An eviction ban extension serves up more uncertainty

Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 12/31/2020, 9:36 AM
Edited: 03/11/2021, 10:22 AM
(NATIONAL) A long-awaited COVID-19 relief package could delay scores of evictions for another month, but the measure leaves another issue unaddressed: billions of dollars in debt. Throughout the year, legal aid attorneys and other advocates have warned that millions of Americans were on the brink of eviction as the pandemic blasted the economy. A patchwork of federal and state eviction bans protected tenants for much of the year, but even with a moratorium on certain evictions extended through January, back rent has been stacking up. By next month, renters could owe up to $24 billion to their landlords, analysis firm Stout predicted earlier this year. “The moratorium has continued to stave off that big crisis, but until the debts are dealt with, probably through some kind of more generous federal relief package, that’s going to remain a threat,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. A recent survey from the US Census Bureau estimated that more than 6.7 million adults were at risk of eviction or foreclosure. An estimated 12.8 million were either behind on rent or mortgage payments or doubted they would be able to cover next month’s payments on time. The $900 billion relief package that President Donald Trump signed into law on Sunday provides $25 billion for rental assistance and extends a temporary halt on evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks evictions in 27 cities in the United States, reported earlier this month that landlords had filed more than 162,000 evictions since March 15, a date used in many studies to represent the unofficial start of the pandemic. The lab analyzed eviction cases from Cincinnati, Houston, Phoenix and New York City, finding that landlords were seeking more money for back rent, late fees and damages, just as government assistance for some renters was evaporating. In Houston, where the city exhausted more than $14 million of rental assistance in 90 minutes in May, median eviction claims rose from $1,099 in January to $1,895. Landlords in Houston have filed more than 18,000 evictions since March, the third highest number out of the cities Eviction Lab tracks. Evictions are down, but the need for housing assistance is up Lisa Stifler, director of state policy for the Center for Responsible Lending, said the amount of protection tenants have had from eviction during the pandemic has largely been determined by where they live because a “tepid federal response” has left it up to state and local governments. “Unfortunately, because the strong federal response hasn’t been there, it’s very much a patchwork … where you’re lucky if you live in a place that has created such a program,” Stifler said. “And, unfortunately, plenty of people are not in that situation.” States like Minnesota, California and New York currently have their own eviction moratoriums. On the opposite end of the spectrum are places like Oklahoma, where state leaders have refused to consider eviction bans. Eviction Lab ranked Tulsa and Oklahoma City as having the country’s 11th and 20th highest eviction rates in the country before the pandemic. Last year, county courts in those two cities had about 28,600 eviction filings. Federal eviction bans have largely protected renters in the state, which has seen less evictions than usual, with about 19,900 cases filed since March 15, according to data from the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s eviction tracker. At the Oklahoma County District Court in Oklahoma City, evictions fell 29% this year, court data shows. “Because we’ve had the CDC moratorium and because we have had an influx of rental assistance, it’s slowed down our normal numbers, but we are coming onto a cliff,” said Becky Gligo, executive director for Tulsa nonprofit Housing Solutions. Although the number of eviction cases is down, that drop doesn’t reflect the need for housing stability in Oklahoma. City data shows that from March to mid-December, the 211 information system in Oklahoma City had received about 16,700 requests for rental and mortgage assistance – more than triple the number of requests from the same time period in 2019. The system received about 50% more requests for help paying utilities than last year, with about 15,800 requests made from March to Dec. 15. Jerod Shadid, a planner for Oklahoma City’s homeless services, said that this year, the city averaged about 300 to 500 requests for housing assistance per week. That number has risen during December, when the 211 system received 800 calls in a single week. Gligo said Housing Solutions has also received “an extraordinary influx of calls” related to rent and utility assistance. “We do know that some more rent assistance is on the way,” she said, “but we have not seen a slowdown in certain landlords seeking actions against their tenants.” Gligo added that the official numbers don’t take into account illegal or “soft” evictions, when a landlord evicts a tenant outside of the court system, often through threats or having utilities shut off. This year, landlords in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states have also filed evictions in violation of federal eviction bans, according to previous reporting from Big If True. “A landlord can use positional power to get somebody to leave without them having had their day in court, or sometimes people think, ‘Well, there’s no way I’ll win in court, so I’ll just go,’ and so we have untold numbers of people who are being displaced that we can’t even track because they’re not going into the court,” Gligo said. ”We’ve heard, anecdotally, some stories about landlords asking for people’s coronavirus relief checks and things like that, … and I understand that landlords are in a bind as well, so it’s kind