When Umu Conteh first learned she had tested positive for Covid-19 this summer, the nursing assistant was terrified for her two young daughters.
But the virus was only the start of her troubles: Her illness left her out of work for two months, forcing her to cut back on food and clothing purchases. The $922 monthly rent for their cramped two-bedroom apartment next to a highway interchange started to pile up. And a few weeks ago, she opened her door to see a court notice telling her she was facing eviction.
"I try hard to keep up my rent. I never joke with my rent," Conteh, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, told CNN as she waited for her case to be called at the Columbus, Ohio, eviction court last week. But now, she added through tears, "I don't have food to give them -- the baby's begging for food."
Conteh and her 1- and 4-year-old daughters were among the 118 families who faced eviction cases Wednesday at a temporary courtroom set up at the local convention center. That's a fraction of the eviction proceedings moving forward around the country, despite the Trump administration's moratorium in effect until the end of the year.
And communities at high risk of complications from Covid-19 have been especially affected by evictions -- a perfect storm for danger during the pandemic.
In a dozen large cities around the country, neighborhoods with elevated rates of medical conditions that put people at risk for serious illness from Covid-19 have seen disproportionately high rates of eviction filings over the last six months, according to a CNN analysis of data from The Eviction Lab, a Princeton University research institute.
That means that thousands of people evicted over the last six months were living in areas with the highest health risks from the coronavirus.
The trend is "very troubling," said Peter Hepburn, acassistant professor and research fellow at the Eviction Lab. People evicted during the pandemic may be forced to live with friends or relatives in more densely packed housing or left in homeless shelters, situations that make social distancing difficult or impossible, he said.
"Getting evicted is bad for the individual facing these problems," Hepburn said, "but also bad for the community and for public health generally."
Tenant advocates and experts say that the national moratorium put in place this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be strengthened, and Congress should pass rental assistance, to protect vulnerable families and prevent evictions from spreading the virus further.
"You can't stay at home and avoid people when you don't have a home to be in," said Melissa Benson, a legal aid attorney who represents Columbus tenants facing eviction.
Eviction moratorium 'kicked the can down the road'
When the CDC abruptly released its unprecedented eviction moratorium this month, the agency declared that "housing stability helps protect public health."
The order from the federal agency prevents landlords from kicking tenants out for not paying rent -- as long as the renter declares in writing that she has lost income or been forced to pay unexpected medical bills, has done her best to get government assistance, and would be left homeless or stuck in a crowded living situation if evicted.
But landlords can still add late fees and interest on unpaid rent to tenants' bills, and they can evict tenants for reasons beyond failing to pay rent, such as a lease ending. The order also only applies to tenants earning less than $99,000 a year -- or people who received a stimulus check or earn less than $198,000 and file joint married tax returns -- although that covers most renters in the country.
Advocates say that without major rental assistance money from Congress or states, there's a potential for a huge wave of evictions on January 1, the day after the moratorium expires.
"We kicked the can down the road," Hepburn said. "Come the first of the year, there are going to be a lot of people who owe pretty significant amounts of money and will be set up for failure."
Since the moratorium went into effect September 4, new eviction court filings have markedly declined. Eviction Lab has complete data for 14 cities. New cases in them dropped by almost half from the week of August 30 to the week of September 6, according to a CNN analysis, before rising slightly the week of September 13.
Still, in those 14 cities alone, more than 2,800 new evictions were filed in the two weeks after the moratorium went into effect, the data showed. And thousands of earlier cases are still working their way through the system in places like Columbus -- where landlords filed 427 new eviction cases last week, the highest weekly number since the beginning of the pandemic, according to court officials.
The county's eviction court moved to the local convention center in June for better social distancing.
Before the pandemic, the convention center had been scheduled to host events like the annual conference of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums this month. Instead, it has become the new home of Courtroom 11B, where dozens of tenants facing eviction -- nearly all of them Black or Latino -- gathered Wednesday to plead their case.
Shaylynn Webb and Rodney Turner, a young couple who owed thousands of dollars in rent after losing their jobs processing car insurance claims because of the pandemic, kept their 8-month-old daughter in her stroller out of fear of exposing her to coronavirus in the waiting area outside the courtroom.
"It's just really overwhelming and scary because we don't know what's going to happen in there," Webb, 21, said as they waited for their case to be called. "We would have never thought we'd be in this situation." Their Legal Aid lawyer said later that they were negotiating with the landlord to set up a payment plan.
