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Illustration by Natalie Nelson

Landlords Illegally Evicting Tenants, Despite Federal Restrictions

Tenants in federally subsidized low-income housing are still being evicted, despite protections passed as part of last month’s sweeping COVID-19 relief package. The CARES Act included a 120-day ban on removing tenants from properties that receive federal subsidies or have federally backed mortgages. But with no enforcement mechanism, landlords and even public-housing authorities in some states have continued to file for eviction without consequences.

The CARES Act covers tens of millions of properties, though it stopped short of an across-the-board eviction and foreclosure moratorium, proposed in an earlier relief bill introduced in the House of Representatives. But to date, neither federal agencies nor most state court systems have moved to implement the law. While some tenants are protected for now under a patchwork of state and local eviction moratoria, others are falling through the cracks.

A report from the National Multifamily Housing Council estimated that nearly one-third of all renters were unable to pay their rent on time in April. The lack of implementation of CARES Act protections, therefore, has implications for millions of struggling tenants.

When Dennis Meadows, 52, faced eviction from his Phoenix-area apartment this month, he said he had no idea that he should have been covered under the federal eviction freeze, even though he follows news about the pandemic closely. Meadows pays a portion of his monthly rent using a Section 8 housing voucher, and the rest with federal disability payments. He said that his building’s new owner had recently evicted two other families and moved to evict him, after he mistakenly paid rent on the 5th of the month, when it was due under previous ownership, instead of on the 1st.

“They’re trying to kick people who are already down,” he said.

The Maricopa County judge presiding over Meadows’s case was also unaware of the extent of the federal eviction prohibition, according to an attorney with Community Legal Services, the Phoenix-based nonprofit that represented him. Adding to the confusion, Meadows’s eviction hearing was conducted entirely by telephone, since Maricopa County courts are closed.

On the day of the hearing, Meadows and his attorney, Lewis Liebler, called in to the number they’d been given and waited for more than two hours, without hearing any cases called. Eventually, Liebler hung up to call the court clerk—who told him the judge had already tried to call him. Liebler picked up a subsequent call from an anonymous number, which turned out to be the judge.

Ultimately, Meadows’s case was dismissed, but things might have gone differently if he hadn’t had an attorney, which the majority of tenants facing eviction do not.

Arizona is one of a handful of states that are allowing evictions to proceed through remote hearings, adding technological barriers to a process that’s already difficult for most renters to navigate.

“We’ve had people call and say they couldn’t hear the judge, or they don’t have a computer or scanner to send in proof that they paid rent,” said Pam Bridge, litigation and advocacy director for Community Legal Services.

The stakes are especially high because eviction filings are on the rise in Maricopa County—more than 1,300 this month, according to CLS—and Arizona is still allowing constables to physically remove tenants who can’t demonstrate that they have been directly impacted by COVID-19. That’s left legal-aid groups scrambling to educate tenants, landlords, and even judges about the federal eviction prohibition, which should prevent cases against renters like Meadows in the first place.

“Legal services agencies, which have been underfunded for years, are now on the front lines of enforcing federal law in this area,” said Seamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project.

In Arkansas, the only state in the nation where nonpayment of rent can constitute a criminal offense, a law professor has identified more than 60 “unlawful detainer” eviction suits filed throughout the state since March 27. The actual number of eviction filings is likely higher, because there’s no easy way to track two other types of suits that landlords can file, said University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor emerita Lynn Foster. And while most courts in the state are temporarily closed, tenants can be evicted without a hearing if they fail to respond in writing to an unlawful detainer notice—which most don’t know to do.

Among the Arkansas property owners who have filed unlawful detainers since the CARES Act took effect are the Luxora Housing Authority and the Hope Housing Authority, which should be barred from evictions under both the federal legislation and an earlier order by President Trump.

In the past month, at least five tenants have had evictions filed against them in a Little Rock apartment complex purchased in 2017 by Republic Westbridge LP, an affiliate of a Toronto-based real estate fund. The housing development receives Section 8 subsidies, according to the National Housing Preservation Database, which should protect the tenants under the CARES Act. Republic Westbridge did not respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t see any indication that the CARES Act is being enforced,” said Foster. “This is only going to get worse.”

Because of the difficulty of tracking eviction filings nationwide, it’s almost impossible to say how many landlords have run afoul of the federal eviction ban. ProPublica reported on landlords in Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida who had apparently violated the ban, in addition to the Arizona and Arkansas cases identified by the Prospect.

To date, only Michigan courts have begun requiring landlords to certify that their properties are exempt from the federal ban when filing for eviction. Housing advocates in states like Ohio, where evictions are still occurring, are urging the state Supreme Court to adopt similar rules. Legal-services groups in other states have produced videos explaining the CARES Act, and collaborated on a database that allows tenants to search whether they live in a covered property.

Above all, many housing advocates are calling for coordinated state and federal responses. Even if the federal eviction freeze is enforced, tenants who fell behind on rent could still be evicted when it expires at the end of July. And they would be liable for the full balance at that time; if a tenant couldn’t afford rent in April, it’s questionable whether they could afford four times that number in four months. “Come August, we can’t go back to packed courtrooms and people negotiating deals in the hallway to try to hang on to their housing,” said Shelley White, litigation director at New Haven Legal Assistance Association in Connecticut. “We need to deal with this out of court.”

Both real estate lobbies and housing advocates are pushing for federal action on housing as part of the next federal coronavirus response package.

More than a dozen landlord and developer groups have urged congressional leadership to include emergency rental assistance and property tax relief for landlords. They also want to narrow the CARES Act by freeing property owners to evict non-paying tenants who can’t prove they have been impacted by COVID-19.

Meanwhile, housing organizers and some left-leaning Democrats are calling for the inverse. A bill introduced last week by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) would cancel rent and mortgage payments entirely, with landlords and mortgage holders receiving federal assistance to cover their losses only if they agree not to evict tenants without cause, among other conditions.

“We must take major action to protect the health and economic security of the most vulnerable, including the millions of Americans currently at risk of housing instability and homelessness,” said Omar in a statement. “Congress has a responsibility to step in to stabilize both local communities and the housing market during this time of uncertainty and crisis.”

Rebecca Burns is a Chicago journalist whose work has been featured in ProPublica Illinois, the Chicago Reader, and The Intercept. She is also a contributing editor at In These Times.

Co-published with The American Prospect.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Rebecca Burns is a Chicago journalist whose work has been featured in ProPublica Illinois, the Chicago Reader, and The Intercept. She is also a contributing editor at In These Times. 

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