June 21, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Journalists, there are a few thousand people who need you to look into this. These folks need some help.

My friend Joel Freedman sent me a video he made about a woman at the courthouse in Tampa who runs the café there. She has a visual impairment and has had a tough time making ends meet because the courthouse was, for all practical purposes, closed for a year. What’s worse is it closed with no warning, so she had thousands of dollars in supplies in her fridge when there were suddenly no customers.

Then, the federal government approved her and nearly 3,000 other restaurant owners for a rescue grant specifically for women, veterans and socially and economically disadvantaged operators.

Then, the Small Business Administration froze the money and rescinded the grants because of federal lawsuits in Tennessee and Texas. You know how long such things take to sort out.

In the meantime, the SBA will take its revitalization money and dole it out to the hundreds of thousands of other restaurant owners who have applied but were not in the priority line given to the most disadvantaged business owners. By the time the lawsuit that is holding up their grant is settled, there is a high likelihood that all of the SBA money will be spent. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund has already distributed $27.4 billion of its $28.6 billion of allotted funds. There is an effort underway in Congress to add more money into the fund, but it is far from assured.

The National Restaurant Association just got involved and is urging the SBA to find money to help. It is unclear where that would come from. The SBA says the operators who were approved and not funded may still qualify for loans, but loans are not grants and they would have to be repaid.

The New York Times explains the lawsuits that stalled the grants:

On May 27 — three days after the 21-day priority period ended — a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with Antonio Vitolo, an owner of Jake’s Bar and Grill in Harriman, Tenn., who said he had “been pushed to the back of the line” because he is a white man.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the court said, “When the government promulgates race-based policies, it must operate with a scalpel.” The Small Business Administration’s “scattershot approach” was unconstitutional, the court found.

Matthew McClanahan, a lawyer for Mr. Vitolo, said his client was pleased with the decision.

A similar case in Texas by the owners of two restaurants — the Lost Cajun in Keller, Texas, and Penn Hotel Sports & Raw Bar in Hershey, Pa. — accused the government of “actively and invidiously discriminating against American citizens solely based upon their race and sex.” Judge Reed O’Connor ruled against the agency on May 28, ordering it to evaluate the plaintiffs’ claims “in accordance with a race-neutral, sex-neutral ‘first come, first served’ policy.”

We are a week and a half from the end of the CDC’s prohibition for evictions. Now what?

When this month ends, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s prohibition against evictions will end with it. So many stories await your coverage, including:

  • Will the CDC try to extend the prohibition?
  • Will states and cities impose their own prohibitions or extend the orders they have in place?
  • What is the size of the problem in your community after the federal government offered payments to landlords if they would give some of the back rent still owed?
  • To what extent did stimulus payments allow renters to catch up on rent payments?
  • How quickly will courts and officers who manage foreclosure cases begin evictions?
  • Will the heat wave across the southwest U.S. be a factor in evictions?

A new Harvard University housing report warns that more than 2 million homeowners are behind on their mortgages. The U.S. Census Bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse Survey shows that nearly 4.2 million people nationwide report that it was “likely” or “somewhat likely that they will be evicted or foreclosed upon in the next two months.”

The Harvard study found:

The shares of renters behind on housing payments vary widely across the country.

  • States with the highest concentrations of renters in arrears are in the Southeast, with Mississippi topping the list at 27 percent, followed by Delaware and Louisiana, both at 25 percent.
  • The lowest shares are in the Midwest and Mountain West states, including Idaho, North Dakota, Montana, and Utah, where less than 12 percent of renters were behind on their housing payments in early 2021.

With so many renters in financial distress, there are serious concerns about an impending wave of evictions.

You can see the same geographic trends in the latest Census Bureau Pulse Survey.

(Census Bureau Pulse Survey)

I also pulled the data for the major metro areas that have some of the highest rates of renters who are behind on their rent:

(Census Bureau Pulse Survey)

States are approaching the end of the eviction moratorium differently. In California, for example, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego all have different moratorium end dates.

