Housing advocates say evictions continue to ‘full steam’ despite a federal ban

On March 26, a sheriff’s deputy approached a one-story brick home in a suburb of North Tulsa, Oklahoma, and told the woman inside that it was time to go.

He called Oklahoma Legal Aid Services in a panic. Eric Hallett, the attorney on the phone, instructed him to take medications and important documents. There was a possibility that he would not be allowed to return.

The woman and her partner, who lived in the house with five children, ages 1 to 17, had thought they could stay.

They had struggled to pay their bills during the pandemic, so they had applied for federal rental assistance through a local nonprofit organization. Three months before they were evicted, their landlord, Gary Ramey, received $ 5,600 to cover the back rent they owed. In return, he signed a document agreeing to withdraw the eviction case, as required by the nonprofit organization that issued the emergency aid, according to a copy of the document shared by Hallett.

Instead, Ramey went ahead with the eviction and a judge granted it. Now the family of seven lives in an extended-stay hotel.

“It really shows the breakdown,” said Hallett, a housing advocacy coordinator for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.

Ramey confirmed that he received the payment and signed the contract, but said he was unaware of the conditions involved and “would have to go see the paperwork.”

“I don’t remember that,” he said. “I thought they were just helping them catch up on the rent.”

With millions of tenants watching evictions during the global health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday extended its national eviction ban until June 30. The order, which was scheduled to expire on March 31, is meant to protect families from being driven from their homes.

Rosa Jackson stands near some of her belongings that were removed from the home she was evicted from at Gramercy East Apartments in Horn Lake, Mississippi.Brad Vest / for NBC News

But while tenant advocates praised Monday’s extension, they said implementation of the program has not been the same in practice. Many renters, like the North Tulsa family, are still being displaced from their homes.

Interviews with tenants, legal aid attorneys, housing experts, and affordable housing advocates at the state, local, and national levels show a process that may be subject to the vagaries of local politics or geography. Depending on the courtroom, a judge hearing eviction cases could ignore the ban, questioning the federal government’s authority to implement it. Other judges have questioned whether the order applies to tenants with month-to-month leases.

Across the country, landlords continue to find ways to get tenants out, in some cases by refusing to renew their lease or claiming that tenants breached the terms of the lease. While federal policy prohibits evictions based solely on non-payment of rent, it allows evictions for other issues, such as damaging property or engaging in criminal activity. And tenants may be unaware of the steps they need to take to ensure that the eviction moratorium is enforced.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 284,490 evictions in the five states and 28 cities that The Eviction Lab conducts at Princeton University. More than 163,700 of them have been filed since the federal government’s ban went into effect on September 4.

“Many homeowners have disobeyed the order and its protections,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It is especially disappointing because the Biden administration knows very well what the flaws and deficiencies are and has not yet corrected any of them.”

The White House said in a statement that the federal government was “strengthening enforcement tools to ensure the moratorium is implemented.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Office and the Federal Trade Commission announced on March 29 that both agencies would monitor and investigate eviction practices.

The White House statement encouraged tenants to contact the CFPB and the Department of Housing and Urban Development “regarding any issues with debt collectors, evictions or discriminatory treatment.”

Just as the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, racial disparities in the ability to afford housing influence families’ vulnerability to evictions now. Black, Hispanic and Asian households were more likely to be behind in rent than white households, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

Rosa Jackson looks through a window at her old apartment in Horn Lake, Mississippi, on April 1, 2021.Brad Vest / for NBC News

In Macon, Georgia, a landlord tried to evict a tenant for arrears. After the judge refused due to the CDC’s order, the landlord filed a request a few days later to terminate the tenant’s lease for a different reason, according to Susan Reif, a housing attorney and director of the Prevention Project. Evictions for the Georgia Legal Services Program.

Reif said the group was able to successfully argue that the presentation was an attempt to circumvent the CDC order, due to time.

In Louisiana, legal aid attorneys have faced eviction cases based on minor leasing violations ranging from having a trampoline in the backyard to not mowing the lawn.

Amanda Golob, a housing attorney for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said a landlord trying to find a way out to evict a tenant who owes rent might protest: “It really is about the cat they have.”

In one presentation, he said, a landlord tried to have a tenant thrown out for a damaged stove. A report from the fire marshal helped show that the tenant was not at fault.

“We know it is non-payment, but suddenly an eviction notice appears for a broken stove,” Golob said.

Greg Brown, vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association, a group that represents rental owners, said evictions are often the last resort for landlords and that judges make the final decision. Most housing providers, he argued, are trying to work with residents to keep them in their homes.

“Empty buildings do not benefit anyone,” he said.

The advocacy organization opposes the eviction moratorium, which Brown says has left residents and landlords “on the brink” as unpaid rent, which tenants are still ultimately responsible for paying, accumulates. .

‘It’s just compound income’

For families struggling to pay rent, the uneven enforcement of the eviction ban is compounded by the slow implementation of more than $ 46 billion in federal rent relief.

As of the end of March, only 28 states had launched rental assistance programs to disburse the first big wave of federal funding, $ 25 billion allocated by the Treasury Department in December, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. .

Sharon Brown, an organizer for the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, likened the situation to an awkward waiting game. Mississippi’s emergency rental assistance program began accepting applications on March 29, a Mississippi Home Corporation spokeswoman did not yet have figures on how many applications had been submitted or approved.

Impatient homeowners can push for an eviction, waiting for a responsive judge, rather than waiting for help to arrive. And it’s not clear if the federal package is enough to cover billions of dollars in rent owed.

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Even when tenants are not evicted, the accumulated debt may be enough to evict them from their homes. Brown shared the story of a woman whose late payments were piling up. With no guarantee of ransom, the tenant felt trapped. Brown helped her move into a property where her new owner agreed to offer a reduced rental rate, and Brown helped pay part of the cost up front.

Some may have more trouble finding their balance. Housing advocates point out that a rental history of late or late payments can start a vicious cycle that can affect tenants’ chances of finding decent housing in the future.

Brown said tenants who were out of work, but have since found employment or collected better hours, could escape without financial damage if they manage to pay their balance or if they can access federal aid.

But for others, when “30 days go by, it’s just compound income,” he said.

Rosa Jackson, 47, said she went through tough times after her fiancé died of heart failure in July. He helped her pay for an apartment in Horn Lake, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, located in northern Mississippi.

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