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American renters hard-hit by pandemic juggle complicated assistance systems, eviction laws

With 9.5 million Americans, or 17 percent of tenants, in the U.S. still behind on their rent according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Biden administration on Monday extended a federal moratorium on evictions through the end of June. There are no changes to the rules, which, as John Yang reports, can be complicated and confusing for judges, landlords and tenants behind on their rent.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the Biden administration extended a federal moratorium on evictions through the end of June. There are no changes to the rules, which, as John Yang reports, can be complicated and confusing for judges, for landlords and the tenants behind on their rent.

  • John Yang:

    Right now, Ricky Ewell would rather be anywhere but here, waiting for an eviction hearing.

  • Ricky Ewell:

    I'm down here trying to trying to fight my case.

  • John Yang:

    Are you nervous, anxious?

  • Ricky Ewell:

    Well, yes, of course. I mean, I'm like one step away from being outside. So, yes, I am.

  • John Yang:

    When the pandemic shut things down last spring, Ewell lost his job as a restaurant sous-chef, no money to pay the rent on his small one-bedroom apartment. Last month, the landlord filed an eviction notice because, the property manager said, Ewell never reached out to explain.

    He is one about 9.5 million Americans, 17 percent of U.S. renters, who are behind on their rent, according to the Census Bureau. In 2017, that figure was only about 6 percent of renters.

  • Man:

    It will be the truth, as you shall answer to God.

  • John Yang:

    Ewell and about 100 other tenants are scheduled to plead their cases before a Franklin County judge at the Columbus Convention Center, home to the county's eviction court since last June, when it reopened, after passing at the start of the pandemic. Most cases are decided within minutes.

    There is an eviction moratorium in place. So, why are we here in an eviction court in Franklin County, Ohio, that sees an average of 100 cases a day?

  • Jyoshu Tsushima:

    There's a pretty big misunderstanding about what this eviction moratorium is.

  • John Yang:

    Columbus legal aid attorney Jyoshu Tsushima says the CDC's moratorium only prevents landlords from actually evicting tenants for failure to pay rent, not from filing eviction notices, which can permanently blemish someone's financial record. And he says the rules are far from clear.

  • Jyoshu Tsushima:

    Even between different magistrates and judges in our own court, they interpret it differently. So, part of that's due to a lack of legal clarity in the definitions of the terms of the CDC moratorium.

  • John Yang:

    For tenants facing an eviction order, it can be baffling.

  • Jyoshu Tsushima:

    If the tenant is fortunate enough to get an attorney, say, through legal aid, then we can help them take those steps and make sure they're in a situation to ask for the moratorium.

    But for a lot of other tenants who don't talk to an attorney beforehand, they have no idea. A lot of them just end up moving out of their properties.

  • John Yang:

    To qualify from eviction, a tenant has to show they stopped paying rent because they lost income due to the pandemic.

  • Jyoshu Tsushima:

    And that can be pretty intimidating for a lot of tenants, because, essentially, it's an inquiry into them being poor.

  • John Yang:

    While it doesn't protect them from having to pay back rent, it qualifies them for federal rental assistance to take care of it. Those programs are administered by housing aid and poverty groups who are on hand at the Convention Center to help tenants while they wait for their hearings.

    Some say it's a double-edged sword. Some tenants may be more likely to make their court dates knowing that help is here. But at the same time, some landlords may be more likely to file eviction notices knowing that, if they get their tenants here, they will get their money.

  • Bo Chilton:

    That is the catch-22 that we're trying to work around.

  • John Yang:

    Bo Chilton is CEO of IMPACT Community Action, an anti-poverty group that distributes rental assistance in Franklin county.

  • Bo Chilton:

    Once you get that eviction filing on your record, you become part of a class of unrentables. With that eviction on your record, it is very difficult to find housing here in Central Ohio.

  • John Yang:

    That is why Chilton encourages landlords to help their tenants apply for rental assistance, instead of filing for eviction. Some landlords already do just that, and more.

    Even though majority of tenants at this complex on Columbus' North Side are behind on rent, eviction notices are rare. That's because property manager Rachel Blubaugh works hard to find them help.

  • Rachel Blubaugh:

    I search at home. When I'm not at work, I spend a lot of time on the Internet looking for resources. Sometimes, I go through and print up a little sheet of places for, like, food, health care, whatever they need, Print it out and deliver it to their doors.

  • John Yang:

    It sounds like you're as much a sort of social worker, almost, than a…

  • Rachel Blubaugh:

    Somewhat, yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    Is that how you feel sometimes?

  • Rachel Blubaugh:

    Yes. But it's our community. If we don't take an interest, then nobody else is going to.

  • John Yang:

    It takes time that some small landlords say they don't have and can't afford.

    While some may qualify for COVID mortgage relief, many say that, without reliable rent payments coming in, they can't keep up with insurance, property taxes, and maintenance. That's why, nationwide, landlords are still filing for evictions for non-payment every day. Like the coronavirus itself, the fallout is harder on people of color.

  • Emily Benfer:

    Eviction has always disproportionately affected Black households higher than any other rate. And that trend has continued through the pandemic.

  • John Yang:

    Emily Benfer teaches health justice at the Wake Forest University Law School.

  • Emily Benfer:

    Black households, they are two times as likely to be evicted. And the result of this is health inequity among people of color, because we know that the people who are most vulnerable to eviction are also the most likely to suffer health conditions that would place them at high risk of complications and morality if they contracted COVID-19.

  • John Yang:

    Back at the Convention Center, Ricky Ewell's legal aid attorney resolves his case before his hearing even begins.

    What just happened here?

  • Ricky Ewell:

    Great news.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ricky Ewell:

    Well, the impact service that I was — that was representing me in the case, they're going to pay my rent. So, there's proof of that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    And the key word here is, plaintiff shall dismiss this case?

  • Ricky Ewell:

    That's right, absolutely, people.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Man:

    So, it sounds like everything's been wrapped up.

  • John Yang:

    It turns out Ewell misunderstood how many months of back rent rental assistance would cover.

    Were you not aware that you could have applied for all of it?

  • Ricky Ewell:

    No, no, because I'd never been in this position before. You know, I was always paying my rent and never been in this position before. So, it takes a lot of people — it throws a lot of people for a loop.

  • John Yang:

    And now that he is up to date on rent, he is confident he can keep up his payments from here.

  • Ricky Ewell:

    Now that jobs are opening back up again, I can finally go out here and try to find me some work or something like that.

  • John Yang:

    So, you just needed this help to get out of the hole?

  • Ricky Ewell:

    Absolutely. Absolutely. It's like you're throwing a rope in the hole and pulling me out.

  • John Yang:

    And now that you're back on level ground, you're OK?

  • Ricky Ewell:

    Yes, I'm…

  • John Yang:

    You can carry on from here?

  • Ricky Ewell:

    Yes, I'm not in the quicksand anymore.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    A lifeline just in the nick of time.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Columbus, Ohio.

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