of an impossible situation.” Ginny Bass Carl, executive director for resource center Community Cares Partners in Oklahoma City, said “evictions are still flying fast and furious” despite the CDC moratorium. To be covered by the ban, tenants must state in writing that they’re eligible for the moratorium, and landlords can challenge those claims in court. “We’re still getting a ton of evictions being filed, because so many tenants don’t know about (the ban),” Bass Carl said. “We have landlords that don’t believe it. … A tenant gets a notice on their apartment door, and they’re scared, so they go ahead and leave. They don’t even realize that they have any rights at all.” The eviction moratorium also has been unpopular with some landlords, including companies and industry groups that have sued the CDC over the ban. Stifler, the state policy director from the Center for Responsible Lending, said racial inequality can play a significant role in outcomes for tenants, especially for households that still haven’t fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. “A lot of wealth was lost, especially among Black and Latino households, in the previous crisis,” she said. “And that has not been built back up in around 10 to 12 years. And so people are facing this crisis … in a worse off position than they were before.” Before covid, tenants of color, especially Black women, were more likely than white people to be evicted. A 2014 MacArthur Foundation study found that women from Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin made up about 10% of the population but 30% of evictions. Those disparities have continued during the pandemic, Dunn said. “And not only that, we’re also seeing that people of color are being more heavily impacted in terms of their health by covid,” he said. “They’re facing more serious cases, more fatalities. You combine those two things together, and it’s really just a recipe to wipe out any sort of progress we’ve made toward building more inclusive communities and ending residential segregation over (the) 50 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed.” Some CARES Act funds for rental assistance go unspent A federal covid relief package called the CARES Act included funding for rental assistance, and the resource center Community Cares Partners was created to provide that and other aid in Oklahoma. The Oklahoman reported earlier this month that the organization expected not to meet its Dec. 30 deadline to finish spending all of the CARES Act funds it received from Oklahoma County. Community Cares has since spent all of those funds, but it was unable to finish spending all of the money it received from Oklahoma City and the state in time to meet yesterday’s deadline. The resource center received about $21 million in all to provide rental and utility assistance, along with other services. Yesterday, the last day of the resource center’s contract to distribute the funds, Bass Carl estimated Community Cares had spent about $18.3 million to aid Oklahomans, with more than $11 million going toward rent and mortgage assistance. “It’s really hard to spend that amount of money in such a short time with all the restrictions on it,” Bass Carl said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible, but you are making it very, very difficult to be able to reach such a large quantity of people in such a short period of time under such restrictions and rules, and they tend to change rapidly. We’ve had at least a dozen changes in the last five months.” Restore Hope Ministries Executive Director Jeff Jaynes said that since May 1, the nonprofit has provided more than 1,400 families with $3.4 million dollars in rent assistance, about $1.8 million of which was funded through the CARES Act. Restore Hope stopped accepting rent assistance applications in late November, when it appeared funding would be exhausted. “The hard thing for us is just with the sheer numbers of people who applied for our state program, we had to close our application portal,” Jaynes said. “The need has just been unprecedented.” Because of the new relief package, Restore Hope will begin accepting applications again in January. Gligo said the additional funding and newly extended deadline for spending CARES Act funds is a big win, but it will only provide temporary relief to an ongoing problem. “The money will run out eventually, so that’s always concerning,” Gligo said. “This is very helpful, but it is stressful thinking about, regardless of this intervention, the strain that will come on our homeless services systems.” Being evicted not only displaces people from their home, but it can have a long-term negative impact on a tenant’s credit, making it harder for them to rent in the future. In addition to rental assistance, Dunn said tenants need legal protections to prevent landlords from categorically denying applicants with covid-related evictions on their records, suggesting landlords should reconsider evicting tenants over unpaid rent even after the moratorium expires. “It’s just not indicative of what kind of a tenant someone is that they weren’t able to pay because they lost their their job in a (once in a) 100-year pandemic,” Dunn said. “Allowing landlords to use the threat of eviction to get somebody to pay a debt, it’s kind of unsavory, I think, certainly when we’re in a situation where we’re potentially facing millions and millions of evictions, numbers that could really be deeply destabilizing to communities.” Everyone working to prevent people from experiencing homelessness has become well acquainted with high anxiety, said Shadid, the city planner for Oklahoma City. “Every day is a new adventure, if you want to call it that,” Shadid said. “I don’t know if that’s the word I would use, though.” Jeremy Martin is a news and arts writer living in Oklahoma City. 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