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Opinion | When the Threat of Eviction Meets the Threat of Coronavirus

A week passed, then another, and Mr. Loaiza still did not know if the aid had arrived. On June 23, the landlord texted him. “Jhon, u said u were vacating the home last weekend. Is the home vacant now?”

Mr. Loaiza felt emptied out and powerless; “impotent,” he told me. He began to lose sleep, and the stress snaked through his body like poison. Mr. Loaiza thought seriously about killing himself. He had never before entertained that obliterating thought, but the sheer hopelessness of the situation was suffocating. Marshals that carry out evictions are full of suicide stories: the early morning rap on the door followed by a single gunshot from inside the apartment, the blunt sound of giving up. From 2005 to 2010, years when housing costs were soaring across the country, suicides attributed to eviction and foreclosure doubled.

Mr. Loaiza pushed through it, the pull to sleep, to bury himself, and with the rent assistance seemingly stalled, he began calling friends in San Antonio, asking if they would consider taking his family in. No one had room. Finally, friends in Florida offered two rooms in their home and storage space in their garage. Mr. Loaiza and Ms. Bedoya began packing and scrubbing the apartment, hoping to receive their security deposit back. To afford the U-Haul, Mr. Loaiza jumped at the first job opportunity he found, joining a construction crew working inside a large building.

“Jhon, Is the home now vacant?” Mr. Acosta again texted on July 1. It was. At dawn, the family had begun their trek east. Mr. Loaiza drove the U-Haul, while Ms. Bedoya and the girls followed in the family car. A few hours in, Mr. Loaiza began to feel sick, feverish. It got so bad that Ms. Bedoya took to keeping her husband on the phone to make sure he was lucid.

A legal aid lawyer volunteered to represent Mr. Loaiza and Ms. Bedoya’s case in their absence. The day before the eviction court hearing, the lawyer called the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department to inquire about the family’s stalled rental assistance payment. She learned that $3,000 had in fact been issued to the landlord, and that he had cashed the check weeks earlier, on June 19, days before he texted Jhon about vacating the house. (Mr. Acosta did not consent to an interview, despite multiple requests, but he did tell me by text that “the tenant vacated the home in order to find work elsewhere. The court records will show that.” Mr. Loaiza told me that he moved because he felt forced from his home and that he had never told Mr. Acosta that he was moving for job opportunities.)

All this pain — the stress so crippling that suicide begins to appear as relief, the severing of church and school ties, friendships; uprooting a family from community and work — it wasn’t for $3,190. If it was for anything, it was for $190. The lawyer tried calling Mr. Loaiza, over and over, but she couldn’t reach him. By that time, he was already in Florida, lying in a hospital bed with Covid-19.

Rent — it’s the greediest of bills. For many families, it grows every year, arbitrarily, almost magically, not because of any home improvements; just because. “Demand,” they say, when they hand you a new lease with a stiff rent hike. Or “costs are rising.” What they mean is: “Because I can.” And unlike defaulting on other bills, missing a rent payment can result in immediate and devastating consequences, casting families into poverty and homelessness. If you can’t afford enough food, you can usually qualify for food stamps. If you miss a mortgage payment, you typically have 120 days before your bank can initiate the foreclosure process. But if you can’t pay your rent, you can lose your home in a matter of weeks. During the first half of July, landlords collected 37 percent of total rent from families living in Class C properties — typically older stock, home to low- and moderate-income workers — compared with 80 percent during the first three months of the year.

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