Can the nation avoid an eviction wave?

Published: Apr. 22, 2021 at 1:47 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - When the country ultimately emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, millions of families will lose a protection that helps keep them in their homes.

The C.D.C.’s eviction moratorium is scheduled to end at the beginning of July. The protection, which has been extended multiple times, is primarily aimed at preventing COVID’s spread by keeping Americans housed. Once the virus is no longer a major threat to public health though, experts expect it will be allowed to expire.

That they said, is likely to happen well before Americans struggling to pay the rent are back on their feet financially.

To qualify for eviction protection under the C.D.C. moratorium one must:

1) Make every effort to obtain available financial rental assistance

2) Be expected to earn less than $99,000 this year as an individual or $198,000 as a couple

3) Be unable to pay due to the loss of employment, substantial work hours, or extraordinary medical expenses

4) Pay as much of the rent they owe as possible

5) Attest that eviction would render them homeless or force them to move into a shared living space

How much protection the federal eviction ban, and others enacted at the state and local levels, actually offer vary dramatically from city-to-city and state-to-state. But, it is clear that even as more Americans struggle to pay rent during the pandemic, fewer families are getting thrown out of their homes than are in a ‘normal year’.

Michelle Rogers won her last argument in Cleveland Housing Court thanks to the C.D.C. moratorium, but knows her hold on her home may be fleeting. “I’m still way behind the eight ball on this,” she said.

Rogers said unemployment insurance, government relief, and savings paid the bills most of last year. But, when hiccups in federal aid and snarled red tape in Ohio cutoff assistance, she fell about $600 behind. That created additional complications with the Section 8 housing voucher she relies upon to pay the majority of her rent. With three months of rent outstanding, her landlord filed for eviction.

Rogers sought financial assistance and legal aid representation but said the systems designed to provide a safety net were too overwhelmed to provide much help. She ended up navigating the court process on her own.

“The past month is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” she said following getting a stay on her eviction in housing court, “and I’ve had cancer twice.”

The C.D.C.’s eviction moratorium didn’t shield Tara Muhammad. “I was under the impression that help was there for anybody that needed it,” she said of her difficulties navigating assistance programs.

An eviction notice landed her in housing court but she’s still in her home thanks to financial assistance provided through the Cleveland Housing Network which paid off her debt.

Muhammad, a single mother of three, left her job at the beginning of the pandemic to take care of her kids when schools closed. She said unemployment insurance helped but became a bureaucratic nightmare by last fall.

At this point, Muhammad said her savings are drained. She said returning to work is impossible and sinking back into debt is unavoidable until her children return to school full-time. She worries she’ll be behind on her bills again in a couple of months.

“I go day-to-day just praying that I will have a way to support my kids and my household,” she said.

A U.S. Census Bureau survey estimates half-a-million tenants are behind on rent in Ohio alone.

Anne Kat Alexander with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab predicts a wave of evictions will follow once the C.D.C. moratorium lifts, as they saw when earlier protections expired.

Alexander said data collected by her and her colleagues show eviction filings dropped in Ohio cities over the last 12 months but not by nearly as much as in other parts of the country.

“Considering it’a s pandemic, [filings in Ohio are] really pouring in,” she said and noting, “some states stopped all parts of the eviction process and other states did virtually nothing.”

The Eviction Lab’s data suggest eviction filings are down just 20% in Cincinnati and 40% in Cleveland. That likely means a smaller wave in the Buckeye State whenever the C.D.C. moratorium is ultimately lifted. Toledo’s housing court is no longer honoring the moratorium after a pair of judges ruled it unconstitutional. Other jurisdictions will continue to recognize the protection until higher courts to weigh-in.

We repeatedly reached out to a number of organizations representing Cleveland’s landlords. We never heard back.

Christopher Fluegge represents small landlords in his role as Director of Operations for the National Landlord Association. He said the pandemic’s financial strain on tenants has been directly felt by their members in the form of lost income.

Without that income, Fluegge said some can’t afford their mortgages and have been forced to sell their properties. The latest numbers from a recent NLA survey found that renters are twice as likely to be behind on their rent as usual.

Even after the pandemic ends, Fluegge expects that financial strain to linger for years and force more small owners out of the business.

While evictions may rise once the moratorium lifts, he argues, “nobody wants to evict a tenant.” He said working out a plan to get caught up on back rent makes more sense for renters and landlords.

Barbara Reitzloff, Senior Attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, agrees with that sentiment. She spends her days providing representation for needy tenants in the city’s housing court system.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Reitzloff said she’s seen a greater emphasis on working out a deal rather than simply giving a tenant the boot. She hopes that remains a feature of local housing court even once the moratorium expires.

“A lot of these cases have had decent endings, where the cases get dismissed, people get their money, and [renters] stay where they are,” Reitzloff said.

When it comes to reforms, Alexander - with Princeton’s Eviction Lab - argues the coronavirus crisis has further illustrated that the pre-pandemic status quo is unacceptable. Data from the lab indicate more than four people lost the roofs over their head every minute prior to 2020.

“We can’t go back to normal,” she said.

Alexander said the Eviction Lab’s research indicates the most effective housing assistance during this crisis has come in the form of direct payments, like stimulus checks. She pointed out that more complicated schemes and protections proved difficult for tenants to navigate.

Reitzloff said many of her clients are overdue to receive either stimulus or unemployment assistance. Once they do, most will be able to pay-off back rent.

For landlords, Fluegge said Congress made plenty of help available, but confusion prevented many of those who needed it most from finding it. He said he thinks Congress has provided enough financial assistance for landlords and tenants but argued not enough has been done to help those in need tap into it.

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