HUNTINGTON — A federal moratorium is failing to keep many families in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to eviction records and housing advocates.
Nationwide, tens of thousands of people have been evicted since September because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s policy has been applied inconsistently across states and some landlords have ignored or challenged their tenants’ attempts at using the protection.
Cabell County Magistrate Court records show 1,025 wrongful occupation filings in 2019. The number dropped to 754 in 2020 and showed no cases between mid-March and mid-May when the court shut down due to the pandemic. In 2021, 166 cases have been filed.
Aaron Lynwelle, organizer of the local tenants advocacy group Huntington Tenants Union, says he believes tenants need protection and many landlords in Cabell County aren’t working with them.
“We’re seeing local tenants being ordered out weekly for rent they’ve missed due to their job being ended during the COVID shutdown,” he said. “It’s really heartbreaking when you know that these hardships are needless and are a result of the clumsiness of our government.”
Nearly 10 million Americans are behind on their rent payments, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“This is most severe among low-income renters whose socioeconomic situation was already hanging in the balance before this,” Lynwelle said. “Pre-COVID, Huntington already had a marked shortage of low-income, affordable housing for its demographics. This crisis is now super-imposed on a public health pandemic with catastrophic effects. Evicting households during this time is recognized as a very dangerous act in regards to taking public precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”
Public housing officials respond
Larry Ellis, executive director of the Huntington Housing Authority, says they have not evicted one person for lack of paying rent.
“We have had some evictions, but they were due to issues not related to non-payment of rent, such as drug activity and other factors,” Ellis said. “Non-payment of rent in many cases is a factor, but more of an underlying issue and not the driving factor for eviction.”
Ellis says they try to resolve all issues before seeking eviction.
“We have approximately 900 tenants in public housing in Huntington, and evictions for non-payment of rent have always been a very small percentage of those people. We try our best to work with everyone according to federal law,” he said.
Lynwelle said the Huntington Tenants Union formed from focus group sessions being conducted by On the Streets Committee back in June 2019 in an effort to address what he called “the runaway problem of the failing housing system in Huntington.”
“We know that Huntington has the highest eviction rate in West Virginia and is several points above the national average,” he said. “We know that Huntington lacks the affordable housing it requires to meet its needs. It’s pretty clear to us that Huntingtonians are not uniquely prone to evictions but that magistrates who write the orders, the sheriff who evicts people and the elected officials who write the laws are uninterested in redressing the root causes of housing instability. It is far more convenient to place blame on the personal failures of individuals, the drug epidemic, behavioral health and crime.”
CDC moratorium not blanket protection
The Biden administration extended the federal moratorium on evictions of tenants who have fallen behind on rent during the coronavirus pandemic.
The CDC last week moved to continue the pandemic-related protection. The moratorium is now extended through the end of June.
The ban, initially put in place last year, provides protection for renters out of concern that having families lose their homes and move into shelters or share crowded conditions with relatives or friends during the pandemic would further spread the highly contagious virus, which has killed more than 561,000 people in the United States.
To be eligible for the housing protection, renters must earn $198,000 annually or less for couples filing jointly, or $99,000 for single filers; demonstrate that they’ve sought government help to pay the rent; declare that they can’t pay because of COVID-19 hardships; and affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted.
While the CDC moratorium sounds like a blanket protection, tenants have to know how magistrates expect them to use it, according to Lynwelle.
He says in Cabell County the tenant must know about the moratorium; the tenant must know where to find the moratorium affidavit; the tenant must print the affidavit and sign it; and the tenant must respond to their eviction notice with the signed affidavit in advance of their hearing.
“While many people may have heard about the moratorium, they mistakenly assume it default applies to them without any further action,” Lynwelle said. “The magistrates are not empathetic and do not tell tenants about this process. We have found that many people assume their initial eviction notice from the court is an eviction order.”
Lynwelle says this probably results in many tenants not showing up for their court date.
“There is a lot of education needed and being done, informing people of what their rights actually are as tenants,” he said.
