For the past year, Shakeyla Sumlin has been trying to find a way to make it all work.
After losing her job at the beginning of the pandemic, the 37-year-old mother of three started a cleaning service to help make ends meet. Her husband, who sets up book fairs for the Birmingham school district in Alabama, was furloughed for much of the past year — a devastating financial blow to the family, who relied on his overtime pay.
Meanwhile, Sumlin had to limit the hours she could work to help her 13-year-old son with remote learning. She estimates that her family lost about 40 percent of their income.
They soon fell behind on rent. Sumlin said that because her landlord doesn’t accept partial payments, it was hard for her family to dig themselves out once they were in the hole. The money the family did pull in — Sumlin’s income, unemployment benefits and three stimulus checks — quickly flew out of their pocketbooks, going toward their car, gas, electricity and other utilities.
Despite filling out the necessary paperwork to be covered by the federal ban on evictions, Sumlin and her family were dealt a major setback this week: a sheriff’s deputy serving them an eviction notice. They were ordered to leave their apartment by the end of July — right when the ban is expected to lift.
“It was immediate shock, just panic,” said Sumlin, who was at work when the officer came. One of her teenage sons answered the door.
She has a month to figure out a plan to keep her family safe, secure and housed.
A new analysis from the National Women’s Law Center sheds light on what women of color like Sumlin, who is Black, have faced throughout the pandemic — and what they might encounter once nationwide eviction bans lift.
The report, released Tuesday, finds that women of color would be hard hit by eviction protections ending. NWLC researchers found that Asian, Latina and Black women were more likely to be behind on rent and mortgage payments than their White counterparts.
While there have been some encouraging signs of the economy rallying in recent months, the data also highlights current disparities in that recovery. Women of color were more likely than White women to have lost household income between April and May, according to the report, and were more likely to say they expected to lose income in the next four weeks.
This means women who were already on the margins of the U.S. economy are in further danger of falling behind once eviction protections lift. Claire Ewing-Nelson, an NWLC research fellow who co-authored the analysis, said the numbers highlight the gaps in our current narratives about the economy rebounding.
“It’s not a recovery until it’s a recovery that works for everyone. And we can see that it’s really not working for many women of color right now,” Ewing-Nelson said.
Women of color, particularly Black women, were disproportionately displaced and evicted from homes before the pandemic, said Celida Soto Garcia, an organizer with the anti-poverty advocacy group Alabama Arise.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide order that bans landlords across the country from evicting tenants who weren’t able to pay rent because of the pandemic.
These protections were challenged by landlord groups and real estate companies, which argued that the ban was unconstitutional. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the CDC ban could stay in place until July 31.
There are some important caveats to the CDC ban. Tenants need to sign and submit paperwork to the court confirming that they can’t afford to pay rent because of a loss of income or medical expenses. They were also required to try to get government assistance or pay a portion of their rent, as well as make the argument that if they were evicted, they would either be homeless or need to move in with friends and family.
But even with these protections, evictions continued.
For non-English speakers, there could be language and culture barriers to understanding eviction laws and knowing their rights, said Soto Garcia.
It’s also difficult to know the true scope of the problem, Soto Garcia added. Landlords sometimes push renters out without a formal eviction process. In Alabama for example, eviction records are hard to track, especially in rural parts of the state. Alabama ended state-level eviction protections early in the pandemic.
Landlords have also been able to use other means to legally kick out tenants, said Cashauna Hill, a civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, a New Orleans-based advocacy group.
Black women have long been overrepresented among those evicted in New Orleans. Local records show that before the pandemic, Black women accounted for about 57 percent of all evictions in the city.
Hill, who is litigating a number of fair-housing cases, said that landlords could force out renters for other violations of their lease agreements, such as allowing unauthorized guests on the property. In Louisiana, landlords also had the option of not renewing a tenant’s lease once it expired or if the contract was on a month-to-month basis.
The CDC ban “was never designed to stop all residential evictions during the pandemic,” said Hill.
Judges “see it not as an eviction, it’s just a non-renewal of the lease. To the general public, that’s a distinction without a difference,” she added.
Still, the federal protections have helped keep many housed in Louisiana, where there is no statewide moratorium for evictions. When the CDC ban lifts, Hill predicts that up to 100,000 families will be at risk of being displaced from their homes.
This could have a cascading effect for women of color and their families, Hill said. She fears that a wave of evictions could trigger a spike in covid infection rates, as displaced families seek housing among friends, family or in shelters — data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab earlier this month showed that areas with the highest eviction rates also had the lowest vaccination rates.
Once a person has an eviction on their record, it can severely limit their ability to rent or purchase another home, Hill added. This forces those tenants to live in less desirable areas, farthest from the resources or jobs they need.
In New Orleans, for example, the landlords who are most willing to rent to tenants with evictions have properties far away from the city center, where jobs are concentrated.
Evictions are also traumatic events for the person or family being evicted, taking a toll on people’s mental and physical health, as well as their sense of belonging.
Evictions “disrupt families’ connections to their neighborhoods, their neighbors and their communities,” said Hill. “People, when they are less invested in the communities, are less likely to know each other, look out for each other.”
Soto Garcia said this is particularly pertinent to women of color. “We’re like the glue of our communities in so many ways,” she said. “To displace a woman of color is to permanently shift the stability of our communities.”
Sumlin, the Birmingham mother facing eviction, said she can’t imagine how she will deal with a possible eviction: She has to figure out where to store their belongings, and scramble to find friends or family with whom they can stay.
(The management company that owns her apartment building did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I am just outdone. I’m almost numb,” said Sumlin. “This is a real, real hard blow.”