In the cavernous convention hall, cases were handled quickly to keep up with the huge docket, while renters sat in chairs spaced apart as they waited. Kirk Lindsey, the magistrate judge presiding over the hearings, worked to comfort the tenants who stood before him in tears -- even as he spoke through an industrial respirator-style mask.
"We try so hard to get the parties to work together, to see if they can come up with some sort of mutually satisfactory arrangement to resolve their cases," Lindsey said. "But it is hard."
Pro bono legal groups and nonprofits set up tables outside the convention hall to help explain the process to tenants.
Benson, the managing attorney on the housing team of the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, said the CDC moratorium didn't go far enough. Most tenants that her group has represented don't realize they have to send their landlord a declaration form in order to benefit from the moratorium, she said. And around the country, most of the people facing eviction don't have a lawyer to guide them through the process.
"A moratorium alone is never going to solve this problem," Benson said. "There's a massive, massive need for substantial rental assistance for tenants across this country."
CDC order creates confusion in eviction courts
The CDC order replaced an earlier national eviction moratorium included in the CARES Act that only applied to properties that participated in federal housing assistance programs or had mortgage loans backed by the federal government -- a fraction of the housing units covered by the new moratorium. The CARES Act ban expired in July.
Now, the CDC's moratorium is leading to a legal patchwork of eviction procedures around the country. In some cities and counties, housing rights lawyers say, courts are requiring some tenants to prove they meet all the requirements in the moratorium, while elsewhere, judges have found that just sending the declaration form is enough.
In Kansas City, Missouri, for example, the local court issued an order allowing landlords to continue filing eviction cases and letting them request evidentiary hearings to challenge tenants who file declarations.
"In every case now where we have exercised the tenants' rights under the CDC moratorium, the landlord's attorney has filed an objection and demanded a hearing and invasive documentation," said Gina Chiala, a tenants rights lawyer in the city who's represented dozens of people facing eviction during the pandemic. "They want six months of payroll records, tax records, bank roll records, any requests the tenants have made of government aid."
"What we're potentially seeing is a process that could be abusive and traumatizing to tenants who are already going through a very hard time," she said. Chiala argued that federal officials should put in place "a real moratorium" that more broadly blocks all evictions from being carried out until Covid-19 is vanquished.
Landlords, on the other hand, have accused the CDC of overstepping its legal authority. The moratorium unfairly forces mom-and-pop landlords to subsidize renters even as they have to pay their own mortgages, argued Bob Pinnegar, the president of the National Apartment Association, which represents 85,000 landlords around the country and has joined a lawsuit against the CDC over its rule.
The CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment.
The landlord group agrees with tenant advocates that Congress should pass new funding for renters who can't afford their bills.
Landlords are "sliding further into financial ruin and foreclosure," Pinnegar said. "We need a solution that will benefit everybody and make sure we don't fall into the financial abyss."
Covid-vulnerable neighborhoods face more evictions
As eviction cases continue to pile up, the communities that have been hardest hit by evictions are also those that are most at risk from coronavirus.
To better understand the health risks in neighborhoods seeing the greatest levels of evictions, CNN analyzed Eviction Lab data about more than 45,000 eviction filings since mid-March in 14 cities around the country.
CNN used CDC data to identify the neighborhoods with the highest rates of medical conditions that researchers have concluded are major Covid-19 risk factors: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and obesity. Neighborhoods with the highest risk were defined by CNN as the census tracts in the top 25% of their city for at least three of those six conditions.
In 12 of the 14 cities for which Eviction Lab has neighborhood-level data, there was a higher rate of eviction filings in those high-risk census tracts than in others that didn't have the same elevated rates of medical conditions.
In Columbus, for example, only about 21% of renter-occupied housing units are in neighborhoods with the highest rates of Covid-exacerbating conditions. But 37% of the evictions filed since March 15 were for families living in those neighborhoods.
Similar disparities were found in cities including Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Jacksonville. The only two cities in the Eviction Lab database that didn't see a disproportionate rate of evictions among the unhealthiest census tracts were Bridgeport and Hartford in Connecticut -- a state that has a strong state eviction moratorium, Hepburn said.
Experts say the trend reflects that the poorest neighborhoods, many of which are majority people of color, have long faced steep health disparities that put them at risk in the pandemic -- and have borne the brunt of this year's economic devastation. Research has shown that job losses during the pandemic have been concentrated among lower wage workers, and polls have found that Black and Latino workers are almost twice as likely to have been laid off.
