As Moratoriums Start to Lift, Preparing for an Eviction Wave

Tenant organizers and legal services groups are working vigorously to get ahead of eviction cases as housing court processes restart.

evictions: image of house keys and a tag that says "evicted"
Photo by Linh Do (lmdo) via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Though many advocates are working on extensions, eviction moratoriums across the country are drawing closer to an end, though extreme levels of unemployment continue. While the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s moratorium on single-family home foreclosures and evictions from properties it owns has been extended to at least Aug. 31, the broader CARES Act moratorium on eviction filings for subsidized properties and those with federally backed mortgages still expires on July 25, and the patchwork of state and local moratoriums varies widely in length and coverage.

It is difficult to keep track of moratorium expirations around the country, especially because moratoriums are often extended very shortly before they are scheduled to expire. According to Eviction Lab’s scorecard as of mid-June, there are 17 states that, at one point during the pandemic, had a statewide moratorium but now do not, including Louisiana, Tennessee, Colorado, and Texas. An additional six states never had a statewide moratorium, including Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri. Many cities also had local versions that differ from their states, if their state has one, in length or strength.

Advocates have been fearing the wave of eviction proceedings that would overtake housing courts once moratoriums were lifted. A May 28 report from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy estimates that without a substantial infusion of resources or new legislation, 120,000 families, including 184,000 children, are likely to become homeless in Los Angeles County alone in the next few months.

In fact, eviction proceedings were already rising prior to states’ moratoriums being lifted. Few moratoriums cover all the phases of eviction, from notice to filing to removal. In places where the earlier steps are not covered and housing courts have reopened, eviction cases filed since March are proceeding. That means many may have reached the stage of actually removing tenants by the time that is legally allowed again.

While they are still hoping that large-scale rent relief or forgiveness will come through to make it less necessary, housing advocates and tenant organizing groups are working tirelessly to brace for the evictions surge, preparing a range of responses.

Financial Assistance

Generally if a tenant can pay off an eviction judgment, they can stop the eviction, known as “pay and stay.” Therefore, rental assistance is a primary focus for those looking to stem a surge in evictions.

Regional Housing Legal Services (RHLS), a Pennsylvania-based legal aid organization, is working with local tenant advocates and a statewide network of legal aid attorneys on moratorium and post-moratorium issues. Pennsylvania’s moratorium is scheduled to expire on July 10, though Philadelphia’s has been extended to Aug. 31. RHLS has been focusing a lot of advocacy efforts around rental assistance, particularly asking the state to utilize the coronavirus relief fund from the CARES Act. On May 29, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation to allocate $175 million of coronavirus relief funds for a COVID-19 Relief Mortgage and Rental Assistance program. Through the program, rental payments will be paid directly to landlords. Eligible renters include those who became unemployed after March 1 or have had their annual household income reduced by 30 percent or more due to reduced work hours and wages from COVID-19. Payments can be made for up to six months, until Nov. 30.

The logistics of created quick-turnaround rental assistance at unprecedented levels may be a challenge. The state legislature gave the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) 30 days from the effective date of the legislation creating the program to create an online application. “Now PHFA is scrambling to create a rental assistance fund in a very short period of time,” explains Robert Damewood, a staff attorney at Regional Housing Legal Services. “They’re working on program requirements and have to create a program structure because they’ve never done rental assistance before.”

Though rent relief funds have been created across the country—public and private— most ran out of funds days after opening for applications. Eric Dunn, director of litigation of the National Housing Law Project (NHLP), says the organization is advocating for Congress to provide more funding for emergency rental assistance. A proposal for $100 billion in rental assistance to be distributed through the Emergency Solutions Grant program has been included in the Democrats’ latest relief bill proposal. NHLP supports this, but has also promoted expanded access to housing choice vouchers. Vouchers are a good approach to mitigating eviction risk during unpredictable employment situations, because the amount of assistance is recalibrated as incomes change. Of course for this to work, it’s important that those rent level changes are made promptly, notes Dunn.

Federal rental assistance funds could flow through organizations like United Tenants of Albany (UTA), which works directly with tenants in Albany, New York. UTA has long offered emergency financial assistance to help people stay in their homes when they are at risk of eviction for nonpayment of rent, but of course the funding was always limited, even pre-COVID. Executive Director Laura Felts says that UTA has applied for stimulus funding from the $1 billion in additional Emergency Solutions Grants funding that was in the CARES Act, which it plans to use to bring on another care worker and increase the ceiling on financial payments that it can offer to tenants. 

While a lot of work is being done to provide rental assistance to tenants, some states are devising programs to assist landlords as well as tenants. In California, a bill to help landlords recover rent lost due to COVID-19 and protect tenants from rent debt was approved in late May by the state’s Senate Housing Committee. The COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program would apply to tenants who can demonstrate an inability to pay rent due to the pandemic, but their landlord must also agree to participate in the program. The state would make direct rental payments to the tenant’s landlord for up to 3 months and cover 80 percent of unpaid rent. To receive the money, landlords would need to agree to not increase rent for a specified period, not charge late fees for the past due rent that will be paid by the program, and not pursue any remaining rent owed for the months that will be paid by the program.  

