After dark on a warm night this spring, Wilfredo Avila and his girlfriend Patricia Carillo lumbered toward the park near their apartment in Washington, D.C., their arms heavy with plastic bags filled with their clothes.
The couple had only lost their jobs at an auto repair shop and bakery two weeks earlier. It was enough time to nudge their life already on the precipice of disaster — in which any cash they earned was almost immediately spent on necessities — over the edge.
A day earlier, they had offered their landlord everything they had: half of the $925 they owed for the bedroom they were subletting in the man’s home.
Mr. Avila, who is from Honduras, knew from watching the news that evictions had been banned in Washington during the pandemic. He also knew that calling the authorities could draw attention to his lack of immigration status. So the couple set off.
They walked for hours, talking about what to do next. Eventually they sat down on a bench to rest, still with no plan, and nodded off to sleep.
When the nation’s economy ground to a halt this spring, economists warned that an avalanche of evictions was looming. The federal government and many states rushed to ban them temporarily. They placed moratoriums on mortgage foreclosures to relieve financial pressure on landlords.
But 20 states, including Louisiana, Texas, Colorado and Wisconsin, have since lifted their restrictions and researchers have tracked thousands of recent eviction filings in places where data is available. Eviction bans in nine other states and at the federal level are set to expire by the end of the month. All told, Amherst Capital Management anticipates that nearly 28 million households are at risk of being turned out onto the streets because of job losses tied to the pandemic.
Even in places with ordinances barring evictions, the protections have been of little help to immigrants like Mr. Avila and Ms. Carillo, who fear that complaining to the authorities about their landlord could lead to a consequence worse than homelessness: deportation.
Landlords argue that they are unfairly being forced to absorb the brunt of the financial burden of pandemic job losses. “Why isn’t food free? Why isn’t clothing free? Why aren’t all the other necessities of life free, yet shelter is being made free?” said Sherwin Belkin, a legal adviser for the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents property owners.
The government, he said, should provide vouchers to tenants who cannot pay rent because of the pandemic, and landlords should be allowed to use the courts to evict those who still do not pay. “Something is wrong when a private industry is being asked to take on its back what is really a public housing emergency,” he said.
Jaimy Gonzalez, who shares a four-bedroom apartment with her partner, three children, her partner’s father and brother in Chelsea, provided text messages from her landlord saying she would have to pay a $35 fee for each day that her rent was late.
Ms. Gonzalez, who came to the United States from El Salvador 18 years ago, had worked as a babysitter before the pandemic. Her partner and his brother were movers. She said that all the adults in her household have been out of work since April.
She explained to her landlord that she had no money. Like many other families who have found themselves suddenly out of work, hers has been surviving on donated food since the pandemic hit. She learned of a program funded by the City Council to help people pay rent, but she could not even afford to print the application in order to apply.
“I was crying morning, afternoon and night thinking about how we were going to pay the rent, what we were going to do?” she said.
She held her breath and sent a message to her landlord explaining that she was doing everything she could to come up with the money, but he never responded. She said she wakes up every day wondering if he’s going to show up at her door demanding that they leave.
In Washington, where an eviction moratorium is still in place, the Attorney General’s office has collected 165 complaints of illegal evictions and late fees and sent 38 cease-and-desist letters to landlords since April 24, when it began keeping data. In one apartment building in the district, landlords posted signs in Spanish announcing that tenants who missed rent payments would be evicted immediately, according to Jennifer Berger, who heads the office’s social justice division.
Ms. Berger said immigrants have lodged the majority of complaints her office has received. She suspects far more have lost their homes than those who have come forward to complain.
“There’s inherent coercion within the immigrant community because they live in fear of being deported, so they’re afraid to speak out,” she said. “My gut instinct is that there are people who have experienced this and certainly didn’t report it.”
That was the case for Enriqueta, who asked to be identified by her first name because she came to the United States illegally from Mexico. She and her husband were working as house cleaners in Austin, Texas, but lost their jobs in March. April 1 came and went. Within a few days, her landlord began knocking on the door of her apartment and demanding the rent.
A $300 bill for water overuse appeared, which she said she found confusing because the apartment had no dishwasher or washing machine. She chose not to fight back, fearing that the authorities might try to separate her from her American-born sons, who are 6 and 8 years old, and deport her.
Instead, they fled to the home of one of her husband’s cousins, who said they could live temporarily in his living room. As is often the case, the eviction was not an isolated incident, but a catalyst that she said sent the rest of her family’s life into a tailspin.
Her husband started drinking excessively and then left her. During the two and a half months she and her sons slept on an air mattress, they rarely slept through the night, awakened each time someone came into the house or went to the sink for a glass of water. The boys stopped attending online school classes because the home where they were staying did not have internet access. She hardly had time to look for a new job; she spent all day trying to keep her sons from upsetting their new temporary landlords.
Even if she found the money, because of her legal status, she did not have a form of identification she could use to rent another apartment.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
Austin city officials learned of their situation earlier this month through her sons’ school and helped them move last week into a bedroom they are now subletting in a different apartment without a formal lease. But with no job and businesses in Texas shuttering again because of coronavirus outbreaks, she said she fears a second eviction could be coming if she can’t keep up with her $600 rent payments.
Ken Bailey, the fire rescue chief of Travis County, Texas, which includes Austin, discovered that the handshake deals many unauthorized immigrants use instead of a formal lease made it difficult for them to seek help paying their rent during the pandemic.
When Texas began to shut down, Mr. Bailey’s department sent Spanish-language surveys to homes in his jurisdiction. There were a flood of responses. Most people listed rent payments listed as their biggest concern.
“A lot of them didn’t qualify for governmental assistance or even some of the nonprofit assistance because they don’t have a rental agreement; they didn’t have utilities in their names,” Mr. Bailey said.
Mr. Avila, who slept in a park after being booted from his apartment in Washington, found a reprieve that feels only temporary. Through a friend, he and Ms. Carillo met a man who agreed to rent them his attic for $800 a month without a lease. The couple has lived there for three months, but only paid rent twice. So far, their new landlord has been understanding.
Mr. Avila is eager to get back to work but the auto-body shop does not have enough business. His only income has come from occasional one-off jobs cutting grass or cleaning solar panels.
The couple spends most of their time in the long, narrow room with blank white walls that has become their new home. Their clothes are in messy piles in a corner, as if folded by someone who used to be tidy but has given up. Their tooth brushes and toilet paper rest on the back of a floor cushion they found on the side of a road, their only piece of furniture except for a bed donated by their new landlord.
The conversation they started in the park about what they are going to do next has not ended. Now, they talk about how long they will be allowed to stay in their new home, before they have to set out walking again to look for the next one.