When Robert Pettigrew finally saw the sign in August, he believed the “good Lord” had placed him in front of it.

The sign appeared months after a doctor advised the 52-year-old to stop manning the front desk at Motel 6 as a mass on his lung and bouts with pneumonia restricted his breathing. Pettigrew saw the sign after he fell six months behind on rent for his two-bedroom Milwaukee apartment. After Wisconsin lifted a ban on most evictions during the coronavirus pandemic. And after a landlord filed to evict Pettigrew and his wife, Stephanie.

Only then did Pettigrew glimpse the paper sign while being paid $20 to wash windows at a Boost Mobile. The message: “Facing eviction? You could be eligible for up to $3,000 in rent assistance. Apply today.”

“There were nights I would lay in bed and my wife would be asleep, and all I could do was say, ‘God, you need to help me. We need you,’ ” Pettigrew said. “And here He came.”

Pettigrew’s household is among more than 4,000 in Milwaukee to face eviction since the coronavirus struck, according to data compiled by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which is tracking evictions in 17 cities during the pandemic.

As of Sept. 19, landlords in those cities had filed for more than 50,000 evictions since March 15, including about 11,600 in Houston and 10,900 in Phoenix. The snapshot excludes cities such as Indianapolis, where housing advocates say thousands face evictions but cases are difficult to track.

As many as 40 million Americans saw a looming eviction risk in August as millions remain jobless, with inconsistent access to assistance, according to a report authored by 10 national experts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited that estimate on Sept. 1 in ordering an unprecedented nationwide eviction moratorium through the end of 2020.

That the country’s top public health agency ordered the moratorium spotlights a message experts have long preached: housing stability and health are intertwined.

Even the threat of eviction exacts a physical and mental toll from tenants. Children raised in unstable housing are more prone to hospitalization than children with stable housing. Homelessness is associated with delayed childhood development, and mothers in families that lose homes to eviction show higher rates of depression and other health challenges.

The CDC is now citing stable housing as a vital tool to control COVID-19, which has killed about 190,000 Americans and triggered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Home is where people isolate to avoid transmitting coronavirus or becoming infected. It is where to recover from COVID-19 — in lieu of or after a hospital stay.

Searching for help to stay at home

The cell phone store sign directed Pettigrew to Community Advocates, a nonprofit that received $7 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds to help administer Milwaukee County’s rental aid program. More than 3,800 aid applications have flooded the agency, said Deborah Heffner, its housing strategy director, while tens of thousands more applications have flowed to a separate agency administering the state’s rental relief program in Milwaukee.

Persistency helped the Pettigrews break through the backlog.

“I blew their phone up,” said Stephanie Pettigrew.

She has endured a range of medical procedures that limit her own ability to work: two hip replacements, a prosthetic disc in her neck, two carpal tunnel surgeries, and a rotator cuff surgery.

That qualifies her for federal Social Security Disability Insurance, which sends her $400 to $900 in monthly assistance — increasingly vital income since March, when Robert left his motel job so as not to risk life-threatening complications from exposure to coronavirus.

He has since pursued odd jobs to keep food on the table: washing windows, cutting grass, washing cars — work where he could limit contact with people. He earns $40 on a good day, he said, $10 on a bad one.

February was the last time the Pettigrews could fully pay their $600 monthly rent before qualifying for rent assistance in August. And they have welcomed two more family members in recent months into their tenuous living arrangement: Robert’s daughter Heavenly and her 3-year-old son.

They arrived in May from St. Louis after the virus shut down the day care where Heavenly worked. Through its order, CDC hopes to avoid evictions that funnel additional family members and friends into one cramped home. The order notes that “household contacts are estimated to be 6 times more likely to become infected by (a person with) COVID-19 than other close contacts.”

Patchwork of rental aid programs

A U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted before the CDC’s order estimated that 5.5 million American adults — including tens of thousands in Wisconsin — were either somewhat or very likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months.

State and local governments nationwide are offering a patchwork of help for those people.

In Massachusetts, the governor extended the pause on evictions and foreclosures until October 17. Landlords are challenging that move both in state and federal court, but both courts have let the ban stand while the lawsuits proceed.