While housing and tenant organizations continue to advocate for rental assistance or forgiveness, some economists are arguing for debt forgiveness because housing contracts will essentially have to be suspended.

“People sheltering at home without income are in no way responsible for their circumstances and will refuse to accept the terms of those contracts,” James Galbraith, an economist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, tells New York magazine. “So the contracts will have to be suspended, and the debts cleared away, or there will be a confrontation on a vast scale.”

Changing the Grounds for Eviction

In the event there is no significant financial assistance for tenants or rent cancellation, there could be a legislative approach that decouples pandemic rent debt from eviction. The National Housing Law Project believes that if people still owe rent after moratoriums are lifted, but are able to get back to work and pay rent going forward, they should still be able to keep their housing.

“You can still owe the rent without necessarily having the failure to pay be grounds for eviction,” explains Dunn. “So if states were to pass a law prohibiting landlords from evicting people for rent arrearage that they acquired during the pandemic then at least people who can make the rent payments in the future wouldn’t be evicted for not paying their arrearage as long as they stayed up to date on the new rent due.”

An ordinance to reclassify rent debt accrued during the crisis as consumer debt—collectible, but not something people could be evicted for—was passed in Oakland, California, on March 27.

A similar ordinance has been proposed in Los Angeles. “This will encourage landlords to work with tenants to repay the debt in a reasonable time frame without resorting to unlawful detainer orders that cause more Angelenos to lose their homes,” said 11th District Councilmember Mike Bonin in a press release.

Eviction Diversion

When financial assistance or legislative remedies fail to keep a renter out of housing court, court-based eviction diversion programs are a next step. Much like emergency rental assistance, these types of programs existed in some places pre-COVID, but now they are proving to be even more necessary.

Eviction diversion programs usually combine lawyers, mediators, and social services providers to direct eviction cases to outcomes other than households losing their homes. If an eviction is unwarranted or illegally carried out, a lawyer can defend the renter in court. If there has been nonpayment, the programs often combine some financial assistance with negotiations for rent forgiveness and payment plans for the remainder with the landlord.

One example of this is the Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic in Minnesota, launched by a group of organizers in July 2018 from the housing, legal, financial, and social services sectors to address the city’s rental affordability crisis. The clinic was designed as a one-stop shop, offering services such as legal counsel and on-site screening for emergency funds at no cost to tenants.

Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) is one of six organizations that run the Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic. VLN has been working with another county’s housing clinic for almost 20 years, but according to Muria Kruger, housing program manager and resource attorney at Volunteer Lawyers Network, what distinguishes Ramsey is that it has a small nonprofit on board called Neighborhood House—a multiservice agency that helps people with basic needs like housing, food, and education—and connects tenants with emergency assistance.

evictions: furniture and personal possessions outside a house
Photo by Molly Marshall (elisharene) via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

“So not only do we have legal and mediation services, this partnership brought emergency assistance, county emergency assistance, and private emergency assistance so that tenants could get all of those services at the same time at housing court,” notes Kruger.

Due to Minnesota’s moratorium, the Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic has been shut down since March 12. Kruger says that VLN is working with three counties (including Ramsey) to plan services for tenants when housing courts reopen.

“In the three counties where we’re active, we’re going to continue on with the services that we’ve been providing,” she explains. “That’s not only having the lawyers and mediators there but having access to countywide emergency assistance. Just having access to dollars for people sometimes can change how a case looks legally dramatically.”

On June 18, Philadelphia’s City Council unanimously passed five housing bills in an attempt to prevent mass evictions. One of those bills included the creation of an eviction diversion program that would require landlords and renters to go through a pre-filing mediation process to stop landlords from proceeding with evictions. Through the program, tenants and landlords would resolve issues and settle on an agreement to cover the amount of rent owed. Another of the five bills passed was a payment agreement bill, which allows for tenants who have a financial hardship related to COVID to get on a nine-month repayment plan.

There is a danger, of course, of existing programs becoming overwhelmed. Since housing courts in New York are reopening before the state’s moratorium ends, United Tenants of Albany is working now to increase capacity for the court intervention that they already do.

“We have a court advocate in our local city court that helps folks who are facing eviction, but we anticipate that there’s going to be more filings potentially than we’ve ever seen,” says Felts. “We’re recruiting volunteers through the New York State Bar Association and we’re working with the Albany law school to try to increase the capacity of that service.”

Tenant Education

If tenants aren’t aware of their rights regarding eviction, however, they may not even connect with diversion programs. And therefore many tenant organizations are amping up their tenant education efforts.

“We’re really trying to make sure that tenants have access to information,” says Marika Dias, managing director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center. The Urban Justice Center is one of more than 25 tenant advocacy groups that are part of the Right to Counsel Coalition in New York City. “We’re trying to produce different ‘know your rights’ materials and information, are working really hard to make sure those materials get distributed.”

Getting information to tenants who may not be already connected to organizing groups is crucial, because the legal details are changing fast. For example, on June 22, New York’s housing courts will reopen to hear eviction cases.

