Meanwhile, enforcement of federal moratoriums on some types of evictions is uneven, with experts warning that judges' efforts to limit access to courtrooms or hold hearings online because of covid-19 could increasingly leave elderly or poor renters at a disadvantage.
Of the 110 million Americans living in rental households, 20 percent are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, according to an analysis by the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, a Colorado-based community group. African American and Hispanic renters are expected to be hardest hit.
Judge Yvonne Williams, glasses snuggled tight to the blue mask covering most of her face, peered into the camera in her Texas courtroom recently to press a renter about the more than $4,000 she owed her landlord.
"What do you have toward the rent?" Williams asked.
The renter appeared on another shaky screen from a dark room and explained that she had been furloughed as the spread of the novel coronavirus shut down much of the U.S. economy. But she had three kids and nowhere to go, the renter said, and was working to raise the money, which included more than $1,000 in late fees.
"I have heard almost 60 cases so far, and this is everybody's problem," Williams responded before approving the eviction.
Like many other aspects of the pandemic and ensuing recession, the evictions are expected to hurt people of color most.
"If you look at the covid pandemic and the health outcomes, the economic outcomes, that is hitting black and brown people very hard," said Peter Hepburn, a research fellow at Princeton University's Eviction Lab. "And that is likely to be seen in the housing market as well."
In response to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 44 percent and 41 percent of adult Latino and black renters, respectively, said they had no or slight confidence they could pay their rent next month or were likely to defer payment, according to an Urban Institute analysis of the data, which was collected between May 28 and June 9. About 21 percent of white renters felt the same.
In Milwaukee, where a state eviction moratorium was lifted in late May, the number of eviction filings through June 27 was up 13 percent compared with previous years, according to data collected by the Eviction Lab research group. Nearly 1,300 cases have been filed so far in June. About two-thirds of those cases were filed in majority-black neighborhoods.
"Milwaukee is the future. A lot of these other cities are just beginning to ramp up their capacity to process cases again," Hepburn said.
Evictions are also beginning to pick up in areas where coronavirus infections have recently spiked, said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) recently ordered bars to close and restaurants to reduce occupancy after coronavirus cases surged in the state. But the courts remain open in Houston, the country's fourth-largest city, where more than 2,000 eviction complaints were filed in June, according to January Advisors, a data science consulting firm.
"That wave [of evictions] has already begun. We are trying to prevent it from becoming a tsunami," Yentel said.
Enforcement left to courts
Exacerbating the crisis, housing advocates say, is that an eviction moratorium covering federally backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which includes 30 to 40 percent of renters, is being unevenly enforced, leaving renters to wade through a complicated legal process and at risk of being illegally evicted.
In Travis County, which includes Austin, eviction courts reopened June 2, and soon Williams was hearing the case of the renter who owed more than $4,000. During the hearing, the judge was asked whether the renter might be covered by the moratorium, which doesn't expire until late July. But Williams shrugged off the question. (The Washington Post viewed the hearing online.)
"I am not familiar with that, but if someone will show me the law on that, I will certainly entertain that," she responded. "Right now, I am going to give them the eviction … as unfortunate as it is."
According to a search on Fannie Mae's website, the building is covered by the moratorium.
Williams said in an interview with The Post that she "misspoke" and always advises renters they can appeal her ruling. She is "very sympathetic when it comes to evictions," Williams said, but landlords can also be hurt in the process.
A few days after that hearing, Austin announced it would reinstate its local eviction moratorium after Texas coronavirus cases spiked. The evictions Williams had approved are now on hold.
"Part of the problem with these moratoriums is that there is no enforcement. It is up to the courts to know what is required," said Emily A. Benfer, director of the Health Justice Advocacy Clinic at Columbia Law School, which has been tracking evictions during the pandemic.
Only 15 states require landlords to verify that their buildings aren't covered by the federal moratorium, leaving it to renters to find out and enforce the law, she said.
Juanita Herrera DeLeon says she told her landlord in April that she wouldn't be able to pay the nearly $600 monthly rent on her San Antonio apartment after losing her job at a bakery. Herrera DeLeon says she hasn't received her $1,200 stimulus check and says she gets a busy signal when she calls to apply for unemployment benefits. "We were in lockdown; there was nothing I could do," she said.
In late April, the landlord placed a "lockout box" on her apartment door while she was in the shower to prevent Herrera DeLeon from reentering her home. Eight hours later, after a flurry of calls to the police and city officials, the box was removed. "It's been very hard for me," DeLeon said though tears.
The landlord was alerted in writing that the building was covered by federal eviction moratorium, which was included in the Cares Act, but continued to pursue an eviction against Herrera DeLeon, said her attorney, Christina E. Trejo of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. She eventually filed a restraining order. (The landlord didn't respond to calls seeking comment.)