By contrast Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers lifted the state’s 60-day moratorium on May 26, opening the gates to a surge of eviction filings: at least 8,275 statewide through Sept. 15, according to a search of an online database of Wisconsin circuit court cases.

Milwaukee has seen nearly half of those filings, which are disproportionately hitting Black-majority neighborhoods, according to an Eviction Lab analysis.

Housing advocates are documenting similar disparities elsewhere.

“This deadly virus is killing people disproportionately in Black and brown communities at alarming rates,” said Dee Ross, founder of the Indianapolis Tenants Rights Union. “And disproportionately Black and brown people are the ones being evicted at the highest rate in Indiana.”

Governments across the country have set aside millions in federal pandemic aid for struggling renters and homeowners.

In Wisconsin, Evers earmarked $25 million in federal pandemic dollars for statewide renter relief. But a range of barriers have limited access to that program, including backlogs of applications and requirements that leave out some renters in need.

More than 36,000 people have applied for Indiana’s $40 million rental assistance program. Marion County, home to Indianapolis, had a separate $25 million program, but it cut off applications after three days because of overwhelming demand. About 25,000 people sat on the county’s waiting list in late August.

In Milwaukee, Community Advocates covered more than $4,700 in the Pettigrews’ rental payments, late charges, utilities and court fees. It also referred the couple to free legal help through the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, which moved to seal the eviction case so as not to damage the Pettigrews’ renting record.

That helped guarantee the family housing at least through September. And the CDC order added more security as Robert awaits word on whether he must undergo lung surgery.

The federal eviction moratorium, if it withstands legal challenges from housing industry groups, “buys critical time” for renters to find assistance, said Emily Benfer, founding director of the Wake Forest Law Health Justice Clinic.

But confusion surrounding the CDC’s order means some tenants are still being ordered to leave their homes.

And without unlocking additional funds for rental assistance, Benfer added, the moratorium merely stalls the evictions crisis rather than solve it.

Doctor: Evictions akin to ‘toxic exposure’

Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, said at least a third of the 14,000 families whose children the center sees have fallen behind on rent.

Hospital officials worry that an evictions spike would trigger a surge of patients experiencing homelessness, who are more challenging to treat. A 2016 study found that stable housing reduced Medicaid spending by 12%. That is because while primary care use increased 20%, more expensive emergency room visits dropped by 18%.

A year ago, Boston Medical Center and two hospitals collaborated to invest $3 million in emergency housing assistance and community organizing surrounding affordable housing. Now, the hospitals are trying to boost legal resources for tenants and work more closely with public housing authorities and rental assistance programs.

“We don’t have unlimited resources,” Sandel said. “But being able to avert an eviction is like avoiding a toxic exposure.”

Sandel said the way to avoid an eviction crisis is to offer Americans substantially more rental assistance along the lines of the $100 billion included in what House Democrats dubbed the Heroes Act. Boston Medical Center is among the 26 health care representatives that signed a letter urging Congress to agree on rental and homeless assistance and an evictions moratorium for the entire pandemic.

Groups representing landlords urge passage of rental assistance too, although some oppose the CDC order.

“A protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, said in a Sept. 1 statement

‘I want my life back’

Nicole MacMillan, 38, has already lost her apartment in Fort Myers, Florida where she moved with her two children last year.

The former Wisconsin resident lost her job managing vacation rentals in March, and Florida’s unemployment system denied her jobless assistance. She switched her jobless application to Wisconsin in May and continues to wait.

“I actually contacted a doctor, because I thought mentally I can’t handle this anymore,” MacMillan said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go.

But the doctor wasn’t accepting new patients.

MacMillan is living with her grandparents in Illinois while her children stay with their fathers. She recently started driving for Uber Eats in the Chicagoland area.

“I need a home for my kids again,” MacMillan said, fighting back tears. The pandemic “has ripped my whole life apart.”

In Milwaukee, Community Advocates is helping the Pettigrews look for a more affordable apartment while Robert Pettigrew continues searching for safe work.

“Life just kicks you in the butt sometimes,” he said. “But I’m the type of person — I’m gonna kick life’s ass back. I’m going to … do what I have to do to make sure that my family’s okay until they put me in the ground.”

This story was reported in collaboration with WPR, WBUR, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News. A version of this story ran on NPR.org and will be available from KHN.org. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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