UPDATE: On Thursday evening, Aug. 26, the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration from enforcing the temporary ban on evictions. The court’s action ends protections for roughly 3.5 million people in the United States who said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to Census Bureau data from early August.
A U.S. appeals court on Aug. 20 declined to end the CDC moratorium on evictions that was instituted during the pandemic, setting the ban up for a battle before the Supreme Court.
But as the legal back-and-forth over the federal evictions ban continues, housing advocates and legal professionals, as well as organizations representing property owners, told PBS NewsHour their clients’ concerns extend well beyond the future of this moratorium. In some counties, judges have declined to enforce the ban and pushed on with evictions amid the pandemic, and rental assistance remains hard to access for both landlords and tenants in some parts of the country. Additionally, the moratorium only covers certain types of evictions, meaning they have continued to occur anyway, even though they are being filed at a lower rate than in years prior to the pandemic.
“There has been confusion from the get-go unfortunately,” said Matthew Garcia, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, of the CDC’s eviction moratorium. He recalled a case he witnessed earlier this year where a tenant was denied protections under the moratorium because they had emailed their landlord a link to the form that is required for applicants to sign in order to qualify, rather than printed the form. Because a hard copy of the form was never signed, the landlord’s lawyer argued the tenant not covered by the moratorium, and they were evicted.
Additionally, one of the judges in San Antonio’s Bexar County, where Garcia works with clients, has said he will not enforce the CDC’s new eviction moratorium, meaning that a tenant’s fate could simply depend on where they live, and whether they are assigned to a judge who is honoring the ban.
“The order is definitely working when tenants are aware of the moratorium, and know their rights, and know how to take advantage of the protections,” Garcia said. “But if you’re a tenant who doesn’t know about the moratorium, doesn’t know how to gain access to the protection, or if you end up in the wrong courtroom, then it’s not working.”
While the first federal eviction moratorium that was implemented last September ended on July 31, the Biden administration instituted a new CDC ban set to expire Oct. 3 after Democratic lawmakers pressed for it to be extended. This national moratorium is now facing a challenge led by the Alabama Association of Realtors that is headed for the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the White House has urged state and local governments to scale up their distribution of $46.5 billion in federal emergency rental assistance that was allocated by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But data released by the Treasury Department on Aug. 25 finds that most of these funds have not found a way into the pockets of tenants who are struggling. According to the report, state and local programs have distributed just 11 percent of these funds to support vulnerable renters so far.
“It’s too bureaucratic. There are too many bottlenecks. The money isn’t getting out as efficiently as it needs to,” said David Howard, executive director of the National Rental Home Council, of the federal rental assistance program.
With the distribution of rental assistance uncertain in some parts of the country, and the fate of the eviction moratorium now in the hands of the Supreme Court, advocates worry that tenants will find themselves in a more precarious housing situation this fall. At the same time, organizations representing property owners are concerned that uncertainty regarding the moratorium will spur more owners to sell — particularly so-called “mom and pop” landlords who own single-family homes — contributing to a dearth of rental housing in an already tight market.
How the moratorium works, and how it doesn’t
Under the current CDC eviction moratorium, renters must provide their landlords with a signed declaration stating they meet certain income criteria and have done their best to make rental payments, as well as to obtain government rental or housing payment assistance. If a tenant qualifies, they should be prevented from being evicted while they wait for federal assistance to help make their rent payments.
In counties that are not currently enforcing the moratorium, though, landlords may be less inclined to wait on this assistance, and decide to push for their tenants to be evicted instead.
This is currently the case in Franklin County, Ohio, where Judge Ted Barrows announced on Aug. 5 that his court would proceed with evictions, explained Melissa Benson, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society of Columbus. Barrows’ decision was based on a recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision which ruled that the CDC had no authority to impose a nationwide eviction ban.
“What the moratorium did do and is no longer doing — because it is not being enforced — was give tenants time to access that rental assistance money,” said Benson. The main organization that is in charge of distributing rental assistance, IMPACT Community Action, only handled about $300,000 in housing assistance during the year prior to the pandemic, and has taken charge of distributing millions of dollars allocated for states by the federal government through the CARES Act. Bo Chilton, the CEO of IMPACT, said that so far his organization has distributed about $33 million in rental assistance to more than 15,000 households since last June, and still has about $65 million to spend up through the fall of 2022, when the federal grants expire.
An application typically takes about 20 days to process, according to Chilton, but sometimes rental assistance will come through in as little as two days if a tenant is at risk of being removed from their home. He added that if an application is missing information from either party it can hold the process up for several weeks.
Chilton said that both tenants and landlords can apply for rental assistance through his organization, and “for the most part, the landlords worked closely with us to try and keep people safely housed during this period.”
But Benson observed that they’re now seeing landlords in Franklin County say they will no longer do that, given that the municipal court is no longer enforcing the eviction moratorium. “I anticipate that we will see a larger percentage of people who aren’t able to access that rental assistance because the incentive isn’t there from the other side of it,” she said.
“The moratorium, whether the court was allowing filings or not, was discouraging some landlords from filing,” Benson continued. “And that will no longer be the case. We are anticipating a significant jump in eviction filings.”
Benson said that Judge Barrows’ decision not to enforce the moratorium has caused confusion among some of her clients. On the morning she spoke with PBS NewsHour, she had just gotten off the phone with a woman facing eviction who planned to file a CDC eviction declaration to buy herself some more time to find a new home. “I explained to her that she could do that, but the court was not going to grant it,” because the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision gives judges in Ohio the option not to enforce the ban, Benson said.