"The things that the government has done to help with the pandemic have been great attempts," including the federal eviction moratorium, Trejo said. But "there is no enforcement mechanism for it, there are no penalties, and it takes a lawyer to file to get any relief. But the poorest of the poor can't get access to attorneys."
Local bans weaken
Starwood Capital Group, a large private equity firm, repeatedly pursued the eviction of residents in its apartment buildings after the eviction ban was put in place. On March 30, SCG Atlas Coconut Palm Club, owned by Starwood, filed an eviction complaint against one of its residents in Coconut Creek, Fla., for missing a rent payment, according to court records. Highmark Residential, also owned by Starwood, filed two eviction complaints against residents of Grande Court Apartments in Jacksonville, Fla., on March 30.
In both instances, the buildings had loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, covered by the federal eviction moratorium.
"It's crazy that a massive landlord like Starwood Capital is evicting people now at a time when people are being asked to stay at home," said Jim Baker, director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project.
Starwood, founded by Barry Sternlicht, a member of the panel advising President Trump on reopening the economy, said despite the court filings, none of its 100,000 tenants had been evicted during the moratorium.
"It is possible that a small number of eviction petitions, less than 10, that were already previously in process for nonpayment of rent, might have been filed in error shortly after the March 27, 2020 moratorium went into effect," the company said in a statement. "However, all of our residential tenants who were at risk of eviction for nonpayment of rent have been allowed to remain in their apartments."
Federal help for renters has been limited.
A proposal from Democrats to establish a $100 billion rental assistance program passed in the House but hasn't garnered as much support in the Republican-controlled Senate. Three Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, introduced legislation this week to expand the federal eviction moratorium to include more renters and extend the protection until next March 2021. But landlords and property owners are likely to object and that legislation also hasn't gained wide Republican support.
Most renters fall outside the federal moratorium and are protected by a patchwork of state and local eviction bans that are starting to weaken.
And even for renters in properties backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which includes about 40 percent of the mortgages for multifamily dwellings, federal authorities say they have limited power to enforce the eviction moratorium.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) said this week that property owners with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be eligible for more help — extra time to pay their mortgage. The landlords are barred from filing eviction complaints or charging late fees while receiving that help.
But FHFA lacks power to enforce the law, said Mark Calabria, the agency's director. "We have no information on renters. We have no way of contacting renters," said Calabria, noting that eviction law is traditionally a local issue.
As unemployment rates jumped, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac scrambled to create online search engines so renters could look up whether their buildings were backed by either company and therefore covered by the federal moratorium. But the hastily built websites can be tripped up by someone abbreviating a word or putting an extra space in an address.
"We have had to build this thing from scratch," Calabria said. "There were certainly some kinks to it, [but] I would rather have this up working 80 percent than not having it at all."
Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae said that they follow up on renters' complaints and are working to improve their online search tools.
A growing rental problem
Without strict enforcement of the law, housing advocates say, millions of people could be illegally evicted. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac "must proactively ensure compliance with this provision" of the Cares Act, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in separate letters to the companies. "Now is the time to prevent evictions."
The moratoriums are a temporary remedy that could lead to a bigger problem for renters asked to quickly catch up on missed payments when the bans lift, said David Dworkin, president of the National Housing Conference, which has called for the creation of a large-scale rental assistance program. "This is a once-in-a-100-year pandemic. It is not unreasonable to expect the government to cover" lost rental income, he said.
Without a rental assistance program, some communities could find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having local police enforcing eviction orders in black neighborhoods after weeks of protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he said.
"Eviction is a very public experience that impacts the entire community. Your belongings are dumped on the street while your children and neighbors watch," Dworkin said. "Given the high degree of tension we are already experiencing, I don't think that's a dynamic we want to test."
Some housing advocates are also worried about the virtual hearings occurring in some cities where in-person court appearances are still hampered by the coronavirus.
Not all renters, especially the elderly or poor, will have access to the technology needed to participate in such hearings, said Abigail Staudt, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. "Can witnesses attend these hearings? How are subpoenas being handled? How is evidence being entered into the record?" she said. "Maybe the court is handling everything very well, and I trust that they probably are, but we don't know because we can't see what's happening."
When Columbus, Ohio, began preparing to open its court dockets again, Franklin County Administrative Judge Ted Barrows said it was clear the courtrooms were too small for all lawyers, plaintiffs and other court watchers to keep a proper social distance. He considered moving the hearings to nearby schools and recreation centers before settling on the local convention center. When the courts began hearing cases again last month, temperatures were taken as attendees entered the building, and seats were placed six feet apart, Barrows said.
In many of the cases heard so far, either the tenant has already vacated the apartment or the landlord is trying to work out a deal, Barrows said. But it's still early, he acknowledged.
"It's logical to think there is going to be an uptick" in evictions, he said. "I don't feel good about that, but I am between a rock and hard place. The courts are here to enforce contracts; a lease is a contract."
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