In Kentucky, the city of Louisville says it is getting federal rent assistance but it takes time to process applications and help won’t be ready to distribute until after a moratorium on evictions has expired. That is exactly why some people are pressing President Joe Biden to extend the CDC’s moratorium for a fourth time. PBS “NewsHour” reports:

“The latest data confirm two things — emergency rental assistance is very slow to reach renters in need, and millions of renters remain behind on rent and at heightened risk of evictions,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said in an email interview. “President Biden must extend the eviction moratorium to give more time for rental assistance to reach renters and landlords and to avoid a historic wave of evictions this summer and fall.”

Kansas City’s KSHB-TV reports:

With no sign of another extension, Kansas City organizations that help with rent and utility assistance are seeing a surge of applications.

“We’re absolutely in a crisis,” said Becky Poitras, development director with Metro Lutheran Ministry.

“Our phone is ringing off the hook every single day,” Poitras said. “I just checked my voicemail, and I have 15 calls from households who are trying to check the status of their housing application because they are in dire need of rental assistance.”

In New Jersey, even though the state is no longer under a COVID-19 emergency, the state’s eviction moratorium order remains in place and can stay in place until next year.

CNBC says:

  • Renters in Kenmore, Washington, can’t be evicted until October.
  • In New York, tenants are safe through August.
  • In Vermont, for example, most evictions are barred until 30 days after its state of emergency concludes, which means that as of now, struggling renters are safe until at least the middle of July.
  • Although Oregon’s eviction ban lapses at the end of the month along with the CDC’s, renters can’t be evicted for rent owed between the months of April 2020 and June 2021, and they have until the end of February 2022 to make up those payments.”

Other cities and counties have their own policies to protect renters impacted by Covid.

  • The city of Austin and surrounding Travis County in Texas will prohibit evictions from resuming until August.
  • The city council of Kenmore in Washington voted this week to extend its moratorium until October. Seattle could be next.
  • In Minnesota, lawmakers just struck a deal prohibiting the eviction of any renters who are in the process of applying for rental assistance. That protection will last for 12 months, until June 2022.
  • Tenants in Nevada also can’t be forced out if their rental assistance application is pending or if their landlord refuses to accept the aid.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that California would cover 100% of rent owed by tenants. There are questions about whether the state has enough money to do what the governor promised. PolicyLink, a national research and action institute, estimates that about 900,000 households in California are behind on rent, with an average of $4,600 in rent owed.

Nationally, however, the amount that renters owe is even higher. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia estimates:

In March 2021, 1.8 million renter households (5.4 percent of all renter households and 15 percent of those experiencing some lost work) will owe $11 billion in rent, which is around $6,100 each. These 1.8 million households contain 5 million individuals.

(Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University)

CBS reports:

Most of the homeowners at risk of foreclosure are either low-income or families of color, said researchers who published the 2021 State of the Nation’s Housing report. Congress has dedicated $10 billion to help homeowners get caught up on payments, but it’s unclear if that funding will make it to families before mortgage companies begin sending out foreclosure notices, researchers say.

Americans are free to travel to 14 EU countries

This June 2, 2021, photo shows an American Airlines aircraft at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Today, Italy opens its borders to its doors to travelers from European Union countries, the United States, Canada and Japan. Germany will admit Americans starting June 20, regardless of their vaccination status.

There are a few more formal steps to clear, but the European Council said member states should “gradually lift the travel restrictions at the external borders” for a number of countries, including the United States.

Portugal reopened access to visitors last week but then saw an uptick in COVID-19 infections and announced a weeklong lockdown in Lisbon to try to get the cases under control again.

Americans with a negative COVID-19 test or who have proof of full vaccination are already allowed to go to Greece and Spain. But now European Union countries are encouraged to allow in residents of other countries, including Albania, Australia, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, New Zealand, Republic of North Macedonia, Rwanda, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and China. But, the European Council says, that permission should include reciprocity. In other words, if a country does not allow EU countries to come in, the EU country should stay closed to residents from that country.

At present, non-U.S. citizens who’ve recently visited the EU or the United Kingdom are barred from entering America. This is a significant step toward resetting international travel. U.S. travelers took over 36 million trips to Europe in 2019.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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