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from Cleveland advocates wonder if Trump administration’s eviction moratorium will hurt renters

Posted September 3, 2020
3:42 pm

Written by Eric Heisig in on 09/03/2020.

Local advocates for landlords and tenants are worried about how unprecedented action President Donald Trump’s administration took this week to halt evictions until the end of the year will play out.

Even housing advocates felt the directive was a mixed bag. While happy that more people may not lose their homes in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and the corresponding recession, they said the administration’s order postpones the inevitable and could leave many tenants in debt, owing even more money to their landlords in the end.

“Even if it works as it’s laid out, by January all these tenants would have a great big pile of rent due,” Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio Executive Director Bill Faith said.

The order also left local municipal court judges scrambling to figure out how to implement it, since they ultimately decide who gets evicted in Cuyahoga County. A spokesman for the Ohio Supreme Court said guidance for the lower courts was forthcoming on the topic, and several judges told and The Plain Dealer that things would have to change quickly.

The surprise new directive announced Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forbids evictions through Dec. 31 for a large swath of renters who meet specific criteria. The Trump administration’s action, a sweeping directive it maintains is legal, comes as the president is in a fierce campaign to win re-election against Vice President Joe Biden.

Barring any court action, the CDC’s directive goes into effect Friday.

Criteria include:

  • Making less than $198,000 this year as a couple or $99,000 as a single person.
  • Trying to obtain rental assistance through various government programs.
  • Being unable to pay rent because of job loss, reduced hours or large medical bills.
  • The risk of becoming homeless if evicted.

The order says eligible tenants should give their landlord a declaration, attesting that they meet the requirements and are trying to pay as much rent as possible.

It only disallows evictions for people facing their circumstances because they are unable to pay rent. If a landlord wants a tenant out for other reasons, such as crimes or property damage, an eviction case can still proceed.

The CDC’s action is similar to those taken by cities, counties, states and courts when the pandemic spread across the country rapidly in March. Many enacted months-long moratoriums on evictions for fear that the high unemployment rate would quickly translate into tenants not having enough money to pay rent. The federal government had also barred evictions for properties in which federal money was involved, such as a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage.

Most of those measures expired. Advocates have warned that courts could be inundated with eviction cases because a coronavirus stimulus bill lapsed, and both Congress and the president have failed to agree on a new bill.

Housing advocates said Wednesday that they were happy to learn that the government recognized the negative consequences on a tenant’s health if evicted. At the same time, they noted that the order explicitly says that tenants still owe rent in the coming months.

“It’s not the best way to address the problem, but hopefully it can provide a little breathing room,” Faith said.

Still, unpaid rent is why housing advocates have pushed for federal money to go toward assistance programs. They say the new moratorium is problematic without it.

“While an eviction moratorium is an important tool to fight the spread of COVID, it is only one half of an important equation,” a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which frequently represents people facing eviction, said in a statement. “An eviction moratorium needs to be developed in partnership with rent assistance, so landlords can be made whole, and tenants do not find themselves at the precipice of a financial cliff when the moratorium expires.”

It’s also why landlords want the same thing. Rental assistance means landlords get paid what they’re owed, which allows them to pay mortgages, taxes and other costs associated with owning property.

“For the small landlords it’s a disaster,” Ralph McGreevy of the Northern Ohio Apartment Association said. “Let’s face it: the federal government is issuing edicts that (landlords) have to swallow and hasn’t offered any compensation.”

While the directive clarifies what tenants must do, like presenting a declaration to their landlord, it still leaves many questions about how it will work in practice. For example, it’s unclear how the requirement to seek rental assistance will comport with programs the city of Cleveland and the county set up for people to apply for just that.

The program has a combined $18.1 million for assistance and still has money left for applicants to seek. A spokeswoman for CHN Housing Partners, which administers the program along with EDEN, said Wednesday that 5,091 have applied for rental assistance since the program went live on July 1.

The applicants seek more than $8.5 million in rental assistance combined. Of that, city residents requested $3.85 million, and about $4.7 million from county residents outside Cleveland.

The spokeswoman cautioned that the numbers represent the money requested and not the money approved. She said the program could pay out about $1.5 million by next week.

Still, many of the disputes over what the order says, and does not say, will fall into the laps of judges who hear eviction cases.

A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Housing Court, which handles the most eviction cases of any court in the county, said staff was researching the CDC’s order and that she was unable to comment.

Other suburban municipal court judges said they were reviewing the order but acknowledged many evictions would not happen if it goes forward. Some were already making plans; others were trying to figure out how it would work in practice.

It left them and others wondering about specific scenarios. What if a landlord filed an eviction case but a judge has not yet held a hearing? What if a judge ordered a tenant evicted but a move out supervised by a bailiff or sheriff’s deputy is scheduled for Friday or later?

Garfield Heights Municipal Court Judge Deborah Nicastro said she wondered whether it’s best for a tenant to file the declaration they gave to their landlord with the court as a defense.

Lakewood Municipal Court Judge Patrick Carroll, who has taught seminars on eviction cases at the Ohio Judicial Conference, said the order appears to change everything, and fast. He anticipated having to explain the order to many parties, many of whom represent themselves and likely do not keep up with the latest changes for court cases.

“Twenty-four hours ago, it didn’t exist,” Carroll said, explaining that he had to make last-minute changes to an online seminar on landlord-tenant issues he was set to film Wednesday. “It was something that caught everybody by surprise.”

Shaker Heights Municipal Court Judge K.J. Montgomery said she planned to stop holding most eviction hearings starting Friday. She said her court sees about 400 eviction cases a year and that most are filed for nonpayment of rent.

While the order is still new and untested, she wondered if the order’s practical effect will be to force both sides to settle and for landlords to drop some cases.

“It may force better communication among landlords and tenants, who are truly trying to be accommodating on both sides,” Montgomery said.

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