James Toussaint had just two weeks to find a new place to live after a judge ordered him evicted. His family was unable to take him in.
“I’ve got family, but everybody has their own issues and problems,” said Toussaint, who had to throw away all his clothes and furniture because they had become infested with bedbugs. “Everyone is trying their best to help themselves.”
Toussaint is now renting a room in a boarding house with no kitchen and a shared bathroom for $160 a week. He’s had to buy cleaning supplies with his own money in order to sanitize the bathroom, which he said is often too dirty to use.
Sharing communal space is often unsanitary and increases the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, said Emily Benfer, a visiting professor at Wake Forest University School of Law. Even moving in with family poses risks, she said, because it’s impossible to isolate or quarantine in crowded homes.
Benfer co-wrote a November study that found covid infection rates grew twice as high in states that lifted moratoriums on evictions, compared with states that continued to ban them. About 14% of tenants have fallen behind on rent — double the rate before the pandemic.
Toussaint’s annual lease expired during the pandemic, leaving him to rent on a month-to-month basis. While some states require landlords to show “just cause” for eviction, Louisiana landlords can evict tenants for any reason once their annual lease has expired.
Property owners have filed for more than 378,000 evictions during the pandemic in just the five states and 29 cities tracked by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. A growing body of evidence shows that eviction is toxic to health, causing immediate and long-term damage that increases the risk of death. Studies show that evicted people are more likely to be in poor general health or have mental health concerns even years later.
“This singular event alters the course of one’s life for the worse,” Benfer said. “If we don’t intervene” to prevent mass evictions when the moratorium ends, “it will be catastrophic for generations to come.”
Eviction’s harms can be measured at every stage of life:
When pregnant women are evicted, their newborns are more likely to be born early or very small and have a higher risk of dying in the first year. Women who are evicted are more likely to suffer sexual assault, Benfer said.
Kids who are evicted are at greater risk of lead poisoning from substandard housing, Benfer said. They’re also more likely than others to be hospitalized.
Evicted adults report worse mental health and are more likely to be hospitalized for a mental health crisis, studies show. They also have higher mortality rates from suicide. Although the causes of addiction are complex, research shows that counties with higher eviction rates have significantly higher rates of drug- and alcohol-related deaths.
People who are evicted often move into substandard housing in neighborhoods with higher crime rates. These homes are sometimes plagued by mold and roaches, lack sufficient heating, or have plumbing that doesn’t work. Landlords have no incentive to make repairs for tenants who are behind on their rent, Benfer said. In fact, tenants who request repairs or report safety hazards risk eviction.
Although middle-class Americans take their kitchens for granted — and rely on them to cook healthful meals — more than 1 million homes lack complete kitchens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
New Orleans doesn’t require that rental units include stoves, said Hannah Adams, also a lawyer with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. Toussaint’s new room is equipped with a microwave and small refrigerator, but no sink, oven or stove. He washes dinner dishes in the bathroom.
His landlord doesn’t allow residents to have electric hot plates, so most of his meals involve cold cereal, deli sandwiches or meals he can heat in the microwave. His doctor has urged Toussaint, who is borderline diabetic, to lose weight, eat less salt and starch, and stop smoking.
Toussaint, who lived on the street for two years, said he’s determined not to return there. He hopes to apply for disability insurance, which would provide him with an income if his arthritis prevents him from finding steady work.
Woolf said he hopes Americans won’t forget about the suffering of people like Toussaint as cases of covid decline. “My worry is that people will feel the crisis is behind us and it’s all good,” Woolf said. His research connecting four decades of declining economic opportunity with falling life expectancy shows “we are in really big trouble, and that was true before we knew a pandemic was coming.”
The pandemic doesn’t have to doom a generation of Americans to disease and early death, said Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
By addressing issues such as poverty, racial inequality and the lack of affordable housing, the country can improve American health and reverse the trends that caused communities of color to suffer. “How the pandemic will affect people’s future health depends on what we do coming out of this,” Besser said. “It will take an intentional effort to make up for the losses that have occurred over the past year.”