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Up to 40 million Americans could lose their homes if Congress doesn't act: "It's life or death for me"

40 million Americans fear eviction next month
40 million Americans fear eviction next month... 03:53

Ten months into the pandemic, renters owe an estimated $70 billion in back rent — and if the hold is not extended, 30 to 40 million Americans could lose their homes, CBS News' Nancy Cordes reports.

The CDC had put a temporary hold on all evictions, to protect public health and prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, more coronavirus relief spending is again bogged down in Congress, and many Americans are already getting warnings that they will be tossed out if lawmakers don't act.

In Houston, Texas, more than 17,000 evictions have been initiated since the pandemic began, and 300,000 or more could be coming if the federal moratorium is allowed to expire. 

Local renters there visited a church on the city's east side Tuesday, hoping for legal advice on how to avoid eviction.

"It's just out of my hands, basically," one renter, David Flores told CBS News.

Flores' construction work has dried up, and his wife's unemployment has run out. 

"Whatever little income we do come across, you know, we have to separate it between whatever bills that we are able to pay or whatever little gas we're able to put in the vehicle," his wife, Esmerelda Cano said.

As cries for rent relief grow louder, experts say eviction is not just an economic issue.

A recent study published in the SSRN science journal found that over 400,000 additional coronavirus cases and 10,000 deaths were linked to the expirations of various state eviction protections over the summer.

Diane Yentel, who leads the National Low Income Housing Coalition, equated housing to health care.

"I think it's very clear what the consequences will be if Congress does not provide an extended eviction moratorium and substantial rental assistance — and that is a tsunami of evictions," she said.

Yentel is pushing for Congress to add $100 billion in rental assistance to any pandemic relief deal. She said it was not only renters that need the help, but also "small landlords" who rely on the income to feed their own families.

"That's why emergency rental assistance is so essential," Yentel said. "It helps the renters pay the rent and it helps the landlords pay the bills."

Without it, even a federal moratorium cannot prevent all evictions. 

"The CDC order actually only stops eviction cases that are based on non-payment of rent," Houston lawyer Jonna Treble said. "So what that means is if there are other breaches of the lease, the landlord can potentially proceed."

Treble represents dozens of renters through Lone Star Legal Aid. She is now bracing for a flood of evictions if protections do expire in a few weeks.

"All the cases from the last four months are going to come back to life instantly," she said. "If there was previously a constable on the way to the home to remove the tenant family, those will pick right back up where they left off."

Florida resident Chris Levy worries that he has "no money for rent," and has managed to rack up multiple warnings from his landlord in Orlando.

"I have a 7-year-old daughter. It's life or death for me really," he said.

However, he just managed to pay off thousands in back rent with the help of a national charity, giving him some breathing room. 

Rent money for millions of Americans, including people like Levy, is tied up in wrangling over another relief package. The latest deal included just a quarter of what experts say is needed.

CBS News' Nancy Cordes asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the situation Thursday. While she said she wanted to extend the eviction moratorium, she could not guarantee it at this point.

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