Jul 29, 2021
Housing advocates are concerned that delays in rental assistance mean tenants will suddenly owe months of payments
For months, Denise Forcer would get stressed just by opening her closet. The crush of belongings stuffed inside reminded her she didn’t know where she would go or what she would do if her landlord followed through with the eviction notices they kept posting on the door of her south Florida apartment.
“I thought I was going to have a breakdown, I really did,” Forcer, 51, told the Guardian. “I didn’t know when those people were going to come banging on my door or put up another paper.”
Forcer, like millions of other Americans, has been protected from eviction by a moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that expires at the end of this week. Unlike most of these renters, Forcer was able to pay off roughly three months of owed rent thanks to the $47bn in rental assistance the government allocated to stave off evictions.
But only 6.5% of that money has been delivered and advocates are concerned evictions will rise next week when renters are suddenly on the hook for months, if not a year, of unpaid rent.
Roughly 12.7 million renters told the census in late June and early July that they had no or slight confidence in being able to make next month’s rent payment.
This pain won’t be felt equally across the US. States with weak renter protections, such as Florida, are bracing for an “avalanche” of evictions while the federal moratorium’s expiration won’t be noticed in states with stronger protections, such as Washington.
Jeffrey Hittleman, a lawyer at Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, said the moratorium has been important for the dozens of clients like Forcer who lost their jobs, had issues collecting unemployment from the backlogged benefit system, then fell behind on rent. “Once the CDC moratorium expires, there will be no special eviction protections for people in south Florida,” Hittleman said.
Florida eviction cases move quickly and fighting them is hard. Just to get a court hearing, tenants have to pay the full back rent owed within five days of the eviction filing. Without the eviction moratorium as a defense, people will have only a few days to find months of unpaid rent just to get a court hearing.
Forcer credited Hittleman and his firm for connecting her to the rental assistance program, getting her unemployment benefits delivered and enforcing the eviction moratorium, which her landlord was ignoring. “If not for them, I don’t know what I would have done,” Forcer said.
Even with the rental assistance, which Forcer said covered three or four months of rent, she still spent $3,000 from her savings and unemployment checks to pay off the remaining balance, including late fees her landlord had added to her bill.
The eviction moratorium was initially set to expire at the end of June, but the White House extended it for “one final month” through 31 July amid reports of an even slower dispersal of rental assistance earlier this summer. When it ends, one of the last barriers between the country’s systemic mismatch between housing costs and the money people actually have will have fallen.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition published a report this month that showed a full-time minimum-wage worker can’t afford a modest two bedroom rental home anywhere in the US. These workers also can’t afford a one bedroom apartment in 93% of US counties, the report said.
It’s this bigger issue, one that will outlive the pandemic, that has pushed the housing movement to demand permanent change and improve renter protections in some states.
This movement has ensured the end of the federal moratorium won’t cause even a slight rumble for renters in Washington. The state has some of the strongest protections for renters during the pandemic and though some rules, such as a rent increase freeze, have been phased out, it will keep many protections, or a version of those protections, in place through September.
Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said; “I’m deeply worried in Washington state for what happens on October 1st, but I’ve been doing this job for long enough that I’ve really seen a profound shift.”
Until 1 Oct, Washington landlords can only evict tenants for unpaid rent if their county has working rental assistance and mediation programs. To start the eviction, they must first inform the tenant about these programs and offer tenants a reasonable repayment plan. A ban on late fees is also still in place.
In April, Washington became the first state to guarantee legal representation to low-income people facing eviction. At the time, 8% of people facing eviction in Washington had access to a lawyer. It’s expected it will take months to hire enough lawyers to respond to the anticipated demand.
One protection no longer in place is a rent increase freeze, which Thomas said was extremely helpful for keeping people at home. Without it, she’s concerned how people will stay current on rent if they have been relying on family, friends, loans or depleting their savings.
In Washington, 319,816 people had no or slight confidence they could make next month’s rent payment in late June and early July, according to the Census. And 1.4 million people said they had difficulty paying for their usual household expenses in the past seven days.
“There has consistently been hundreds of thousands of renters in Washington state who have reported that they are hanging on by a thread,” Thomas said.
Though Washington renters are better protected than most, the state is facing the same difficulties as the rest of the country with distributing $1bn in rental assistance. “We’ve never spent this much money on homelessness prevention before, so our provider system is working really hard, but it takes time to process the applications,” said Thomas.
Despite Thomas’s myriad concerns for renters in Washington, she was encouraged by the dramatic shift in housing policy not just with the new presidential administration, but in the past decade.
She credited the change to decades of work by advocates, the protests against racial injustice, growing awareness about the housing system through media such as the book Evicted and better representation of renters in politics.
Last week, the Biden administration hosted its second virtual meeting summit on eviction prevention. Thomas said: “That signifies such a dramatic shift in this country.”
Courtesy of the Reuters Markets