Navigating Eviction During the Pandemic

More than 10 million U.S. renters owe back rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. This fact puts millions at risk of evictions during the pandemic.

But there’s still time to stop pandemic evictions. The Centers for Disease Control implemented the CDC eviction moratorium to delay evictions during COVID and stop the spread of disease. It prevents evictions for non-payment of rent through June 30, 2021. Several states created additional eviction moratoria to keep renters in their homes.

In addition, the U.S. government allocated $52 billion dollars in emergency rental assistance for COVID-specific programs. Combining this funding with other assistance programs can help renters repay back rent before the CDC moratorium expires and emergency rental assistance budgets dwindle.

Hope for CDC eviction moratorium extension

Housing experts warn that lifting state and CDC eviction moratoria without providing adequate financial assistance for renters in need could create an evictions cliff, where delinquent renters go into homelessness. This will have devastating financial, emotional and health consequences for individuals. States that lifted their eviction moratoria discovered that evictions influence the health of a community as well.

Two recent studies confirm what medical professionals suspected; when evictions increase, the rates of COVID-19 and COVID-related deaths also rise.

Across the county, lifting eviction moratoriums led to an additional 433,700 COVID-19 cases and 10,700 deaths. However, it’s unknown if the CDC eviction moratorium will get an extension. It was originally scheduled to expire on December 31, 2020, but it has had an extension once by the legislature and twice by the CDC. The last CDC extension came on March 29, 2021 — just two days before its expiration date.

If the CDC moratorium gets extended, renters probably won’t know until just before the expiration date. It’s risky to depend on a variable that renters can’t control or predict. Instead, renters should use the tools that are currently available to pay as much back rent as possible — doing this can delay or even prevent evictions.

What to do when you get an eviction notice during the pandemic

When a renter receives an eviction notice, it’s important to determine the reason and to act fast. Once the eviction process begins, it moves very quickly, even during a pandemic. There are sometimes just a few days between steps.

Landlords must have a legal reason to evict a renter. The eviction process is specific, although the length varies by state. Landlords must document every step in writing.

The process begins with an eviction notice. This document details the steps renters must take so they comply with their lease. If those steps haven’t been completed (and documented for the landlord) by the date provided on the eviction notice, an eviction summons and complaint are issued.

Next is a hearing date. At the hearing, a judge will issue a judgment. They may side with the landlord and remove the renter and their property from their home. Or they may find in favor of the tenant and allow them to stay.

Legal reasons for evictions during COVID:

  • Criminal activity
  • Violating community health and safety standards
  • Not vacating the home when the lease is up
  • Violating the term of the lease by subletting
  • Housing an unauthorized tenant or pet
  • Damaging property

Eviction notice.

Illegal reasons for evictions at any time

Tenant’s rights vary by state. But broadly speaking, landlords must provide safe, secure, habitable homes. They cannot change the locks, block entry to a home or throw renters out without warning or without following the eviction process.

Landlords can’t discriminate against or harass renters for any of the following reasons:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical or mental disability.
  • Marital or family status
  • English language proficiency

If a landlord uses any one of the reasons above, tenants can report it to the National Fair Housing Alliance. They can also contact a fair housing organization in their region to begin the process. Local staff can also help renters access rental assistance programs and other benefits. Some offices also retain lawyers to represent clients in court.

Renters at risk for eviction for non-financial reasons listed above should review what to do when they receive an eviction notice and take appropriate action. The remainder of this article will discuss evictions during COVID for financial reasons, including non-payment and partial payment of rent.

Evictions during COVID for non-payment of rent aren’t legal

Normally, it’s legal to evict a tenant for non-payment or partial payment of rent. But all that changed during the pandemic. The CDC moratorium temporarily stops evictions for financial reasons and keeps people in their homes through June 30, 2021.

Yet renters are still being evicted for not paying rent during the pandemic. In April 2021, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued an interim file rule that holds landlords accountable for illegal evictions during COVID.

It states that debt collectors can’t evict tenants covered by the CDC moratorium without providing written notice of the renter’s rights under the eviction moratorium. Anyone who misrepresents a renter’s rights can be prosecuted by federal agencies and state attorneys general for violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Tenants may also bring private lawsuits against landlords.

“With COVID-19 killing hundreds of Americans every day, kicking families out into the street during this pandemic may literally be a death sentence,” said CFPB Acting Director Dave Uejio, “No one should be evicted from their home without understanding their rights, and we will hold accountable those debt collectors who move forward with illegal evictions. We encourage debt collectors to work with tenants and landlords to find solutions that work for everyone.”

Fill out the CDC Eviction Moratorium Declaration Form

Renters who lost their job or suffered financial hardship during the pandemic should fill out the CDC Eviction Moratorium Declaration Form and give a copy to their landlord immediately.

Renters who expect to make no more than $99,000 (or $198,000 when filing jointly) during the 2020-2021 calendar year are eligible. Tenants who didn’t report IRS income in 2019 and renters who received a stimulus check are also eligible.

Rent will still be due after June 2021. But this gives renters extra time to secure the financial resources they need to stay in their homes.

Make a payment plan or request rent deferral in writing

Tenants should create a plan to pay off the remaining back rent and present the written payment plan to their landlord. If full repayment isn’t possible, a rent deferral plan is an option.

Both documents should explain the reasons for non-payment and list sources of alternate funding. They should also present a specific timeline for rent repayment, including payment dates and dollar amounts.

Property managers may not accept the terms of these agreements, but they may present a counteroffer.

