The four-month pause that has protected millions of Americans from eviction cases is set to expire tonight. But that hasn't stopped landlords across the country from trying to get a head start forcing renters out.
Landlords in Tucson, Ariz., filed dozens of eviction cases last month despite the federal moratorium, which was put in place because of the coronavirus crisis. Legal-aid lawyers had to go to court to stop the eviction of a San Antonio renter who had lost her job during a citywide stay-at-home order. And in Omaha, Neb., a court found that a landlord's attempted eviction of a struggling renter had violated the emergency law.
Landlords across the country have put eviction proceedings in motion even though the coronavirus relief law currently protects about 12 million tenants living in qualifying properties. Landlords are prohibited from filing new eviction actions or charge late fees for nonpayment of rent until the moratorium expires.
Yolanda Jackson, a special-education paraprofessional in the DeKalb County schools outside Atlanta, lost her job in March when the schools shut down. Jackson, a mother of two, has yet to receive an unemployment check, despite confirmation that she was approved, and has not been able to pay her rent. A charitable organization agreed to cover her missed payments, but so far the manager of her complex, LaVista Crossing Apartments, has not sent the necessary documentation to accept it.
"I have tried everything in my power not to get to this point," Jackson said. "I've been here seven years, and they will not work with me. I am just stressed out and trying to hold it together."
She received an eviction notice in late June, and the manager said in a court filing that the property was not covered by the federal moratorium. But on Tuesday, lawyers for Legal Aid in Atlanta decided to take her case after finding that the complex is in fact listed as having a federally backed mortgage -- making it covered by the relief-law moratorium.
Lawyers for LaVista Crossing did not respond to messages seeking comment.
At least two other residents of the apartment complex have been served with eviction notices for nonpayment, said Lindsey Siegel with Atlanta Legal Aid.
"Many Legal Aid clients are facing evictions simply because their unemployment benefits haven't come through," she said.
State and local governments also have issued eviction moratoriums, but the federal relief law is the furthest-reaching, covering as many as 12.3 million renters living in apartment complexes or single-family homes financed with a federally backed mortgage. But like other moratoriums, it is about to expire: After today, landlords can begin filing eviction notices for failure to pay rent. It will be at least 30 days after that before any tenants are kicked out.
The moratorium has been a lifeline for millions of unemployed people, allowing renters waiting on slow-to-arrive aid to stay in their homes and make up the payments later.
But the far-ranging and hastily assembled relief law -- which, among other things, had provisions for direct relief payments, a temporary expansion of unemployment insurance and hundreds of billions of dollars in small-business aid -- does not penalize landlords who violate the moratorium.
Paula Cino, a vice president for policy and government affairs at the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord group, said there had been some legitimate confusion at the outset with the federal moratorium and local and state eviction pauses.
"That said, I wouldn't minimize the fact that there is the potential for bad actors in this space," she said. "Even if they weren't initially taking advantage of the system, they have the responsibility to better understand."
Once an eviction case enters the legal system, it can have lasting consequences: Even a wrongfully filed action can be difficult to remove from court records and keep turning up when renters go through background checks.
"An eviction judgment stays on a tenant's credit report for seven years, is grounds for wage garnishment and makes it more difficult for a tenant to find future housing," said Stacy Butler, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has been tracking violations of the relief law.
The scope of the problem is elusive. Wrongly evicted renters might not bother trying to challenge their landlords, sometimes because of their immigration status, or because they do not know they have the right.
WRONGFUL EVICTION FILINGS
But wrongful evictions have been reported across the country. The Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a consumer advocacy group, found more than 100 filings in apparent violation of the relief law in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Massachusetts.
And in a survey of 100 legal-aid lawyers in 38 states, by the National Housing Law Project, all but nine said they knew of attempts at illegal evictions in their cities. The problem prompted the group to create a draft complaint to challenge a violation of the relief law moratorium.
Judges have been troubled, too. The Texas Supreme Court issued a statewide order Tuesday requiring landlords to certify whether the relief law applies to an eviction case, and the Arizona's Supreme Court took a similar action earlier this month.
The landlord group is in favor of help for tenants, too. The National Multifamily Housing Council said it favored the creation of an emergency rental-assistance program of up to $100 billion. But the organization opposes a "protracted extension of a federal eviction moratorium."