We’re Heading Toward an Eviction Cliff. What Renters Need to Know About Their Rights

Jade Brooks, 22, pictures in front of the house where she lives in Boston. She fears her family will be evicted when the moratorium on paying rent expires. John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Jade Brooks, 22, pictured in Boston on June 26, lives with her mother and cousin in a two-bedroom apartment that her mother pays $1810 a month to rent. Her mother lost her job and they struggle to pay the rent. She fears they will be evicted when the moratorium on paying rent expires.

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With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country, 32 million people have found themselves unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Shutdowns have disproportionately affected the medical and financial safety of service workers, healthcare workers, low-income families, and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people

But even amid those bleak economic figures, rent is still due. 

About 45% of U.S. renter households have lost work or work-related income due to COVID-19, according to a survey from the Urban Institute. Many jurisdictions have put policies into place to forestall evictions, but policymakers and housing advocates are warning of a looming eviction cliff.

That eviction cliff is the expected outcome of eviction moratoriums being lifted at the state, county, and city levels. Millions who have lost full or partial income—many of whom are already rent-burdened — would owe several months of unpaid rent, leading them to scramble to find new housing or face homelessness. Tenants across the country have gone on rent strike.

In Virginia, this process has already begun: the state eviction moratorium expired on June 23, and local courts are wading through a backlog of thousands of eviction filings. Many other state moratoriums, including in Florida, are set to expire in the next two weeks. That’s also when the extra $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits from the federal government is set to end, barring any last-minute deal in Congress to extend or renew them.  

Pro Tip

Eviction moratoriums adopted due to the pandemic are expiring. If you have trouble paying your rent, there are several options you can explore to avoid losing your home.

Evictions can be emotionally devastating as well as financially ruinous, says Mark Swartz, executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing in Chicago. Being forced from your home is traumatizing, especially for children. 

“Eviction isn’t just caused by poverty. Eviction in and of itself is a cause of poverty,” Swartz says. “People in eviction court tend to drop down a notch in economic wellbeing, because of their eviction record. They have to find new housing in the short term, and they end up moving into neighborhoods much worse either in terms of access to public transportation or health and safety concerns. They end up paying just as much, if not more.”

We asked three experts what you should do if you are having trouble payment rent due to COVID-19.

Talk to Your Landlord

If you’ve recently lost your job or are behind on rent, the last thing you probably want to do is talk to your landlord. But it is in your best interest to be honest.

Starting a dialogue with your landlord is crucial, says Jacqueline Cooper, president and executive director of Financial Education Associates in Boston, and a landlord herself. “I don’t want to throw anybody out—where are they going? But from a tenant’s perspective, communication is really key. Otherwise, it seems like pulling a fast one on someone,” Cooper says.

Your landlord may be willing to work with you to temporarily reduce payments or defer payments until you are employed. Not all landlords may be able to work with you, since they may risk foreclosure if they cannot pay their mortgage. And not all landlords are friendly or willing to engage in good faith. However, it is the first step to forestall a potential eviction. 

Keep all communications with your landlord in writing, and keep detailed notes of all phone calls. It will be helpful if the situation escalates to the level of a proceeding in eviction court.

Look for Rent-Relief Resources

Many states, counties, and cities have started COVID-19 relief programs for people whose employment has been affected by the virus. In addition to eviction moratoriums, some jurisdictions have implemented utility-shutoff moratoriums, utility assistance, rent relief, and homeless prevention programs. You can find information on your state, county, and city government websites, as well as from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab and the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The CARES Act passed by Congress in March includes some tenant protections for those who live in federally subsidized or backed housing. Under the law, which covers public housing, Section 8, and FHA mortgages, you can’t be served an eviction notice until July 25, and any notice must give 30 days to leave the property. You can check if you, the property owner, or the landlord of your building is eligible through tools listed on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website

If you are a potential beneficiary of this waiver, this could put you on slightly better negotiating terms with your landlord, since a landlord receiving financial relief could pass the savings on to  tenants.

Read Up On Eviction Law

Know what it means if you receive an eviction notice; it is not a court order, and it does not necessarily mean you need to leave immediately. We recommend reading what the laws are for your jurisdiction, since policies—such as how much notice a landlord is required to give—will differ by city, county, and state. In most areas, you wouldn’t be legally required to move until a legal judgment is made and a sheriff comes knocking at your door. 

Swartz cautions that there may be some gray area in your local eviction laws, especially with COVID-19. What happens to a notice that was received months ago but has since expired—does that still count? Will eviction proceedings be happening on Zoom, or is in-person presence required? What happens if the final eviction order has been placed, but the sheriff hasn’t executed the order yet? It pays to be informed. 

Find Legal Help

When in doubt, find a legal professional to help you. The system is complicated, even for the most seasoned attorneys. Find a legal aid society or nonprofit to help you navigate communication with your landlord and with the eviction court system. Most courts do not grant tenants the right to eviction counsel, though cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia now offer free legal representation, and the movement is starting to pick up steam in other cities.

“Go to the legal aid agencies in your community and see if you qualify for help,” Swartz says.
“It’s also helpful to look for the rental assistance programs you may qualify for, [which] will require the buy-in and acceptance from your landlord. If the tenant can find rental assistance, even if the landlord is unwilling, that’s something that can be brought to the legal aid agency. It may give the attorney the ability to negotiate and see if those funds could be used to resolve the eviction.”

According to a Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing report on 2010-2017 Chicago eviction data, tenants were 25% less likely to get an eviction order when they had an attorney. The odds were better for tenants who worked with an attorney from a nonprofit legal aid society. If you are not eligible for nonprofit legal representation and can’t afford a private attorney, your local legal aid society may have educational resources and day-of assistance to help you navigate eviction court by yourself.

It is unclear how quickly or slowly courts will be moving through eviction proceedings. A delay for an eviction trial does allow a tenant more time, but it doesn’t remove the stress of potentially having to relocate on short notice. 

The best-case scenario in an eviction court proceeding is not having to move after all, but it is also a win if you are able to avoid an eviction judgment by negotiating more reasonable terms for a move-out. Having an eviction judgment on your record could make finding housing difficult in the long run, so coming to an agreement can be a win for both you and your landlord.

Below we’ve compiled a list of resources to help you figure out what your local laws are and if you’re eligible for any COVID-19 rent assistance.

Resources

COVID-19 Eviction Policies Around the Nation — The Eviction Lab

COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard by State — The Eviction Lab

Emergency Housing Policies and Actions In Progress — The Anti-Eviction Housing Map

COVID-19 Eviction Moratoria by State, Commonwealth, and Territory — Spreadsheet maintained by Emily A. Benfer, Wake Forest University School of Law Visiting Professor of Law and Director of the Health Justice Clinic

Find Legal Aid — Legal Services Corporation

United States Map of Housing Community Organizations — Just Shelter

State and Local Rental Assistance — National Low Income Housing Coalition

Multifamily Properties Subject to Federal Eviction Moratoriums — National Low Income Housing Coalition