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Eviction Moratorium Update: Without An Extension, What Happens To Renters After July 31?

(CBS New York) -- Eviction hurts everyone involved. Tenants lose their homes. Landlords lose any real chance of collecting what they're owed. A community suffers the costs of homeless and, during a pandemic, the spread of a virus, when people crowd into shelters or the homes of friends and loved ones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked to head off this last outcome when it issued a federal eviction moratorium last September. That ban, extended most recently by the Biden administration in June, is set to expire on July 31. President Biden called on Congress Thursday to extend it, in the face of ongoing unemployment issues and the recent rise of COVID's Delta variant. What would the end of the moratorium mean for renters who are behind on their payments, as well as the broader communities where they live?

Origins Of The Eviction Moratorium

The temporary eviction moratorium prevents landlords from removing people from their homes for nonpayment of rent. When it was established, the pandemic was in full swing, and the economy was still largely shut down. The unemployment rate, which peaked at 14.8 percent in April of 2020, had only dropped to 8.4 percent. And that rate was still more then double the rate from February (3.5 percent), the last full month before the pandemic. Lost jobs and heightened risk of working outside the home were major contributors.

Because of lost wages and lost jobs, millions of people went into arrears on rent. And those who had not paid for months risked losing their homes. A wave of evictions would force people to crowd in with family and friends or turn to shelters at a time when social distancing was the best defense against a deadly virus. Despite the economic implications for landlords, the eviction moratorium was a critical health measure.

As the CDC stated in its initial order, "COVID-19 presents a historic threat to public health."

"Eviction moratoria—like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing—can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease," the order continues. "Eviction moratoria facilitate self-isolation by people who become ill or who are at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition. They also allow State and local authorities to more easily implement stay-at-home and social distancing directives to mitigate the community spread of COVID-19."

Many cities and states have their own eviction moratoriums in effect. New York's, for example, started early in the pandemic and extends through the end of August. California's lasts through the end of September and will erase rent debt for low-income residents dealing with economic hardship.

According to Zach Newman, Executive Director of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, there are two big reasons for the various federal and state eviction moratoriums. "The first reason is to slow the spread of COVID. There's a lot of really compelling research now that moratoriums are associated with fewer COVID cases and less contact. And the second thing is just basic human dignity and economic fairness. An event that no one anticipated that shut down the economy and caused millions of Americans to become unemployed overnight shouldn't be the reason that millions of people lose their homes."

What The Federal Eviction Moratorium Does And Doesn't Do

While the national eviction moratorium prevents the loss of a home for unpaid rent, it does not forgive the rent (or unpaid fees) that is owed. It pushes the debt into the future. Once the moratorium ends, tenants are expected to pay back rent, unless they've come to some other agreement with their landlord. "This Order does not relieve any individual of any obligation to pay rent, make a housing payment, or comply with any other obligation that the individual may have under a tenancy, lease, or similar contract," it states. "Nothing in this Order precludes the charging or collecting of fees, penalties, or interest as a result of the failure to pay rent or other housing payment on a timely basis, under the terms of any applicable contract."

The eviction moratorium doesn't prevent evictions for other reasons. Residents engaged in criminal activity or endangering other residents, for example, may still be evicted. Violating other aspects of the rental agreement besides timely payment may also lead to eviction.

To be protected, renters must provide a signed, written declaration to their landlord. The declaration must include, among other things, that they've tried to obtain public assistance; don't expect to earn to earn more than $99,000 ($198,000 if filing jointly) in 2021; and cannot make housing payments due to a loss of income or hours on the job. It also requires acknowledgment that rent needs to be paid at the conclusion of the moratorium.

Landlords have not had to make tenants aware of the moratorium and its conditions.

Since September, landlords have been allowed to dispute tenant declarations and start the eviction process. Only the final step of actually having someone removed by a housing court couldn't be executed. Those who owe back rent may be expected to pay it soon after July 31, or face consequences.

"No policy is perfect," Newman stressed. "Both the state and the federal moratoriums have loopholes. There were ways to get around them, but I would say net-net the combination of moratoriums plus unprecedented rental assistance have taken the edge off the problem. But there's more work to be done. Rental assistance application processes around the country need more time. Moratoriums buy that time. So, while the situation has improved, it's not at a point yet, where lifting the moratorium makes sense."

