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Eviction Moratorium Delays Crisis Until January, When Tenants Will Owe Back Rent

The measure offers temporary relief, but renters need immediate cash assistance to stave off an eviction crisis in 2021.

Demonstrators gather in front of a U.S. Marshall's office during a "No Evictions, No Police" national day of action on September 1, 2020, in New York City.

The nationwide eviction moratorium announced Tuesday by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will provide immediate and welcome relief through the end of the year for certain renters, but housing rights advocates say the move is woefully inadequate because it fails to provide any payment assistance to renters.

Tenants will still owe back rent plus interest and fees once the moratorium ends in January.

The HHS/CDC eviction moratorium goes further than the moratorium in the CARES Act passed in March, which only applied to renters using federal housing assistance programs or whose landlord had a federally backed mortgage. The move by the Trump administration follows weeks where anti-eviction activists shut down eviction courts in New Orleans, as well actions in 15 cities protesting the failure of Congress to provide rent relief. It also comes following a week of criticism after a Department of Housing and Urban Development official deceived New York public housing residents into appearing in a Trump campaign video without their consent.

The news is a welcome respite for the 30 to 40 million people estimated to be on the brink of eviction. As Deborah Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, pointed out, “Housing access is critical to stem the effects of the coronavirus.” But the moratorium merely delays the evictions crisis, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing. Diane Yentel, the president and CEO of the coalition, said in a statement that, “while an eviction moratorium is an essential step, it is a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed,” and called for at least $100 billion in emergency rental relief to properly address the crisis.

This new eviction moratorium is in effect from September 4 through December 31, 2020, and is expected to face legal challenges by landlords. It applies to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, with the exception of American Samoa, which is excluded for now as it has reported no cases of COVID-19.

In order to qualify, renters must meet five requirements. First, they must expect to face homelessness, or expect to move into “close quarters” with others if they are evicted. Second, they must be unable to pay their rent either due to a loss of income or major medical expenses. Third, they must make partial rent payments each month “as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit.” Fourth, they must have “used best efforts” to find government assistance for rent. Finally, they must either have received a stimulus check, not filed a tax return in 2019 or make less than $99,000 (or less than $198,000 if filing a joint tax return).

If a renter meets all of these criteria, they must sign a written declaration to their landlord, under penalty of perjury, stating they meet the requirements. Needing to supply this written declaration directly to their landlord may prove difficult to renters whose only access to a computer or internet is through a smartphone — which is about one in five U.S. residents. Those without easy access to a printer (especially with the closure of libraries due to the pandemic) may also have difficulty getting the required documentation to their landlord. “Any time you impose even minimal documentation requirements to qualify for a protection like this, it raises an impediment for people to comply,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project. The documentation requirement may also create opportunities for landlords to say what tenants submit isn’t sufficient. The public interest group MassAccess, a project of Suffolk Law’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab, has created an online tool to determine eligibility and auto populate the declaration.

Ending the moratorium on December 31, 2020, could create a new evictions cliff. If Trump loses to Biden, the new administration won’t begin until after inauguration on January 20, 2021. This could mean renters ring in New Year’s Day with a sheriff evicting them from their home — with a three-week gap before the next administration could extend the moratorium.

Democrats have advocated a more aggressive approach: a $100 billion emergency rental assistance fund. Providing funds to renters sidesteps the problem of tenants owing back rent once the moratorium is over. The bill, the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act, is led by Representatives Maxine Waters (D-California) and Denny Heck (D-Washington), and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). It is widely supported by the Democratic Caucus: co-sponsored by 41 Senate Democrats and 160 House Democrats.

To truly respond to the ongoing evictions crisis, we need a way to properly track it. Currently, there is no federal evictions database, just as there was no foreclosure database during the 2008 subprime crisis — and there remains no foreclosure database more than a decade later.

Advocacy groups like Eviction Lab, Boston’s City Life Vida Urbana, San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition have tried to fill the vacuum, but they are no replacement for a centralized, federal system.

Democrats have proposed fixing this problem with the Housing Emergencies Lifeline Program (HELP) Act. Proposed by Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), the bill would create a much-needed federal evictions tracking database, so that lawmakers can track this ongoing crisis and make informed decisions about the scale of help required. There is also a bipartisan bill that would also create an evictions database, the 2019 Eviction Crisis Act led by Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

The nation’s housing and homelessness crisis exacerbates the threats of our health crisis. This new eviction moratorium will provide temporary relief for millions, but it delays the core problem. The evictions crisis is still waiting for us, and unless Congress or the Trump administration takes further action, millions may be spending New Year’s Day being kicked out of their homes.