On March 26, a sheriff’s deputy walked up to a one-story brick home in a suburb of North Tulsa, Oklahoma, and told the woman inside it was time to leave.
She called Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma in a panic. Eric Hallett, the attorney on the phone, instructed her to grab important documents and medicine. There was a chance she wouldn’t be allowed to return.
The woman and her partner — who lived in the home with five children, ranging in age from 1 to 17 — had thought they were going to be able to stay.
They had struggled to pay their bills during the pandemic, so they had applied for federal rental assistance through a local nonprofit. Three months before they were evicted, their landlord, Gary Ramey, received $5,600 that would cover the back rent they owed. In return, he signed a document agreeing to drop the eviction case, as was required by the nonprofit that issued the relief aid, according to a copy of the document shared by Hallett.
Instead, Ramey moved forward with the eviction, and a judge granted it. Now, the family of seven is living in an extended stay hotel.
“It really shows the breakdown,” said Hallett, the coordinator of housing advocacy for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
Ramey confirmed he received the payment and signed the contract, but said he was unaware of the conditions involved, and would “have to go look at the paperwork.”
“I don’t remember that,” he said. “I thought they were just helping them catch up with rent.”
With millions of renters staring down evictions during the global health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday extended its nationwide ban on evictions until June 30. The order, which had been set to expire March 31, is meant to shield families from being pushed out of their homes.
But while tenant advocates praised Monday’s extension, they said the program’s implementation hasn’t been equal in practice. Many renters, like the North Tulsa family, are still being displaced from their homes.
Interviews with renters, legal aid attorneys, housing experts and affordable housing advocates at the state, local and national level show a process that can be subject to the whims of local politics or geography. Depending on the courtroom, a judge hearing eviction cases might ignore the ban, questioning the federal government’s authority to implement it. Other judges have questioned whether the order applies to tenants on month-to-month leases.
Across the country, landlords are continuing to find ways to get tenants out, in some cases by declining to renew their lease or claiming that tenants broke the lease’s terms. While the federal policy bans evictions based solely on nonpayment of rent, it allows evictions for other issues, such as damaging property or engaging in criminal activity. And renters may be unaware of the steps they need to take to ensure the eviction moratorium applies to them.
Since the pandemic began, 284,490 evictions have been filed across the five states and 28 cities tracked by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. More than 163,700 of them were filed since the federal government’s ban went into effect Sept. 4.
“Many landlords have flouted the order and its protections,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It’s especially disappointing because the Biden administration knows very well what the flaws and the shortcomings are and still failed to correct any of them.”
The White House said in a statement that the federal government was “strengthening the enforcement tools to ensure the moratorium is implemented.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission announced March 29 that both agencies would monitor and investigate eviction practices.
The White House statement encouraged tenants to reach out to the CFPB and 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 on rent than white households, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data.
In Macon, Georgia, one landlord attempted to have a renter evicted over arrears. After the judge declined because of the CDC order, the landlord filed a few days later seeking to terminate the tenant’s lease for a different reason, according to Susan Reif, a housing attorney and director of the Eviction Prevention Project for the Georgia Legal Services Program.
Reif said the group was able to successfully argue the filing was an attempt to get around the CDC order, because of the timing.
In Louisiana, legal aid lawyers have fought eviction cases based on minor leasing violations that have ranged from having a trampoline in the backyard to failing to mow the lawn.
Amanda Golob, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said that a landlord trying to find a loophole to evict a tenant who owes rent might protest, “It’s really about the cat that they have.”
In one filing, she said, a landlord tried to have a renter thrown out over a damaged stove. A fire marshal report helped prove the tenant wasn’t at fault.
“We know it’s about nonpayment, but all of a sudden there’s an eviction notice 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 a last resort for landlords, and judges make the final call. The majority of housing providers, he argued, are trying to work with residents to keep them in their homes.
“Empty buildings don’t benefit anyone,” he said.
The advocacy organization opposes the eviction moratorium, which Brown said has left residents and owners “on the precipice,” as unpaid rent, which tenants are still ultimately responsible to pay, stacks up.
‘It’s just compounding rent’
For families who are struggling to pay rent, the uneven enforcement of the eviction ban is compounded by the slow rollout of more than $46 billion in federal rent relief.
As of late March, only 28 states had launched rental assistance programs to disburse the first major wave of federal funds, $25 billion allocated by the Department of the Treasury in December, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Sharon Brown, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, likened the situation to an uneasy waiting game. Mississippi’s emergency rental assistance program began accepting applications on March 29, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Home Corporation did not yet have figures for how many applications had been submitted or approved.
Impatient landlords may press for an eviction, hoping for a receptive judge, instead of waiting for the assistance to trickle down. And it’s unclear whether the federal package is enough to cover billions of dollars in back rent owed.
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Even when renters aren’t evicted, the accumulating debt can be enough to drive them from their homes. Brown shared the story of a woman whose missed payments were stacking up. With no guarantee of a bailout, the tenant felt trapped. Brown helped her relocate to a property where her new landlord agreed to offer a reduced rental rate, and Brown helped pay some of the cost upfront.
Some may have more trouble finding their footing. Housing advocates note that a rental history of late or missed payments can kick-start a vicious cycle that can hurt tenants’ chances of finding decent housing in the future.
Brown said tenants who were out of work, but have since found employment, or picked up better hours, might be able to escape without financial harm if they can manage to pay down their balance, or if they can access federal aid.
But for others, when “30 days go by, it’s just compounding rent,” she said.
Rosa Jackson, 47, said she fell on hard 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 north Mississippi.