Federal And State Assistance

Financial insecurity is still widespread, and the loss of a job and the loss of hours have been two of the main reasons. Approximately 16 percent of renters (11.4 million people) have fallen behind on their rent, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of U.S. Census survey data from late June and early July. The same data shows that 10 percent of American adults (approximately 20 million people) reported a shortage of food in their household over the previous week, and over a quarter of American adults (63 million people) reported some difficulty keeping up with expenses.

The American Rescue Plan, December's COVID relief bill, and the CARES Act have set aside $46 billion in rental assistance. But only a small amount of it has made it to tenants and landlords. Cities and states did not have the infrastructure in place to distribute the money. In June, $1.5 billion in rental assistance made it to those in need, almost double the amount from May and triple the amount from April. June's total was more than the previous five months combined. As of June 30, only $3 billion of the total had been distributed locally.

"The issue has been that state and county governments have really struggled to get it out the door, and not for lack of trying," Newman said. "The issue there has been that one, we don't have a national infrastructure for distributing rental assistance. So, the staff, tools and the processes haven't been there. And then the second thing is that the federal guidelines required in the enabling legislation are just incredibly challenging. There's a ton of documentation required to complete an application. The application itself is quite lengthy. You need participation, in many cases, from the landlord and from the tenant. So the amount of time and work it takes to finish an application is a lot. So it slowed things down and then made it challenging to get this money to renters who need it."

The increasing distribution of funds hasn't helped most New York residents who are behind on their rent. At the end of June, the state had yet to pass along any of the $2.7 billion it had earmarked for rental assistance. As of Monday, only $817,000 had been distributed, despite 160,000 applications. Many people have been unable to submit applications due to lack of internet and technical issues with the website. About 830,000 households in the state owe back rent, at an estimated debt total of about $3.2 billion.

Similar scenarios are playing out in cities and states across the country. South Carolina also failed to distribute any rental assistance through the end of June.

What Happens After July 31?

Life across the country is settling into a new normal. But the rising economy isn't lifting everyone. While some people's finances have improved, other people's haven't. Unemployment still exceeds pre-pandemic levels, even with abundant job openings. Individual states tend to limit how long people can draw unemployment insurance. And many states have already stopped accepting the federal unemployment bonus, which officially ends on Labor Day. A fourth stimulus seems unlikely. Yet, millions of people are still short of food and behind on rent.

The end of the federal eviction moratorium on July 31 means people who are behind on their payments can be evicted, unless their state has other restrictions in place. Whether they will be remains to be seen. Landlords don't like empty apartments, and may be happy to receive some portion of the rent rather than none of it. Then again, rents are rising across the country, by some indicators. A landlord may prefer the chance at a new tenant who pays more in rent over the current tenant who isn't meeting their obligations.

"There are three scenarios that maybe happen when the moratorium lifts, and I think we'll see a combination of all three," Newman explained. "One part of this is you'll have tenants who say 'this is too much. I owe this money. I'm very stressed out by this. I don't want to get sued. I don't want to have an eviction on my record. I'm just going to move out.' And they just leave, and they move to a shelter or to a hotel, or they move in with family. The opposite is you have the landlord say 'look, rental assistance is available. I know you're in debt. We're not going to evict you. Let's just work together on this application and get this balance paid.' The third scenario is, in some of these cases -- and it's hard to say what percentage -- you're going to see formal eviction proceedings undertaken. Notice placed on the door, tenant has to go to court, and they do face eviction in front of a judge."

Eviction isn't just the result of poverty, it can be the cause of poverty. Job loss and the increased difficulty of finding a new job are common outcomes of eviction. Aside from the financial strain, eviction can be traumatic on an emotional level and lead to worsening health. The sudden upheaval can also have a profound influence on children, particularly their health and education. Widespread eviction can have far-reaching effects on other parts of society, from the healthcare system to schools and other government agencies.

Any crisis could more acutely affect communities of color and less affluent communities. The millions of people behind on their rent include 24 percent of Black renters and 18 percent of Latino renters, as opposed to 11 percent of white renters. Any increase in evictions is likely to involve those on the lower end of the income spectrum. Unemployment predominantly touched people in hospitality and service industries during the pandemic. While hiring has greatly improved, the dangers of a public-facing job may not have. And even those who have recently returned to work may still have a pandemic-size hole in their finances.

The effects of the CDC's eviction moratorium -- and various state-level moratoria -- expiring may become noticeable across the broader economy in the coming months. Society will have a wait and see. It seems certain, however, that, like the economic suffering brought on by the pandemic, the harm from rising evictions will be born by those least equipped to handle it.

Originally published Wednesday, July 28, 2021 at 1:20 p.m. ET.

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