Economic experts are voicing fear of a coming “eviction tsunami” in Anchorage once courts resume eviction proceedings.
After months of businesses being shuttered, many Anchorage residents have lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced. Eviction proceedings have been paused since March, and a bill passed by the Alaska Legislature bars such proceedings until June 30.
But that pause only provides temporary relief.
“It doesn’t abate the fact that they have past-due rent," said Bill Popp, co-chair of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s Economic Resiliency Task Force. The task force was established in March to advise the city on economic policy as it tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
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Michele Brown, president of United Way of Anchorage, said her organization’s 211 assistance number has seen a 300% increase in calls since COVID-19 hit the state. By far, she said, rental assistance is the biggest need.
People in food service, personal care and health care industries have been the most affected, she said. Even now that those people are starting to go back to work, they might be months behind on rent.
“That’s a debt load that may be near impossible to get out from under if you’re already living hand-to-mouth,” Brown said.
The term “eviction tsunami” was born out of economic task force discussions, but it’s not based on data and there is no range of evictions tied to it, Popp said.
“It’s a concern that we have, that it may turn into that sort of situation,” he said.
Popp said rental occupancy was already down before the virus hit, with vacancy rates around 10%. He has no idea what it will be in the long run.
In addition to long-term Anchorage residents potentially losing their housing, many others could leave the city, Popp said. Anchorage is about 25% more expensive to live in than the average U.S. city, and during a recession, job prospects could be tougher here than in the Lower 48, Popp said.
Those factors compound to make an uncertain, but scary, prospect.
“I don’t know. That’s the thing, I don’t know,” Popp said. "I don’t know how many people are going to be going back to work, I don’t know how many are going to stay here in Anchorage. I don’t know what individual landlords’ situations are. It’s a big unknown right now.”
Earlier this month, the Anchorage Assembly approved a request from the mayor that allocated $1 million from the city’s general fund to go to renter assistance. Popp and the task force advocated for that plan.
That money will be distributed directly to landlords through United Way, which already has its own rental assistance program, AK Can Do, in partnership with the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska Community Foundation. Brown said the terms for the city assistance are still being worked out, so applications aren’t yet being accepted.
However, through AK Can Do, $335,000 has already been dispersed to 389 households, housing 1,219 individuals. Brown said 95% of that money has been used for rental assistance and 5% has been used to help with utility bills.
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Brown said the people struggling to pay rent right now are people who are not used to experiencing such financial hardship. They’ve received warning letters from their landlords about lack of payment and perceive them as actual eviction notices. They’re scared and in unfamiliar territory, Brown said.
“The level of demand is extraordinary for rent assistance," she said. "People are really struggling.”
So far, Cook Inlet Housing Authority only has one eviction pending, said public relations director Sezy Gerow-Hanson. That one came before the pandemic-related stay-at-home orders.
“We do have residents who have lost employment or had hours cut back, but our goal is always to keep people housed and we are working with residents who are struggling to find appropriate, available resources,” she said. “It’s a bit early to predict how it will all shake out.”
Popp said he can’t estimate how much more government assistance is needed to keep Anchorage residents in their homes, because the information isn’t available, he said.
For example, many workers laid off from bars, restaurants, retail and tourism-related businesses have received unemployment benefits, potentially earning them more than they made at their jobs. It’s not yet clear how much of a lift in the aggregate that will give renters in danger of not being able to pay rent.
“This is more about a perspective that we are concerned, significantly concerned, that this could come to be,” Popp said.
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