CLEVELAND — President Joe’s Biden administration extended a moratorium on evictions for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic until at least the end of March.
Housing advocates said it's much needed, but renters still need more help.
President Biden called on several federal departments and agencies to extend their eviction and foreclosure bans, including the CDC eviction moratorium which first went into effect in September.
Community Legal Aid managing attorney John Petit said the moratorium requires tenants to write a declaration to their landlords that they can’t pay rent because of hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You've lost some household income and you would be homeless in essence, or having to live with, you know, a close relative room sharing those types of things which are not healthy during a pandemic,” Petit said.
Petit is hoping for more guidance from the federal government to streamline the way the moratorium is put into practice across the country.
“Some courts are saying that the landlord has a right to question you on that. Some courts will set up hearings through that, other courts to do it virtually,” Petit said. “And then other courts are doing it in a way I think it was intended, which is that it is a moratorium, that you should not go forward on an eviction. And so we've certainly been challenged by different courts treating people differently, kind of depending on where they live.”
Despite the challenges, Petit said the extension is much needed.
“And probably further extensions because there's a lot of rental assistance available in the community,” Petit said.
The latest stimulus package passed in December provided $25 billion in rent relief, but he said not all of that money has been distributed yet.
“It does take time because the infrastructure isn't always there to get that out quickly. And so that's where the moratoriums are just so vital because we've had many cases where landlords avoid the moratorium,” Petit said. “They still go forward trying to evict people and still want to get the rental assistance money and have the person put out on the street. And that's just not it's not good for the community.”
Moratoriums a good start, but just the first step to solving the eviction crisis
Abigail Staudt, managing attorney for the housing group at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said this latest extension is a good start to keep people in their homes, but it's only part of the solution.
“We're relieved,” Staudt said. “There needs to be additional rent assistance and mortgage assistance as well in order for people to pay the back rent and be able to stay in place.”
Staudt said the number of people facing eviction is much greater than before, but evictions haven’t been filed for a couple of reasons.
“First, our rental assistance has been effective. So those who have not been able to pay their rent, many of them have been able to access that rental assistance,” Staudt said.
Staudt said the second reason is because of the various eviction moratoriums that have gone into effect over the course of the pandemic.
“We saw a lot of landlords just not file because it was going to be a waste of their money to file at this point because of nonpayment of rent and really the better thing to do is to work with a tenant and help them in obtaining the rental assistance,” Staudt said.
Staudt said eviction filings started to increase at the end of 2020, as landlords anticipated the Dec. 31 deadline of the CDC moratorium. However, that deadline was extended to Jan. 31, and now again to Mar. 31.
“What's happening is they're the cases are getting halted for the time being first until the end of January, and now we'll start seeing through at least the end of March,” Staudt said.
President Biden is pushing lawmakers to approve another stimulus package with $35 billion in additional rent, utilities, and homeless relief.
Staudt hopes these developments help people in more ways than one.
“I’m hoping that aside from the sort of more measurable changes that this moratorium extension is causing, there's also a sense of relief and worry that is lifted from many, many people,” Staudt said.
Landlords also affected by eviction crisis
Staudt said some communities still have CARES Act funding available for rental assistance, but others do not. She said more federal assistance will not only help renters, but also landlords who rely on rental income to make ends meet.
“We have a large number of small business owners - and these are landlords - people who are relying on rental income in order to make their bills and meet their own family's needs,” Staudt said. “And so making sure that rent assistance becomes available for tenants in order to pay their landlords who are also in need of that assistance, really will help resolve this instability that we're facing and a potential eviction crisis.”
“We have seen a number of landlords work with their tenants, but this pandemic has gone on for so long that it has often meant that now tenants are three months, four months, five months behind,” Staudt said.
Dana Blair and his wife own four investment properties in Lakewood. He said they haven’t had any issues with rent payments because most of their tenants were able to keep their jobs and work from home.
He disagreed with some landlords sending out blanket statements to their tenants about prompt rent payments. Instead, he said he handles those issues on a case-by-case basis.
“Everyone has a different situation. So if anything were to come up, we'd address that individually,” Blair said.
Blair said the eviction moratorium had to be extended for the foreseeable future to assist people who are unable to work because of the pandemic. Going forward, he said there needs to be compassion on all sides from landlords, tenants, and the government.
“I think just everyone needs to understand that from a landlord perspective, from a tenant perspective, from just a personal perspective, this has never happened before in our lifetime. So I think just working with each other would go a long way,” Blair said.
What to do if you can’t pay your rent
Staudt said the first step for tenants who are unable to pay their rent is to notify their landlord.
“Tell them what's going on with your situation. Tell them the steps that you're going to take and see if you can make a partial payment. Ask them if you can pay half your rent, if you can afford it,” Staudt said.
Then, Staudt said tenants should sign a declaration stating that they are unable to pay rent and immediately apply for rent assistance.
“Right now, you only owe one month's rent. You might be able to get two month’s rent covered and you'll have that application completed and a file with the rent assistance program. And so if you need a third, fourth, fifth month's rent, you'll be able to go back for it,” Staudt said.
“Cleveland passed an ordinance that gave a right to an attorney, to tenants who are very low income and who have at least one child in the household. So it's very important to contact legal aid as soon as they get those eviction papers so we can assess whether or not we can represent you,” Staudt said.
Tenants in need of rental assistance should visit NEORentHelp.org. They can also call the United Way’s 211 hotline. Community Legal Aid also hosts a Zoom clinic every Tuesday where they discuss available assistance.
This story is part of The Rebound: Northeast Ohio, News 5's initiative to help people through the financial impact of the coronavirus by offering one place to go for information on everything available to help and how to access it. We're providing resources on:
Getting Back to Work - Learn about the latest job openings, how to file for benefits and succeed in the job market.
Making Ends Meet - Find help on topics from rent to food to new belt-tightening techniques.
Managing the Stress - Feeling isolated or frustrated? Learn ways to connect with people virtually, get counseling or manage your stress.
Doing What's Right - Keep track of the way people are spending your tax dollars and treating your community.
Do you have an idea for a Rebound story? Email us at email@example.com.