelter the other night for drinking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sister, thank you so much.

GARCIA: Yeah, you're welcome.

SIEGLER: And she's worried there will be even more people sleeping outdoors come June 30, when the national moratorium on evictions is likely to end. In the Spokane area, 10,000 households are behind in their rent right now. A Washington state ban on rent increases, which also expires next month, has been a lifeline for people like Tyler Staples. He just got an email from his landlord letting him know his rent and utilities will go up July 1.

TYLER STAPLES: It's something like a $375, at least, in extra expenses a month.

SIEGLER: Staples got laid off last year from his bartending job. He got by on unemployment and recently found part time work at a brewery. He says he and his fiance will do whatever they can to hold on to their apartment.

STAPLES: We're not really sure we have anywhere to go if we want to leave this place. So, you know, there's just a lot of insecurity, a lot of nerves. We're, you know, not sleeping great and all those emotional things.

SIEGLER: Just as the service sector is finally opening back up and hiring in Washington and people are getting paychecks again, many workers now face the threat of eviction, and landlords are still owed about $55 million in the Spokane area.

STEVE CORKER: We've seen a number of those people basically start facing the same financial crisis that their tenants have.

SIEGLER: Steve Corker is a former city councilman who now runs a local association of landlords, and at least half of his members own only one or two rentals, and some who are elderly can't afford to keep going without income.

CORKER: And the disturbing fact is that for the majority of those properties, when they're sold, they're sold to private individuals, and those properties go off the rental market.

SIEGLER: Making the rental shortage even worse. Now, the federal government is sending billions of dollars in aid to states, but it's been slow to arrive in renters' hands. And smaller cities like Spokane just didn't have the systems in place, and they're racing to staff up to publicize aid and get it to people who need it. Carol Weltz is with a neighborhood nonprofit that's been tasked with distributing the federal rental assistance here.

CAROL WELTZ: But we still find people not wanting to reach out for help, right? I'll figure this out. I can do this, you know? Or somebody else is going to need it more than me. But, really, people are in a position where it's really hard to undig from a year.

SIEGLER: Weltz says with state and federal aid, they should have enough to cover most of the backlog in owed rent. But there's not much time.

GARCIA: We're looking at thousands of people suddenly being unhoused, yeah.

SIEGLER: Julie Garcia, the homeless advocate, has been stockpiling food and donations - preparing for the worst.

GARCIA: The folks that have no income coming in, they're going to get help the last. And that's our population of folks. That's the folks that already struggled before coronavirus, and now it's just compounded.

SIEGLER: One positive Garcia sees the - looming end of the moratorium might force her city to build more supportive shelters and low-income housing. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Spokane, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "WHISPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.