Can we prevent a surge in pandemic-related homelessness?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Letzing Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum


  • The COVID-19 crisis has exposed people around the world to eviction.
  • Many places have implemented emergency protections for renters.
  • But some protections haven’t been comprehensive, and others are expiring.

“I don’t know what devil designed this maze,” a woman in Houston, Texas, said recently about the experience of being evicted in the midst of a pandemic.

Around the world, people whose livelihoods have been disrupted by COVID-19 now face the horrifying possibility of being cast out of their homes.

As many as an estimated 40 million Americans are at risk of eviction in the next several months, potentially marking the most severe housing crisis in the country’s history. In South Africa, impoverished residents of informal settlements are being evicted by private security firms. More than 1,700 families are believed to have been thrown out of their homes in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, during the crisis. Kenyan authorities have evicted more than 8,000 people from settlements in Nairobi. And at least 20,000 people have been evicted in India since March despite lockdown-related safeguards.

Frequently, the only things sparing people from homelessness have been government protections like eviction moratoriums. But many of these provisions have been less than comprehensive, and some are disappearing. For example, the patchwork of federal, state and local moratoriums in the US is rapidly expiring, while a pause on evictions in England and Wales is slated to end on 23 August.

A number of efforts have been made to track evictions during the crisis. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, for example, has gathered and visualized data on global efforts to protect and fight for tenant rights. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, more than 36,000 eviction cases were filed by landlords in the 17 US cities it tracks from the beginning of the pandemic through 15 August.

Evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic
Evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 17 US cities Image: World Economic Forum

Even in places where protections have nominally been in place, evictions of workers hamstrung by the coronavirus proceeded – often targeting the most vulnerable, including unauthorized immigrants.

A national eviction moratorium in the US that was estimated to protect nearly one-third of the country’s rental units expired last month. However, it didn’t exempt tenants from paying rent – and left accumulated rent bills to be paid at a later date.

In Europe, a number of countries and cities have implemented anti-eviction protections deemed to be relatively strong. In Germany, for example, landlords have been prevented from evicting tenants unable to pay rent due to the health crisis.

Tenant protections in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic
A number of countries in Europe have implemented tenant protections. Image: World Economic Forum

Experts fear waves of homelessness in many parts of the world if more isn’t done to help people in need. Earlier this week, the UN’s expert on housing rights called on governments everywhere to halt all evictions until the pandemic ends.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Evictions were banned in South Africa after the country went into lockdown, yet major cities have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. (CityMetric)
  • In Oakland, California, the “You Can’t Evict Community Power” campaign is pressing city council members to close loopholes in a rent control ordinance, while advocating against the eviction of one of the city’s most prominent food justice activists. (Next City)
  • The “new poor” created by the COVID-19 economic downturn will struggle to pay for even basic housing, according to this analysis, which argues that unused office buildings in cities around the world could now be repurposed for low-cost rental housing. (The Conversation)
  • The United Nations Human Settlement Programme says evictions and relocations during the pandemic have principally affected the poorest and most vulnerable populations living in deprived areas – and are a violation of the fundamental right to adequate housing. (UN-Habitat)
  • Studies suggest that eviction takes a toll on tenants’ physical and mental health. This curated collection of US-focused research includes the perspectives of both tenants and landlords, and a study of how health insurance can reduce evictions. (Harvard Kennedy School)
  • Some low-income families in the US have endured eviction before, but according to this report there are also plenty of wealthier families facing homelessness for the first time who are now being forced to navigate overcrowded shelter systems amid the pandemic. (Christian Science Monitor)
  • A report published by a land rights NGO in Cambodia, home to sustained conflict stemming from land disputes and forced evictions, showed that impoverished families continue to be evicted amid COVID-19. (Land Portal)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Human Rights and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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