Chilton also said they recently had a client who was evicted because her landlord didn’t want to wait any longer on rental assistance. The woman, a mother with children, had been encouraged by her landlord to apply for assistance back in April, but waited a number of months to do so. By the time IMPACT got back to the landlord to say they could make a payment on her housing, Chilton said, “they were fed up and they said, no, they wanted the tenant out.”
Rental assistance often hard to navigate
While the U.S. social safety net has expanded during the pandemic — with the federal government temporarily providing additional support to Americans who are unemployed, about to lose their housing, or struggling to keep their businesses afloat, for example — applying for, and receiving many of these benefits can be time-consuming and complicated.
While Texas has been processing applications for federal rental assistance since February, Ally Harris, who works with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service on their Court Watch program, said the people she works with facing eviction do not always realize that financial aid is available, and sometimes struggle to access it.
Harris, who advises clients facing eviction on their options, said that the way that Justices of the Peace preside over the eviction cases she observes in Harris County — which includes Houston — seems to depend on where they fall along party lines.
“The most liberal judges are the ones who are giving tenants a chance and then the most conservative of them are … in the pocket of the landlord and their campaigns are likely being funded by landlords,” said Harris. “Justice is not uniform.”
If a tenant ends up in court with their landlord, the odds of winning their case may be stacked against them. While 90 percent of landlords are represented by legal counsel in eviction cases, fewer than 10 percent of tenants have representation, according to the ACLU. But David Howard, executive director of the National Rental Home Council, made the point that not all property owners have deep pockets and political connections, nor the savvy to work around the eviction moratorium.
“The eviction moratoria has been difficult for property owners to decipher,” said Howard, whose organization represents single-family rental homes — 90 percent of which are owned by smaller “mom and pop” landlords. “There are very pragmatic and practical concerns that a lot of property owners are facing,” Howard said. “The most obvious of which is if I’m a property owner, and I’m not receiving rent either in full or part, how am I going to pay my bills?”
“Generally larger operators will have the cash to be able to write out something like this … but for independent rental owners, this is a catastrophic event, because they don’t have the cash reserves to carry through this,” said Bob Pinnegar, president of the National Apartment Association.
Howard noted that while landlords are able to apply for federal rental assistance on behalf of their tenants in a number of states, the efficacy of the program varies from one locality to another.
While Howard acknowledged that there are a lot of local agencies out there “who are working really hard to make this happen,” he said “there doesn’t seem to be much consistency” when it comes to government assistance for tenants and landlords struggling to cover housing payments.
Some renters face similar hurdles navigating the rental assistance system. Roegina Perez, of Converse, Texas, said that she and her landlord have been waiting on rental assistance since applying in March after she lost her job at the beginning of the year.
Perez said she had been able to cover the rent she owes by picking up odd jobs and applying for unemployment benefits, but worried for others who might not be as resourceful.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like for my grandmother, who barely speaks English,” she said of navigating the rental assistance system. “I have experience with these programs and I did work as an office assistant, so I’m familiar with process and paperwork and the terminology, but not a lot of people are.”
In an Aug. 26 email to PBS NewsHour Kristina Tirloni, a senior communications adviser for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said that a check was mailed to Perez’s landlord, but never cashed. Tirloni said that the Texas Rental Relief payment team had reissued a new check payment to the landlord. Reached by phone, Perez said she has been in constant communication with her landlord — who owns the building — and as of two days ago he had not yet received a payment in the mail.
“It’s still an excessive amount of time no matter what happens,” she said.
Looking to the future
Advocates on both the property owner and tenant side are now considering what long standing effects the CDC eviction moratorium could have on housing.
In a recent survey conducted by the National Rental Home Council, nearly a quarter of smaller mom-and-pop property owners said they plan to sell at least one of their properties at some point as a result of the CDC eviction moratorium, according to David Howard, which raises additional concerns about the viability of the rental housing market.
“In most cases, these homes are likely not being sold to other rental home property owners,” said Howard of landlords who are selling off properties because they can no longer afford them. “They’re more than likely being sold to homeowners, which is great for the home buying market, but for the rental housing market, it’s a real problem.” In a tight housing market where homeownership is increasing and the number of available housing units is lower than it was five years ago, this trend could pose concerns for the availability of affordable rentals, Howard said.
For renters struggling to stay in their homes, some housing advocates and policy experts have warned of a looming “eviction cliff” on the horizon when federal unemployment benefits and the eviction moratorium expire in the coming months.
For now, Bo Chilton of IMPACT Community Action, said very few eviction set-outs – in which a tenant and their belongings are removed from a property – are actually being executed. Melissa Benson said that most of the cases where she’s represented clients recently have been settled, either with the help of rental assistance or an agreement between a tenant and landlord on a move-out date.
Like Texas, Ohio had no right of redemption for tenants who have not paid their rent prior to the pandemic. Having the federal rental assistance — which covers a wider swath of people for a longer period of time than state aid ever did — as an option has been “a game changer,” Benson said.
“It truly has saved a lot of tenancies that would not have been saved, and prevented a lot of people from being homeless,” she said.
Some states are looking into other ways to prevent a wave of evictions all at once. At least four states plan to leave their own evictions in place for additional months after the national moratorium expires, and at least seven cities – including New York, San Francisco, and Baltimore – have passed legislation to ensure tenants a right to counsel if they are facing eviction.
In addition to right to counsel legislation, Harris said her organization is also pushing for the state to adopt more evergreen assistance programs that extend beyond the pandemic.
“Part of the reason these states are taking so long to get rent assistance out is because they don’t have the blueprint for how to do this,” she said, adding that her organization is documenting as much as they can in case they need it for future disaster recovery, particularly in flood-prone areas like Houston.
“Let’s not lock this up and throw away the key,” Harris said. “Let’s use this for the future at the very least.”