Brandon Moore, 31, has received at least three eviction notices from his landlord since last summer, when his wife lost her retail job. None of these notices included information about a nationwide eviction moratorium or the $46 billion in rental assistance available for families financially affected by COVID-19.
“I’d get home and she’d be stressed out showing me these letters from the landlord saying we were going to be evicted,” said Moore last week, after hearing for the first time about the federal emergency rental assistance program from a Stateline reporter during a smoke break outside the Fort Worth, Texas, Dollar General store where he works.
“We’ve got six kids,” he said, “so that money would have been helpful before I took out a loan to pay the four months in rent that we owed.”
Some states are working to ensure tenants like Moore have the information they need to find help. Last week, Maine passed a bill that would direct landlords to attach a plain-language letter explaining the eviction process, as well as options for legal assistance and rent relief, to eviction notices. It is one of at least eight states that have passed measures since April to prepare for a potential wave of evictions when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium expires at the end of this month.
More than 7 million renter households—predominantly households of color, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups—were behind on rent last month, and nearly half are at risk of eviction in the coming months, U.S. Census Bureau data shows. For many, the only protection is the CDC’s moratorium that has been in place since September, which can provide tenants more time to seek rental assistance.
While there are billions of emergency dollars available, many renters have struggled to apply. And in many states, officials have been overwhelmed by requests and slow to give out the help. Property owners and landlord associations have challenged the constitutionality of the CDC’s moratorium in state courts, while tenant and fair housing advocates want the federal agency to extend it even further.
States and localities need more time to distribute the $46 billion in emergency rental assistance provided by Congress in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and the December 2020 COVID-19 relief package, said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The money is aimed at addressing the $50 billion in rent arrears that tenants accrued during the pandemic, according to the housing coalition’s estimates.
The group tracks more than 1,000 state and local rental assistance programs, analyzing them and sharing best practices to ensure assistance is both distributed to households most in need and used to advance racial equity, according to Yentel.
In May, the U.S. Treasury Department updated the Emergency Rental Assistance program established under former President Donald Trump, adding guidance previously suggested by the housing coalition to streamline the process. The new guidelines clarified eligibility, eliminated paperwork and allowed renters to apply even if landlords chose not to participate.
As a result, more rental relief money has been allocated, but there hasn’t been enough time to reach all the renters and landlords who need it, Yentel said. She’d like the Biden administration to extend the moratorium until emergency rental assistance funds reach the tenants and marginalized communities are better equipped to handle the pandemic.
“While caseloads of COVID-19 are down and vaccination rates are up generally throughout the country, that’s not true everywhere,” said Yentel. She fears a rise in cases and deaths if more families are ousted from their homes.
Moore said no one in his household has been vaccinated or plans to be. “If you feel you need it, get it, but everybody’s got their own beliefs about this pandemic and I’ve been fine throughout it all and my family’s been fine throughout it all so I feel no need for vaccination.”
A June 11 report from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University looked at nine major cities in the U.S., including Fort Worth, and found neighborhoods with the highest eviction rates also had the lowest vaccination rates.
“Our findings show that the effects of the pandemic have been felt really unevenly by different people,” said Emily Lemmerman, a researcher for Eviction Lab and co-author of the report.
In the Fort Worth area, eviction filings are up more than 100% above average in 22 U.S. Census tracts since May 16, according to Eviction Lab data.
Fort Worth is the seat of Tarrant County, where there have been 14,455 eviction filings since March 15, 2020, according to data collected by January Advisors, a Houston-based data consulting firm that partnered with Eviction Lab.
In the four ZIP codes with the highest eviction filing rates, only 1 in 3 eligible people have been vaccinated, according to Eviction Lab data provided to Stateline. Between 8% and 12% of people in these ZIP codes—where residents are predominantly Black or Hispanic, according to census data—are facing eviction, Eviction Lab data shows.
Yentel of the national housing coalition recommends using vaccination pop-up clinics, like the one held by the city of Fort Worth last week at Beth Eden Baptist Church, to distribute information about emergency rental assistance.
After getting his second shot at the clinic, Juan Gonzalez, 40, said he had not heard about any available emergency rental assistance or a moratorium. He said he doesn’t know whether he would be eligible for help because he never received an eviction notice when he fell three months behind on rent last year. He said hours have picked back up at his construction job this year, and he is slowly paying back his landlord, who has been cooperative and understanding of his situation.
“It’s been a tough year of balancing late payments and cutting back on expenses,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “But if there’s money to help I think people should know about it so they can apply. I probably wouldn’t because thankfully we’re pretty much caught up.”
Fort Worth city officials were not available for comment.