Cabell County Magistrate Clerk Paula Holley said the court is not allowed to give legal advice to tenants.
“The magistrates are not going to give legal advice to those in court,” she said. “That’s not their job. However, if we get a call prior to the hearing asking about the moratorium, we tell them it must be pandemic-related. It’s not blanket protection for everyone that is facing eviction, and that’s why evictions are continuing to happen.”
Landlords struggling, too
Michael Richert, a landlord in the Huntington area, says he hasn’t evicted any renters who tried to pay rent or made payment arrangements during the pandemic.
“I worked with anyone that made payment arrangements, no matter how small the amount,” Richert said. “I gave second chances to lots of people. I still have tenants that are thousands of dollars behind in rent.”
Richert says he understands some tenants are struggling, and he is also struggling.
“Last year I lost $46,000,” he said. “I am struggling to pay the mortgage payments.”
Richert says no landlord wants to file a wrong occupation in magistrate court, but at some point it becomes necessary.
“It’s a miserable process and we do the best we can, but at some point I have to stop the bleeding and I still worry how am I going to pay what I owe if this continues to go on,” he said.
Richert says he wants his tenants to get help and he even tries to help them find rental assistance funding.
“If there is any way I can help them, I do,” he said.
The National Apartment Association says it is monitoring legislation and regulation across the country, whether the issue is federal, state or local.
“Short-term policies like eviction moratoria leave renters accruing insurmountable debt and jeopardize the ability for rental housing providers to provide safe, affordable housing,” said Bob Pinnegar, the association’s president.
Relief funding approved
Congress has approved around $50 billion in rental assistance funding, which includes back rent.
However, The Associated Press recently reported many states have trouble getting relief to tenants and landlords during the pandemic. Burdensome requirements, poorly administered programs and landlords refusing to cooperate meant tens of thousands of tenants never got assistance in state programs set up in 2020, according to the report.
Locally, the city of Huntington says it is still waiting on approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a status update.
“The city has committed a total of $370,669.30 to Information & Referral for utility and rental assistance under Community Development Block Grant coronavirus funds,” said Bryan Chambers, the city’s communications director. “CDBG is administered by HUD, and that’s where the funding comes from. The amendment that created this activity, which was proposed by the mayor’s administration and approved by City Council in October, has still not been approved by HUD, and is still awaiting approval from HUD. Additionally, the contract for this round of CDBG-CV funds, which provides the bulk of the funding for this activity, has not yet been received from HUD. We reached out again to HUD’s Pittsburgh field office … for a status update, and they said it is still being worked on their end.”
Erica Boggess, executive director of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, recently announced the launch of the Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program.
Available to renters with incomes of up to 80% of area median income, the program covers past-due and pending rental payments dating back to April 1, 2020, through up to three future payments. It also covers past-due and upcoming electric, gas, water, sewer and trash payments for the same period, and also provides a one-time $300 stipend for internet service.
Boggess said payments will be made directly to landlords and utility companies.
An application portal is available at wvmrap.com. Those with limited internet access are encouraged to call 211 for more details.
However, the program just started taking applications and Lynwelle says while rental relief funding remains tied up in the bureaucracy of government management, eviction hearings at the courthouse continue, despite what he called “the flimsy” CDC’s eviction moratorium.
“Our goal is to unite renters in their ability to protect each other from harmful property laws,” he said.
Apart from the CDC moratorium, the U.S. has no federal eviction policy and each state has different rules for landlords and tenants.
“Most people are shocked to find out that short of filing a lawsuit against their landlord, there are limited ways to enforce tenant rights in our community,” Lynwelle said. “Collective efforts work best when a tenant can coordinate with other tenants of the same landlord, because if one tenant is having issues, then likely others are, too.”
Lynwelle believes the Biden administration must strengthen the order and close the loopholes that some landlords have exploited to continue evicting renters from their homes, and must ensure the moratorium’s protections are automatic and universal throughout the duration of the pandemic.
“The administration must also continue to work to ensure that emergency rental assistance quickly reaches the lowest-income and most marginalized renters who face the greatest risk of eviction,” he said.