By LAUREN LANTRY, ABC News
(MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa) — It’s January now, but the problems of 2020 have followed Melanie Adams into the new year.
Last March, Adams was working in the only grocery store in Missouri Valley, Iowa. A town with fewer than 3,000 people, Adams, 28, said it was a place where “you know everybody, and everybody knows you.”
But she said as news of the novel coronavirus swept across the nation, her fellow townspeople did not take the virus seriously.
“You wouldn’t even be able to tell that that there was a coronavirus going around because nobody seemed to care,” Adams told ABC News. “People would get up in your face. People would not wash their hands.”
Adams soon quit her job because she was scared of contracting the virus, and began to fall behind on her bills.
By December, more than 10.1 million households in the United States were behind on rent, including more than 61,000 in Iowa, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Last summer, the Aspen Institute estimated that 30-40 million were at risk of eviction.
Adams was one of them and experts say her case highlights the housing struggle that many Americans have faced under the pandemic. They also fear that the expiration of protection may force many tenants facing eviction to leave their apartments to avoid negative consequences of being removed.
After a few months of searching, Adams found a telecommunications job where she could work from home. She said she loved it.
But in October, everything changed.
“At first, I thought it was like the flu,” Adams said. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m a little under the weather, I’ll be fine in a few days."”
A few days turned into weeks. After initially testing negative for COVID, she said her doctors prescribed her antibiotics, but they didn’t work. Then, they thought it was a nasal infection. It wasn’t that either and she said she was never retested for COVID. She said there were days when she couldn’t drag herself out of bed. She had aches and pains, vomiting, a fever and chills.
“I ended up going into the ER because one night, one day, I just could not breathe,” Adams said. “My chest hurt so bad.”
Finally, she requested that she be tested for COVID-19 antibodies. The test came back positive. To this day, Adams said she still can’t taste or smell anything.
While she was sick, she had to take voluntary time off from her telecommunications job, which was unpaid. She fell behind on her $500 monthly rent by $2,000.
The eviction moratorium included in last spring’s CARES Act expired in July, and a new moratorium issued by the CDC in September does not actually stop landlords from starting the eviction process. Landlords can still initiate eviction proceedings, they just can’t progress into further stages of the process if their tenants qualify under the CDC moratorium.
On Dec. 27, President Donald Trump signed another COVID-19 relief bill that extended the CDC’s eviction moratorium until Jan. 31, 2021, for renters who qualify under agency guidelines.
“It’s an important Band-Aid on a gushing wound, but it is still a gushing wound,” Alieza Durana, the media strategist for Princeton’s Eviction Lab, told ABC News.
Ron Klain, President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said on Saturday in a memo outlining the president’s first 10 days in office Biden will “take action to extend nationwide restrictions on evictions and foreclosures and provide more than 25 million Americans greater stability, instead of living on the edge every month.”
By her own account, Adams qualified for the CDC eviction moratorium extension, but she never provided a signed declaration, which is a requirement to be protected under the federal relief bill, because she was afraid of the consequences.
So, on Dec. 30, her landlord messaged her saying that he couldn’t allow her to stay if she wasn’t paying rent.
ABC News reached out to Adams’ landlord, who said he needed rent payments in order to meet his future mortgage bills. Adams wasn’t able to pay, so he needed her to move out.
“Just like everybody else, they have to make a living too,” Adams said of her landlord. “If money isn’t coming in, there isn’t much they can do. And if there’s somebody else that can bring them in money, then that’s what they got to do. Because they got to eat too. And I can’t fault them for that.”
She voluntarily left her apartment on Jan. 2.
“[In] small towns, the word gets around,” Adams told ABC News, talking about her fear of repercussions if she pursued legal action against her landlord. “And if it got around that I tried to do something against these people, I will most likely not be able to rent anywhere … in town or in the neighboring towns.”
Fears of tenants losing their homes across the country
Durana told ABC News that tenants often leave their apartments voluntarily after they have been threatened with eviction because they think of it as a “Scarlet E” on their chest.
“An eviction can trigger ruined credit, mental and physical health deterioration, job loss and homelessness,” Durana said.
Durana fears what happened to Adams could happen on a mass scale across the United States in the near future, which would push the nation into a housing and homelessness crisis.
“If a [landlord] loses a rental property, that does not mean that they will become homeless,” Durana told ABC News. “For instance, owning and renting properties, that is a business venture. It is something that is associated with risk, as all businesses are, and that is fundamentally different from the need for shelter that every human has across the planet.”
Adams said she now lives in the basement of her mother’s home, which does not have internet.
Since she has been unable to access Wi-Fi, her telecommunications job has let her go.
ABC News’ Liz Alesse contributed to this report.
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