Use state eviction moratoria for additional protection

Many states passed their own eviction moratoria to stop evictions during COVID.

Renters can search the interactive map maintained by the Regional Housing Legal Services for state eviction guidelines and program expiration dates. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Apartment Guide Eviction Resource Guide also list state by state guidelines.

Renters should file any paperwork required to qualify for state eviction moratoria as soon as possible and provide a copy for their landlord. The additional work is worth it.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University tracks the eviction rates in five states and 27 major metropolitan areas, roughly one-fifth of the nation’s rental population. Renters in states that offered additional eviction moratoria enjoyed additional protections.

“We’re at almost at 300,000 evictions filed during the pandemic,” said Benfer, “And the CDC Moratorium did not suppress filing to the same extent that local and state moratoria did.”

The Private Equity Stakeholder Project report over 57,000 new eviction cases in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Florida, Tennessee and Texas alone since the CDC moratorium went into effect.

Across the country, “judges are adhering to the CDC moratorium at various rates” in some cases on a “county by county basis,” said Benfer.

Woman on the phone while reading a piece of paper.

Get a lawyer

Judges are enforcing the CDC moratorium unevenly. Landlords are still pursuing evictions. So renters may need to defend their rights in eviction court. That requires a lawyer.

Just 10 percent of tenants retain counsel in eviction cases, compared to 90 percent of landlords. That puts renters at a disadvantage.

The Kansas City Eviction Project showed that just 28 percent of tenants without a lawyer received won their eviction cases. The number jumped to 44 percent for renters who hired a lawyer. An article in The Appeal stated that 84 percent of New York City renters represented by an attorney won their eviction cases.

Free and discounted legal assistance if available to renters at risk of evictions during COVID. The American Bar Association lists federally-funded legal aid services and pro bono attorneys. LawHelp.org and JustShelter.org offer legal assistance resources and free legal aid programs across the country.

Use as much additional funding as possible

Renters should dedicate every possible dollar to paying rent and avoiding eviction. Supplemental funding is available from a variety of sources, including federal programs, tax credits and community-based nonprofit organizations. State, county and city programs also provide help.

Some community or country programs only offer renters rent assistance once a year. State and federal programs often have very long waiting lists. So it’s important to apply for as many forms of assistance as possible as soon as possible.

Access the Emergency Rental Assistance Program

Congress dedicated $52 billion in pandemic-related relief to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. It funds more than 200 programs in cities, counties and states across the country.

The number of programs operating changes constantly as the aid money goes into distribution and programs expires. Guidance and timelines for the last round of funding will come in May.

Use the child tax credit, if applicable

Rental households with children will get extra tax relief in 2021. The American Rescue Plan temporarily expands the child tax credit to $3,600 for children under the age of 6 and $3,000 for kids under age 17.

HUD

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers federal and state housing assistance, unemployment and nutrition assistance programs and non-legal advice for negotiating with landlords.

Renters can call 877-542-9723 for a HUD-approved counselor.

Renters that currently receive HUD assistance and have financial hardship due to the pandemic may qualify for lower rent for reduced rent through income recertification or hardship exemptions.

Tenants that meet these criteria should call 800-569-4287.

The NLIHC

The website maintained by the National Low Income Housing Association (NLIHC) tracks local and state rental assistance programs across the county, plus it’s updated frequently. Renters can search for programs by state or use the interactive map.

The CFPB

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides eviction resources in eight different languages. It features a list of city and county emergency relief programs across the country.

211

Calling 211 or searching 211.org connects renters with local health and human service agencies in their region. Common resources include food and clothing banks and utility assistance.

Grocery delivery.

Use nutrition assistance to offset housing expenses

Eviction risk and food insecurity go hand in hand. Nearly 18 million adults reported not having enough food. One in five children in rental housing didn’t have enough to eat.

“Housing expenses always come first. There are many food resources available such as food shelves and county assistance to help with food. It is much more difficult to find housing resources,” said Brittani Haas, an office technician who connects applicants with nutrition assistance through Wright County Health and Human Services in Buffalo, Minnesota. “An advantage of applying for food or cash assistance is it helps offset the cost of housing expenses. The money you ‘save’ by not having to purchase food from out of pocket, you can use those funds for rent or utilities.”

There are a variety of resources available at the federal, state and local levels.

  • SNAP: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides prepaid cards for use at grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
  • WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) serve low-income pregnant women and mothers with children up to age five.
  • Benefits.gov: Find a state by state listing of available government food assistance programs.
  • Pandemic EDP Food Support: This program offers food to children who have lost access to free or reduced-price school lunches during the 2020-2021 school year.
  • Backpack Program: This nationwide USDA network distributes supplemental food for kids across the country when school is not in session.
  • Communal Meals: Faith communities and nonprofit organizations offer group meals and food-to-go for individuals in need.
  • Food pantries: Renters can stock up on staples at locations across the U.S.
  • Meal deliveries: Seniors, veterans and renters with disabilities may qualify for in-home meal delivery.
  • Community Gardens: Renters can reduce their food bills by growing their own produce at gardens across the country.

Take steps now

Renters have new tools to prevent or delay evictions during COVID. The CDC moratorium forbids eviction for non-payment of rent through June 30, 2021. State eviction moratoria and a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule offer additional protection.

Emergency rental assistance and other city, county, state and federal programs can help renters pay off back rent and stay in their homes.

But these tools are time-sensitive. And more than 10 million American renters are at risk of eviction during the pandemic. The moment to act is right now.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.

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Source: rent.com