“One of the challenges for tenants is going to be that if they receive court papers, they won’t necessarily understand what to do with those,” Dias explains. For example, she says, tenants may not know that they can respond to court papers by telephone, saving them from having to travel to housing court.

“We need to make sure that tenants understand that there is a right to counsel in New York City, and [let them] know how they can get connected with lawyers,” adds Dias. “We’re also trying to do some advocacy to make sure that the court is playing a role in connecting tenants with attorneys.”

In early May, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the state’s moratorium from June 20 to Aug. 20, but only for tenants who qualify for unemployment benefits or are experiencing a financial hardship due to COVID-19. According to Dias, New York housing courts recently issued guidance for landlords, stating that they will need to have an affidavit proving that the tenant does not have a financial hardship before filing for nonpayment of rent, or attempting to get a default judgment or a warrant of eviction. This has added more pressure on organizations to educate tenants about their rights.

“What that means is right this minute, we have landlords across our city embarking on a systemic effort to get financial details from all of their tenants to ascertain who they can and can’t sue as soon as the courts reopen,” Dias explains. “It’s very intrusive and the landlord has no right to it.” 

To obtain a tenant’s financial information, Dias says there have been reports of landlords sending Google surveys and making “intrusive inquiries” for tax returns, pay stubs, bank statements, and social security numbers. 

Social distancing guidelines have introduced another barrier for organizers and advocates who are scrambling to get information to tenants. Lisa Bates, who volunteers with Community Alliance of Tenants in Portland, a statewide renters’ education rights and organizing group, says it’s difficult to reach everyone “at a time when we’re not supposed to gather and we’re not supposed to do door knocking and face to face.”

To practice social distancing, tenant organizations are relying heavily on phone calls to reach out to neighbors, and placing flyers under doors.

“The most vulnerable communities are not necessarily on social media or getting on a Zoom,” says Bates. Those vulnerable groups include low-income people of color, single women with children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and immigrant families.

Preparing to Resist

Over the last four months, the coronavirus pandemic and recent killings of Black men and women have accentuated the systemic racism that Black Americans face across every institution. The threat of mass evictions that will put Black people and communities of color at risk will be yet another upset, causing additional unrest. Evictions will also present another chance to revisit policing practices, according to Shanti Singh, communications coordinator for Tenants Together, a statewide coalition of local tenant organizations dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of California tenants.

“If all of these evictions are enforced, who throws your stuff out onto the street? It’s the cop, it’s the sheriff,” she says. “I think this is particularly a time where we need to recognize the role of police enforcement in the eviction machine and fight back against that specifically.”

In addition to campaigning for rent cancellation and advocating for municipalities to pass moratoriums, Tenants Together is training tenants in how to defend themselves against illegal lockouts, also known as self-help evictions, which, Singh explains, some landlords are doing to bypass going to court.

“[Landlords] are literally forcing people out of their home with these quote-unquote self-help evictions, and the police play a huge role in that,” she says.

Tenants Together is advising renters to defend themselves by forming neighborhood support networks, and to not sign any new agreements without talking to a local tenant organization or Legal Aid first. Most importantly, tenants should not voluntarily move out of their homes, Singh says.

Besides sharing information about illegal landlord practices, organizing groups are sharing strategies during virtual gatherings about how they can protect and support one another directly. Organizers have asked tenants to leverage social media and the press, especially when there is an eviction in progress. They’ve suggested using phones to film the occurrence, in order to make the landlord and police cautious, and to post the video online.

They are also suggesting that tenants accompany each other to court. Many times a housing court judge will be more likely to favor a tenant if they have support from the community.

“I think the tenant movement has been really smart about how we engage politics in the city, and how we engage the legislative process … we’re in all those conversations,” says Esteban Girón, a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU) Organizing Committee in Brooklyn, New York. “But when that’s not working, the only thing that gets the credit is direct action. You don’t get big wins without direct action.”

Girón explains that for CHTU, direct action includes plans to block marshals from evicting people from their homes and blocking the entrance at housing court. With the housing courts scheduled to reopen, tenant organizations held a day of action on June 22, during which they made phone calls to Gov. Cuomo and Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Janet DiFiore demanding a universal eviction moratorium and the continued closure of housing courts until their demands have been met. Those demands include:

  • Canceling rent payments for duration of the pandemic
  • Expanding the right to counsel and making sure that renters facing eviction are aware of this resource; and
  • Slowing down eviction cases.

“Last year, we had to shut down the governor’s office and get arrested to be able to win better tenant protections, and we did,” Girón says. “So that tells me that whether we have to block the entrance of housing court or block access to a building, those are not the kind of images that our mayor and our governor want coming out of New York.”

[This article has been corrected to say that FHFA’s eviction moratorium extension to Aug. 31 only covers single-family properties with GSE-backed mortgages, and possibly only former owners of those properties, not their tenants.

It also been corrected that only Philadelphia has extended its moratorium to Aug 31. Pennsylvania’s statewide measure still expires on July 10.]

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