Tarrant County’s Community Development and Housing Department, which is in charge of distributing emergency rental relief monies for the county outside of Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas, launched an advertising campaign May 7 to inform people of available rental assistance funds. The department also coordinated with community nonprofits, including the Apartment Association of Tarrant County, according to Kristen Camareno, the department’s interim director.
Nearly $1.73 million in emergency rental assistance has been distributed to 236 households in Tarrant County since the Emergency Rental Assistance Program launched on March 29, according to Camareno. During the same period, at least 3,500 evictions were filed, and more than 600 families were forced out of their homes, according to county data obtained by Stateline.
John Gillespie, a property owner and board member of the Tarrant County Apartment Association, said the majority of the group’s 1,750 members are not evicting renters for nonpayment and will continue honoring the CDC moratorium.
Gillespie is president of WAK Management Company, which owns some 3,200 properties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He said that in December, tenants owed more than $300,000 in back rent. Since then about 80% of those who owed rent have applied for relief money, but there are still many who are living rent-free. He said many have been unresponsive to his staff, who have been helping tenants file applications.
“Many refuse to apply because they know they would be rejected,” Gillespie said. “Many might not be U.S. citizens or cannot provide proof that they’ve been financially impacted by COVID-19 because they might still be working and earning money.”
Without the CDC’s eviction moratorium, he said, tenants have to be more responsive because they won’t have any protections from being evicted. He said if it’s extended, he hopes it can be modified to ensure it is more well thought out and equitable to both tenants and landlords.
Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University and chair of the American Bar Association’s COVID-19 Task Force Committee on Eviction, said she’s seeing the same issues nationwide with access to funds in hard-to-reach neighborhoods. Evictions also are disproportionately affecting people of color and women nationwide, she said.
A study published in April by the journal Socius with data collected by Benfer and her colleagues found Black renters made up 22.8% of all renters but received 35.2% of eviction filings between March 15 and Dec. 31, 2020. Since the start of the pandemic, Benfer and her colleagues have been keeping tabs on eviction filings in five states and 29 cities.
Benfer and her team created the system because early in the pandemic, they found there was no data standard that allowed policymakers, advocacy groups, journalists and academics to track displacement and evictions in real time. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline, has contributed money to the project.) The system had tallied 372,389 eviction filings as of June 12 of this year and has helped officials monitor and respond to eviction hotspots as they emerge, according to Benfer.
Benfer also tracks state moratoriums. As of June 21, there were 14 states and territories with moratoriums, court orders or policies aimed at curbing or banning evictions. At least half were scheduled to end June 30, along with the CDC moratorium, or the following day.
Benfer has studied the correlation between eviction and COVID-19 infection and mortality rates after moratoriums were lifted by states. Evictions can result in overcrowded living environments as families forced from their homes must move in with other families, go to shelters, or reside in shared facilities where it’s harder to social distance and to follow CDC coronavirus mitigation strategies.
“Without the moratorium in place,” she said, “this creates a catastrophic situation that guarantees displacement, fear, harm for tenants and an inability for landlords to recoup the rental debt.”
To avoid endangering people, Benfer said, state lawmakers across the country are finding ways to curb evictions after the potential expiration of the CDC’s moratorium, extending grace periods for repayment or providing mediation programs and legal help for tenants.
Last summer, Philadelphia established a mitigation program that requires all property owners to apply for rental assistance, wait 45 days, and be offered mediation before filing for eviction. Similar programs have been adopted in Maryland and Minneapolis.
In Washington state, lawmakers are providing free legal counsel to tenants facing eviction. A study from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition looked at about 2,300 eviction filings statewide and found landlords have an attorney about 80% of the time compared with 20% for tenants. When tenants have an attorney, they are 85% more likely to avoid eviction, according to the study.
Maine passed a bill on June 16 that would require landlords to attach a plain-language letter explaining the eviction process, as well as options for legal assistance and rent relief, to eviction notices. The original bill also included free legal counsel for tenants, but that provision was removed from the version now awaiting Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ signature. In Colorado, a bill awaiting signature by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis would provide similar options for tenants and establish some protections for those facing eviction, including 48 hours to pay back rent and ban landlords from evicting tenants for unpaid late fees.
Nevada adopted a law requiring the automatic sealing of court records for evictions relating to defaults in payment during the state’s COVID-19 emergency. A similar law was adopted in Illinois, while another one failed in Texas.
On June 7, Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, extended the state’s eviction moratorium for 60 days. New York, Vermont and Washington, D.C., have also extended eviction moratoriums past the CDC moratorium’s June 30 expiration date.
Kristian Hernandez is a reporter in Fort Worth who writes for PEW Stateline. You can email him here.