For local leaders worried about a huge wave of homelessness in their communities, last week’s announcement of a new federal moratorium on residential evictions was welcome news.
The unprecedented action by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention goes far beyond a previous federal moratorium that expired in July. The new order applies to as many as 40 million renters living in any rental property, not just federally subsidized units, as was the case under the earlier measure.
As details of the CDC’s action emerge, however, there’s reason for local leaders to remain concerned about renters who’ve lost jobs and income during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the CDC order delays evictions for nonpayment of rent, it doesn’t help renters dig out of any debts they owe to landlords.
“They make it very, very clear that your financial obligation is not being waived,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told KHOU news. “At some point, it’s going to have to be paid.”
The CDC order does a number of things. It temporarily halts residential evictions through December 31 — and does not preclude state or local governments from imposing their own more restrictive measures. To qualify for this protection, tenants must expect to earn no more than $99,000 in income this year (or $198,000 for joint filers). They also must certify that they’ve suffered a substantial loss of income, that they’re paying as much rent as they can, and that they’re seeking all available government assistance for rent or housing.
Unlike the previous federal moratorium, the CDC’s order comes with penalties for landlords who violate it. Individuals can be fined up to $250,000 and jailed for a year; corporate landlords can be fined up to $500,000 per violation. (Read the full CDC order here.)
There are several key things the CDC order doesn’t do. In addition to leaving the issue of tenants’ debts unaddressed, it doesn’t preclude landlords from charging and collecting fees, penalties, or interest. Further, it doesn’t prevent evictions for reasons other than nonpayment of rent, and it doesn’t protect homeowners from foreclosure.
In addition, the moratorium is likely to be challenged in court. The order tests the limits of the CDC’s authority by arguing that a rise in evictions would lead to more homelessness and potentially compound COVID outbreaks. Groups representing landlords and other real estate interests have denounced the measure; according to the leading association for the apartment industry, “the stability of the entire rental housing sector is thrown into question.”
For city leaders, there are a number of implications. One is that there remains a major role for cities to play in offering renters emergency housing assistance. During the pandemic, dozens of cities have created programs to help tenants pay rent, often by cobbling together a mix of federal, state, local, and philanthropic funds. For example, a $60-million fund set up by the city of Houston and Harris County, Texas, offers tenants roughly $2,000 in help, with the aid paid directly to landlords.
While these rental assistance programs add up to just a fraction of the $100 billion housing advocates say is needed to avert a crisis, they do something eviction moratoriums don’t by chipping away at backlogs of unpaid rent. The CDC order encourages states and local governments to put federal CARES Act funds and other federal grant dollars toward this purpose.
Cities also have a role in educating tenants about how the federal moratorium works. In order to invoke the CDC’s eviction protections, each adult listed on a lease must sign a declaration form stating that they meet the eligibility criteria and give it to their landlord. While legal aid groups have already begun outreach, a major effort — in multiple languages — will be necessary to get the word out to tenants about what they must do to stay in their homes.
Local leaders also can play a role in enforcement and tenant advocacy. Just because an eviction moratorium is in place doesn’t mean landlords won’t try pushing tenants out through other means; research has shown that “informal evictions” happening outside the legal system account for about half of all forced moves.
A recent collaboration in Memphis shows one way cities can intervene in this gray area.
When the previous federal evictions moratorium was in place, researchers at Innovate Memphis, the city’s nonprofit innovation team, analyzed the data on local eviction filings. They found 60 cases where landlords had filed evictions in violation of the federal moratorium, and partnered with several local players including Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., Memphis Area Legal Services, and the University of Memphis, to fight those filings. All of the cases were dismissed.
“We were able to intervene before the cases were heard in court,” said Austin Harrison, a researcher who consults with Innovate Memphis. Harrison said he’ll be scouring the CDC’s order for new opportunities to use data to identify illegal evictions and advocate for tenants in need. “Once we get our arms around the details of what the CDC moratorium entails, it’ll give us similar opportunities,” he said. “I’m going to need to strategize a little with the lawyers.”