Eviction Looms for Millions, Despite New Federal Aid Package

By: - December 22, 2020 12:00 am

Taylor Wood and her 10-year-old daughter, Freya, in their Corvallis, Oregon, apartment. The family has missed three months of rent payments during the pandemic. Congress has agreed to a rent moratorium until Jan. 31 and the Oregon legislature is debating a rental assistance bill. Without help, Wood’s family faces eviction. Sara Cline/The Associated Press

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Julie Ray lives in a mobile home in Pearl River, Louisiana, with her two teenage daughters, Jerilynn and Jasmine. Her mother, Barbara, used to live there too, but she had a stroke before the pandemic hit and had to move to a nursing home. In May, she died there, from COVID-19.

Julie Ray lost her job at a local grocery store in March. Now she can’t pay her $700 a month rent and is in danger of eviction.

She was approved for state-sponsored rental assistance, but had trouble getting her landlord to fill out the paperwork, she said in a phone interview, so that never happened. Then, Ray, 42, got an eviction notice. She went to court and a federal moratorium on evictions—put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 4—saved her.

The CDC moratorium was slated to expire at the end of this month, but Congress agreed Sunday to extend it until Jan. 31. Even with that action, Ray will still face eviction—just a month later than she expected. Stateline’s calls and emails to her landlord, Red Oaks Mobile Home Park, have gone unanswered.

That leaves Ray scared and searching for work.

“I’ve put in applications and applications,” she said, “but it’s hard to find a job right now. The stress and depression are kicking in.” Meanwhile, the back rent is piling up, and the thought of being put out of her home haunts her.

Ray is just one of the estimated 30 million to 40 million renters who are in danger of eviction. Millions have been unable to pay their rent for months because of the pandemic. Job losses, illnesses, kids in virtual school who need to be supervised at the expense of work—the combination of these stressors has produced about $70 billion owed in back rent, according to the National Apartment Association, which represents landlords. This amounts to an average of about $6,000 per renter since March, said Greg Brown, the association’s senior vice president for government affairs, in a phone interview.

Thirty-five percent of the households behind on rent or mortgages believe they will be evicted or foreclosed on in the next two months, according to the Census Bureau.

With the new federal moratorium set to expire in just over a month, and some state moratoriums already lifted, the winter is shaping up to be a dire one for renters and homeowners. Many of them could end up on the street.

States have stepped in to try to help renters by imposing moratoriums of their own, but policies vary and many will expire when the federal moratorium ends.

In Louisiana, where Ray lives, the state has not implemented any state protections against evictions during COVID-19, said Laura Tuggle, executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, a legal aid group that has been helping renters like Ray fight evictions.

The state did come up with about million in rental assistance. But as Ray’s case illustrates, both renter and landlord must sign up, and many are confused about the requirements, despite public service announcements.

States that have implemented eviction moratoriums include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. All end this month except California’s, which lasts until Feb. 1, Connecticut’s (Jan. 1), Illinois’ (Jan. 9), Kansas’ (Jan. 26), Nevada’s (March 31), New York’s (Jan. 3) and Vermont’s (Jan. 14).

New Jersey’s is the most generous, extending until the “end of the emergency.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, called a special legislative session this week to debate a coronavirus relief package, including a proposed $200 million package for landlord and tenant relief— million for rental assistance to tenants and $150 million to small landlords for back rent. Oregon housing advocates are also calling for an eviction moratorium, but that is still under discussion, the Associated Press reports.

In Oregon and elsewhere, moratoriums have not been without controversy, and some courts have ruled against them. In the District of Columbia, for instance, a court said the city’s moratorium on evictions is unconstitutional. In the short term, that means processes for evictions can continue and if a case goes to court, it will be decided on the merits. D.C. Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein ruled the eviction halt violates the constitutional right to “obtain possession of their property.”

That also was the basis of a lawsuit from the National Apartment Association and others in September. In October, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia denied a preliminary injunction to stop the moratorium immediately, but allowed the case to proceed. It has not yet been decided.

Brown of the apartment owners’ group argued that the moratorium “expects our industry to offer a free service. There’s only so long we can do this. Some landlords have been without rent since March,” he said, adding that the federal government has “taken a housing problem and put it in our laps to solve.”

The answer to the problem is not a rent moratorium, Brown suggested, but more rental assistance. He was pleased that the deal Congress agreed to over the weekend included $25 billion for rental assistance. But, he said, that sum does not cover even half of the estimated $70 billion that renters owe.

Some landlords and rental companies have qualified for loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but Brown said they aren’t enough.

John Pollock, coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, based in Baltimore, said states initially took many steps to protect tenants, but many of those actions have expired.

And money to provide attorneys for indigent clients in danger of losing their homes also is running out, he said, because the sources of revenue—court fines and fees and state budgets—are seeing declines in revenue as well. He suggested that despite the programs that do exist, some landlords are not going to be cooperative.

“A lot of tenants are going to need lawyers to tap into [rental relief] money,” he said. “And landlords may not accept the money. They may need more time. Some landlords are illegally evicting tenants all over the country, shutting off power, changing the locks. Landlords are so fed up that they are not going to care what Congress does.”

Some state actions are better than others, according to the Eviction Lab, a statistical analysis website jointly maintained by Princeton University and Wake Forest University Law School.

The website ranks the states by the steps they have taken to stave off evictions.

Minnesota received the highest ranking because it bars anyone with a COVID-19-related financial hardship from being tossed out of their homes and suspends eviction hearings. Louisiana and the other states at the bottom—Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia—have not yet taken any of those steps.

“We estimate that protections rolled out during the pandemic have prevented at least 1.6 million eviction filings across the United States, cases that—in the absence of further eviction protections—may be pushed into 2021,” Eviction Lab said in a report.

Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project, an organization that provides legal services assistance, said renters will let credit card bills, utility bills and other financial obligations go before they stop paying rent. And they are sometimes leery of entering into a rent payment plan with landlords, because if they can’t make even those payments, they could be evicted anyway.

Heidi Breaux, 35, once worked two jobs to keep herself and her two daughters, ages 10 and 13, in their rented Baton Rouge, Louisiana, apartment. But when Breaux’s babysitter caught COVID-19, she had to leave one of the jobs to care for her kids.

Soon after, she was laid off from the second job and she could no longer pay the $750 rent. Now she owes $4,500 with “all the late fees and legal fees adding up,” she said in an interview. She finally got a -an-hour job as a custodian at a church day care center. She’s also behind on her car payments and everything else, she said, and has been to court once to avoid eviction, using the CDC’s moratorium as her shield.

Breaux wants to pay off her debts, eventually.

“It will take me a little bit,” she said, “but I’m going to do what I can.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.