Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maryland, Baltimore resident Chantel Outlaw was able to pay her rent. But shortly after the state went under lockdown, Outlaw lost her job at a fast food restaurant, leaving her behind on rent for months. Unemployment benefits she applied for in April did not come until mid-June. She applied for several jobs with no luck.
“It was really, really nerve-wracking,” she said. “Just trying to figure out if I’m going to be able to keep a roof over my head, when I’m going to be able to put food on the table for my children.”
In March, Gov. Larry Hogan put a moratorium on evictions that expires on July 25, after which tenant advocates expect a wave of evictions.
Meredith Greif, an assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, said that evictions have serious repercussions for mental health.
“The eviction process is traumatic from start to finish,” she said. “Should people experience homelessness after an eviction, their mental health is in even more jeopardy.”
The stress of anticipating or undergoing eviction can contribute to long-term illnesses.
“People who experience anxiety, depression, are more likely to have physical health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes,” she said.
During the moratorium, landlords have been demanding rent from their tenants, illegally evicting them or threatening to do so when they cannot pay.
“My landlord was calling and texting me every other day, asking me when I’m going to have the money available for the rent,” Outlaw said. “Two of my neighbors have been evicted.”
Zafar Shah, a lawyer at the Public Justice Center, said that renters do not have the economic or legal power to defend themselves against their landlords. Some avoid talking to their landlords, aware that they may be harassed even after explaining their financial situation.
“The fears are at an all time high,” he said. “It can be paralyzing.”
On June 26, Hogan announced that he was using $30 million of federal CARES act funds to prevent evictions. But Shah and other tenant advocates want Hogan to extend the moratorium or direct more of its available federal CARES money to rent relief.
They also want state and local governments to approach evictions as a public health crisis.
“Health justice in this time requires housing stability and housing security,” Shah said. “Right now we have no public policy during the pandemic to prioritize housing stability as a health mechanism.”
Kate Leifheit, a post doctoral epidemiologist at UCLA, researched the impact of evictions on child health at Johns Hopkins. She found that mothers who are evicted while pregnant are almost twice as likely to deliver a baby that was either low birth weight or born prematurely due to the stress of eviction.
“Kids that are born low birth weight are more likely to have problems with physical emotional and cognitive development down the line,” she said.
She said children who experience eviction are also more likely to develop long-term health problems.
“Anything that affects an adult can affect a kid more profoundly and be compounded across the life course.”
Leifheit added that those evicted in early childhood often already had health problems at birth. She also said that eviction rates tend to be higher among families with children.
They also disproportionately affect Black women-led households, she said.
Shah said that lawmakers must prioritize housing stability to dismantle systemic racism.
“If we really think that Black lives matter, we need to really rethink what eviction does and whether it should be happening at the level it happens,” he said.
Leifheit said there is a parallel between the mass incarceration of Black men and the mass eviction of Black women.
“Health disparities get perpetuated, and exacerbated,” she said. “It has this effect of putting kids on a downward spiral.”
Unsafe housing is also a contributor to these health disparities. Baltimore residents like Myrtle Richardson are living in old buildings in need of repair.
“They’re not fixing anything. All I have to say is they’re slum lords,” she said. “They just don’t care.”
The building has no secure front door or functional elevators that elderly residents need to enter and leave their homes. Her own apartment has broken windows and no air conditioning.
“I am burning up in here,” Richardson said. “No one should live under these conditions.”
Landlords have been reluctant to make repairs for tenants who are behind on rent. Outlaw’s basement has flooded and her toilet needs fixing. But her landlord refuses to help her.
“My landlord’s response was: I haven’t received any rent in months,” Outlaw said.
She initially considered getting the city’s housing department to do an inspection. But she heard from another tenant who received an eviction after taking that approach.
“I didn’t want me and my children to be homeless,” she said.
Outlaw thinks the state should cancel rent, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.
“There’s another wave coming,” she said. “Look at the other states.”
Shah said lawmakers overlook the health repercussions of evictions. Maryland’s eviction law does not provide a judge the power to deny eviction based on a tenant’s economic or health-related difficulties.
“This is a violent system that we have, in which human beings, adults and their kids, are really put through the grinder,” he said.