September 30, 2020

Landlords Jump the Gun as Eviction Moratorium Wanes

The four-month pause that has protected millions of Americans from eviction cases is set to expire at the end of this week. But that hasn’t stopped landlords across the country from trying to get a head start forcing renters out.

Landlords in Tucson, Ariz., filed dozens of eviction cases last month despite the federal moratorium, which was put in place because of the coronavirus crisis. Legal aid lawyers had to go to court to stop the eviction of a San Antonio renter who had lost her job during a citywide stay-at-home order. And in Omaha, a court found that a struggling renter’s attempted eviction had violated the emergency law.

As the number of Covid-19 cases has surged across the country, a disturbing trend has emerged: landlords commencing eviction proceedings even though the CARES Act relief law currently protects about 12 million tenants living in qualifying properties.

Yolanda Jackson, a special-education paraprofessional in the DeKalb County schools outside of Atlanta, lost her job in March when the schools shut down. Ms. Jackson, a mother of two, has yet to receive an unemployment check, despite confirmation that she was approved, and hasn’t been able to pay her rent. A charitable organization agreed to cover her missed payments, but so far the manager of her complex, LaVista Crossing Apartments, hasn’t sent the necessary documentation to accept it.

“I have tried everything in my power not to get to this point,” Ms. Jackson said. “I’ve been here seven years, and they will not work with me. I am just stressed out and trying to hold it together.”

She received an eviction notice in late June, and the manager said in a court filing that the property wasn’t covered by the federal moratorium. But on Tuesday, lawyers for Legal Aid in Atlanta decided to take her case after finding that the complex is in fact listed as having a federally backed mortgage — making it covered by the CARES Act moratorium.

ImageYolanda Jackson, still waiting for unemployment benefits after losing her job during the pandemic, is trying to fend off eviction from LaVista Crossing.
Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Lawyers for LaVista Crossing did not respond to messages seeking comment.

At least two other residents of the apartment complex have been served with eviction notices for nonpayment, said Lindsey Siegel with Atlanta Legal Aid. “Many Legal Aid clients are facing evictions simply because their unemployment benefits haven’t come through,” she said.

State and local governments have also issued eviction moratoriums, but the CARES Act is the furthest reaching, covering as many as 12.3 million renters living in an apartment complex or single-family home financed with a federally backed mortgage. But like other moratoriums, it’s about to expire: After Friday, landlords can begin filing eviction notices for failure to pay rent. It will be at least 30 days after that before any tenants are kicked out.

The moratorium has been a lifeline for millions of unemployed people, allowing renters waiting on slow-to-arrive aid to stay in their homes and make up the payments later.

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But the far-ranging and hastily assembled CARES Act — which, among things, had provisions for direct relief payments, a temporary expansion of unemployment insurance and hundreds of billions of dollars in small-business aid — does not penalize landlords who violate the moratorium.

Paula Cino, a vice president for policy and government affairs at the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord group, said there had been some legitimate confusion at the outset with the federal moratorium and local and state eviction pauses.

“That said, I wouldn’t minimize the fact that there is the potential for bad actors in this space,” she said. “Even if they weren’t initially taking advantage of the system, they have the responsibility to better understand.”

Once an eviction case enters the legal system, it can have lasting consequences: Even a wrongfully filed action can be difficult to remove from court records and keep turning up when renters go through background checks.

“An eviction judgment stays on a tenant’s credit report for seven years, is grounds for wage garnishment and makes it more difficult for a tenant to find future housing,” said Susan Butler, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has been tracking violations of the CARES Act.

Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times
Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times

The scope of the problem is elusive. Wrongly evicted renters might not bother trying to challenge their landlords, sometimes because of their immigration status, or because they do not know they have the right.

But wrongful evictions have been reported across the country. The Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a consumer advocacy group, found more than 100 filings in apparent violation of the CARES Act in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Massachusetts.

And in a survey of 100 legal aid lawyers in 38 states, by the National Housing Law Project, all but nine said they knew of attempts at illegal evictions in their cities. The problem prompted the group to create a draft complaint to challenge a violation of the CARES Act moratorium.

Judges have been troubled, too. The Texas Supreme Court issued a statewide order on Tuesday requiring landlords to certify whether the CARES Act applies to an eviction case, and Arizona’s Supreme Court took a similar action earlier this month.

Lawmakers in Washington are debating another relief law — including possible stimulus payments, aid for governments and schools, and a decision on what to do about the extra $600 weekly unemployment benefit — and housing advocates want it to have more help for renters.

The landlord group is in favor of help for tenants, too. The National Multifamily Housing Council said it favored the creation of an emergency rental assistance program of up to $100 billion. But the organization opposes a “protracted extension of a federal eviction moratorium.”

If the moratorium is extended in another relief bill — it is part of the $3 trillion package passed by House Democrats — there are calls from housing advocates to give it enough teeth to keep landlords from trying to skirt the rules.

“There should also be clearly delineated enforcement mechanisms and steep penalties for landlords who flout the law,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has set up a webpage to help tenants determine if their rental is covered by the CARES Act.

Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Nelson Mock, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said lawyers across Texas had seen “landlords trying to sidestep the issue.”

Juanita Herrera DeLeon, 57, who lost her job in March during San Antonio’s stay-at-home order, had to fend off an eviction attempt despite the CARES Act moratorium.

Soon after Ms. DeLeon lost her job, the manager of her apartment complex, the Olmos Club Apartments, tried to lock her out by installing a device on her doorknob. It was removed after she complained to the police, but she said the complex had tried other tactics to get her to leave, like posting on her front door a three-day notice to vacate the premises.

That was when she sought help from RioGrande Legal Aid. In a statement filed with her lawsuit, she said the property manager “did not leave me anything in writing about locking me out” before the first attempt.

The suit was recently settled; Mr. Mock said he was not permitted to discuss the terms.

Jason Adelstein, a lawyer for the Olmos Club Apartments, said, “The dispute was settled between the parties, my client denies any wrongdoing, and due to the terms of the settlement agreement between the parties there can be no further comment.”

The issue of CARES Act violations may be worst in Arizona.

In June alone, at least 80 eviction proceedings that were started in the local courts in Pima County appeared to violate the CARES Act, according to research by a team put together by Ms. Butler, the law professor in Tucson. Many were filed by small landlords, and it’s hard to know whether the filings were intentional or a mistake, she said.

One property owner, however, was responsible for filing more than a dozen cases against residents of the Cordova Village apartment complex on Tucson’s south side.

The landlord, Equilibrium Properties, which operates several apartment buildings in Tucson and Washington, D.C., said in an emailed statement that the eviction filings had been made in error. The company, which received at least $150,000 under the Paycheck Protection Program established by the CARES Act, said it had moved to vacate the proceedings and was “rescinding all notices for nonpayment that have been given to tenants.”

“Moving forward,” the company said, “we will take every effort to comply with the CARES Act.”