“SINCE COVID-19 MANY AMERICANS FELL BEHIND IN ALL ASPECTS,” reads the website copy. The button below this statement is not for a GoFundMe, or a petition for calling for rent relief. Instead, it is the following call to action, from a company called Civvl: “Be hired as eviction crew.”
During a time of great economic and general hardship, Civvl aims to be, essentially, Uber, but for evicting people. Seizing on a pandemic-driven nosedive in employment and huge uptick in number-of-people-who-can’t-pay-their-rent, Civvl aims to make it easy for landlords to hire process servers and eviction agents as gig workers.
This is astonishing, even by 2020 standards.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, operating under the US Department of Health and Human Services, has asserted jurisdiction over private residential leases nationwide. It intends to curtail evictions until at least the end of the year, and in fact its new directive threatens federal criminal penalties against landlords who ignore tenant “declarations” made using CDC forms.
It is unclear, to put it mildly, exactly how this jurisdiction over private contracts and state/local courts flows even to Congress, much less an administrative agency acting on its own. One federal official justifies the bizarre and legally dubious action based on the CDC’s broad charter to stop the spread of communicable diseases—a charter at which they’ve failed miserably with covid:
Congress has delegated broad authority to HHS, the Surgeon General and CDC, to take reasonable efforts to combat the spread of communicable diseases, and frankly I think it makes sense for those authorities abroad because we don’t know for any given situation or scenario what steps will be needed to stop the spread. I think, in this particular order, the CDC has made a very compelling case that it is quite problematic at this particular time. It’s focused on this particular pandemic, which is obviously the uniquely powerful grasp in the nation’s entire history in terms of the effect it’s had that for a bunch of reasons in particular, that the home has been sort of the focal point of people social distancing and building, sort of a safe space themselves over the past few months, and also the fact that if people get kicked out, they may end up in overcrowded congregated living facilities or homeless shelters, and that is a potential recipe for a big spread of COVID-19.
Parallel to this and largely under the radar, however, the private tech sector is moving into position to swoop in and take advantage of the impending housing crisis. Just as news of a mysterious virus was breaking late last year, Facebook invested $1 billion for the construction of 20,000 new affordable housing units in California, following Google’s lead which had made the exact same commitment a few months earlier. Apple more than doubled Google’s and Facebook’s investment, combined, when it put down $2.5 billion for the same cause.
Emily Benfer began her career representing homeless families in Washington, D.C.
Her first case involved a family that had been evicted after complaining to their landlord about the holes in their roof. One of the times she met with the family, one of the children, a 4-year-old girl, asked her: “Are you really going to help us?” Benfer struggled with how to answer.
“I’d met them too late,” she said. “I couldn’t stop the eviction. They had already been sleeping on the subway, and in other people’s homes. And you could see the effects it was taking on them.”
Today, Benfer is a leading expert on evictions. She is the chair of the American Bar Association’s Task Force Committee on Eviction and co-creator of the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Throughout the public health crisis, Benfer has been investigating how states are dealing with evictions and sharing what she finds in a public database.
CNBC spoke with Benfer about the coming eviction crisis and what can be done to turn it around. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.