"We know that poorer communities, and especially majority Black communities, face an array of disadvantages when it comes to access to health care, and they're also the communities that are disproportionately affected by eviction," Hepburn said.
In some proceedings, clients are forced to attend in person, potentially putting them at risk of exposure. Chiala said she's had clients who believed that if they told the judge about their experience testing positive for Covid-19 or the fact that they have health conditions that put them at risk, they would get a break.
"They go to court thinking if they just explain and tell the court what happened, then surely the court will grant them mercy," Chiala said. "But if the court doesn't have a legal means to do that, then their story doesn't matter."
'Like they want people to fail'
Chiala's clients include special education aide Jamie Thurman and her husband, who had clashed with their landlord for months over the condition of their four-bedroom house in Kansas City's East Side and whether they were allowed to have a dog. In June, Thurman was on a Zoom call with her students when a court process server showed up to hand her an eviction notice.
The couple have five daughters aged 3 to 14. If the family had been evicted, Thurman, 35, said she had no idea what they would have done. Making matters worse, she has struggled with high blood pressure, and her husband -- who was laid off from his job during the pandemic -- uses a CPAP machine to help him breathe, so she said she worried they would be especially vulnerable to the virus.
"We have such a large family, it's hard for us to just hang out on somebody's couch," she said. "I was emotional, I was crying -- like, what are we going to do with the kids?"
A lawyer for Thurman's landlord said that the family had damaged the house and that she was justified in seeking eviction. After going to court, the couple settled with their landlord, agreeing to leave the house by the end of September. Thurman said having an eviction case open in court records made it more difficult for them to find other housing.
"We were already struggling," she said. "This just made everything 10 times worse."
Some renters have faced a triple hit of coronavirus, layoff and eviction. David Wilson, a warehouse worker in Columbus, found a three-day eviction notice on his door while recovering from Covid-19.
Wilson, 50, said he rushed to the hospital last month after waking up gasping for breath. He tested positive for Covid-19, and spent two days in the hospital. While stuck in bed over the next few weeks, Wilson said his employer let him go and refused to pay sick leave. He waited hours on the phone to apply for unemployment and gave up after finding himself cut off again and again. When he saw the eviction notice, he said, "anxiety kicked in, just panic."
Now, he said he's found a new warehouse job that he hopes will allow him to catch up on rent, and his landlord has been willing to negotiate. But he isn't sure how much he'll have to pay in medical bills -- and he still worries about what will happen after the eviction moratorium expires.
If he gets evicted, Wilson said, "I guess I would have to sleep in my SUV."
In Milwaukee, some landlords have been aggressively moving to evict tenants in the mostly Black northwest side, which has some of the city's highest rates of poverty, health issues and evictions.
Valorie Davis, who's rented a small home in the neighborhood for several years, said she fell behind on rent as her work cleaning homes and doing other odd jobs fell off during the pandemic.
She used her stimulus check to pay the rent for July but was still behind on what she owed. Davis said she had been unable to get unemployment benefits and was denied housing assistance for parents because her sons are 18 and 19 -- even though one has autism and the other a weak immune system.
Davis, 47, has found a cheaper house but she's waiting for renovations to finish. She said she had emailed the CDC declaration to her landlord but had just learned from a public aid lawyer that it had to be mailed. "Hopefully that will save me from being put out on the street," she said.
Davis sat on a lawn chair in front of her tidy house as she waited for a friend to pick her up to go mail the form. She shook her head at the hoops she's had to jump through to avoid getting evicted during a pandemic.
"It feels like they want people to fail," she said.
How we reported this story
To better understand the health risks in neighborhoods seeing the greatest levels of evictions, CNN analyzed Eviction Lab data about more than 45,000 eviction filings since mid-March in 14 cities around the country: Boston; Bridgeport and Hartford, Connecticut; Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Fort Worth and Houston, Texas; Gainesville and Jacksonville, Florida; St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri; Milwaukee; and Phoenix.
About 2.7% of the total filings were removed from the analysis because the location was not available. And just because a landlord filed for an eviction does not mean the tenant was actually evicted — the information does not specify which filings led to eviction judgments.
CNN used CDC data to identify the neighborhoods with the highest rates of medical conditions that researchers have concluded are major Covid-19 risk factors: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and obesity. We defined neighborhoods with the highest risk as the census tracts in the top 25% of their city for at least three of those six conditions. The analysis was based on crude rates of the health conditions, as age-adjusted data were not available at the census tract level.