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Housing advocates say evictions are continuing at 'full steam,' despite a federal ban

Across the country, landlords have tried to push tenants out for offenses as minor as having a trampoline or an unkept lawn.
Image: Rosa Jackson and her son in front of Horn Lake Self Storage in Horn Lake, Miss., on April 1, 2021.
Rosa Jackson and her 13-year-old son, who were evicted from their home in March, put some of their belongings in Horn Lake Self Storage in Horn Lake, Miss.Brad Vest / for NBC News

On March 26, a sheriff’s deputy walked up to a one-story brick home in a suburb of North Tulsa, Oklahoma, and told the woman inside it was time to leave.

She called Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma in a panic. Eric Hallett, the attorney on the phone, instructed her to grab important documents and medicine. There was a chance she wouldn’t be allowed to return.

The woman and her partner — who lived in the home with five children, ranging in age from 1 to 17 — had thought they were going to be able to stay.

They had struggled to pay their bills during the pandemic, so they had applied for federal rental assistance through a local nonprofit. Three months before they were evicted, their landlord, Gary Ramey, received $5,600 that would cover the back rent they owed. In return, he signed a document agreeing to drop the eviction case, as was required by the nonprofit that issued the relief aid, according to a copy of the document shared by Hallett.

Instead, Ramey moved forward with the eviction, and a judge granted it. Now, the family of seven is living in an extended stay hotel.

“It really shows the breakdown,” said Hallett, the coordinator of housing advocacy for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.

Ramey confirmed he received the payment and signed the contract, but said he was unaware of the conditions involved, and would “have to go look at the paperwork.”

“I don’t remember that,” he said. “I thought they were just helping them catch up with rent.”

With millions of renters staring down evictions during the global health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday extended its nationwide ban on evictions until June 30. The order, which had been set to expire March 31, is meant to shield families from being pushed out of their homes.

Rosa Jackson stands near some of her belongings that were removed from the home she was evicted from at the Gramercy East Apartments, in Horn Lake, Miss.Brad Vest / for NBC News

But while tenant advocates praised Monday’s extension, they said the program’s implementation hasn’t been equal in practice. Many renters, like the North Tulsa family, are still being displaced from their homes.

Interviews with renters, legal aid attorneys, housing experts and affordable housing advocates at the state, local and national level show a process that can be subject to the whims of local politics or geography. Depending on the courtroom, a judge hearing eviction cases might ignore the ban, questioning the federal government’s authority to implement it. Other judges have questioned whether the order applies to tenants on month-to-month leases.

Across the country, landlords are continuing to find ways to get tenants out, in some cases by declining to renew their lease or claiming that tenants broke the lease’s terms. While the federal policy bans evictions based solely on nonpayment of rent, it allows evictions for other issues, such as damaging property or engaging in criminal activity. And renters may be unaware of the steps they need to take to ensure the eviction moratorium applies to them.

Since the pandemic began, 284,490 evictions have been filed across the five states and 28 cities tracked by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. More than 163,700 of them were filed since the federal government’s ban went into effect Sept. 4.

“Many landlords have flouted the order and its protections,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It’s especially disappointing because the Biden administration knows very well what the flaws and the shortcomings are and still failed to correct any of them.”

The White House said in a statement that the federal government was “strengthening the enforcement tools to ensure the moratorium is implemented.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission announced March 29 that both agencies would monitor and investigate eviction practices.

The White House statement encouraged tenants to reach out to the CFPB and Department of Housing and Urban Development “regarding any issues with debt collectors, evictions or discriminatory treatment.”

Just as the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, racial disparities in the ability to afford housing influence families’ vulnerability to evictions now. Black, Hispanic and Asian households were more likely to be behind on rent than white households, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data.

Image: Rosa Jackson looks though a window into her old apartment in Horn Lake, Miss., on April 1, 2021.
Rosa Jackson looks though a window into her old apartment in Horn Lake, Miss., on April 1, 2021.Brad Vest / for NBC News

In Macon, Georgia, one landlord attempted to have a renter evicted over arrears. After the judge declined because of the CDC order, the landlord filed a few days later seeking to terminate the tenant’s lease for a different reason, according to Susan Reif, a housing attorney and director of the Eviction Prevention Project for the Georgia Legal Services Program.

Reif said the group was able to successfully argue the filing was an attempt to get around the CDC order, because of the timing.

In Louisiana, legal aid lawyers have fought eviction cases based on minor leasing violations that have ranged from having a trampoline in the backyard to failing to mow the lawn.

Amanda Golob, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said that a landlord trying to find a loophole to evict a tenant who owes rent might protest, “It’s really about the cat that they have.”

In one filing, she said, a landlord tried to have a renter thrown out over a damaged stove. A fire marshal report helped prove the tenant wasn’t at fault.

“We know it’s about nonpayment, but all of a sudden there’s an eviction notice for a broken stove,” Golob said.

Greg Brown, vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association, a group that represents rental owners, said evictions are often a last resort for landlords, and judges make the final call. The majority of housing providers, he argued, are trying to work with residents to keep them in their homes.

“Empty buildings don’t benefit anyone,” he said.

The advocacy organization opposes the eviction moratorium, which Brown said has left residents and owners “on the precipice,” as unpaid rent, which tenants are still ultimately responsible to pay, stacks up.

‘It’s just compounding rent’

For families who are struggling to pay rent, the uneven enforcement of the eviction ban is compounded by the slow rollout of more than $46 billion in federal rent relief.

As of late March, only 28 states had launched rental assistance programs to disburse the first major wave of federal funds, $25 billion allocated by the Department of the Treasury in December, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Sharon Brown, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, likened the situation to an uneasy waiting game. Mississippi’s emergency rental assistance program began accepting applications on March 29, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Home Corporation did not yet have figures for how many applications had been submitted or approved.

Impatient landlords may press for an eviction, hoping for a receptive judge, instead of waiting for the assistance to trickle down. And it’s unclear whether the federal package is enough to cover billions of dollars in back rent owed.

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Even when renters aren’t evicted, the accumulating debt can be enough to drive them from their homes. Brown shared the story of a woman whose missed payments were stacking up. With no guarantee of a bailout, the tenant felt trapped. Brown helped her relocate to a property where her new landlord agreed to offer a reduced rental rate, and Brown helped pay some of the cost upfront.

Some may have more trouble finding their footing. Housing advocates note that a rental history of late or missed payments can kick-start a vicious cycle that can hurt tenants’ chances of finding decent housing in the future.

Brown said tenants who were out of work, but have since found employment, or picked up better hours, might be able to escape without financial harm if they can manage to pay down their balance, or if they can access federal aid.

But for others, when “30 days go by, it’s just compounding rent,” she said.

Rosa Jackson, 47, said she fell on hard times after her fiancé died of heart failure in July. He helped her pay for an apartment in Horn Lake, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, located in north Mississippi.

Image: Rosa Jackson in front of her belongings at Horn Lake Self Storage after being evicted from her home at the Gramercy East Apartments, in Horn Lake, Miss., on April 1, 2021.
Rosa Jackson in front of her belongings at Horn Lake Self Storage. Brad Vest / for NBC News

Jackson, who has a 13-year-old son, struggled to keep up with bills as she bounced between temporary gigs, after she lost her job at Walmart. She was evicted in March.

Jackson said she was familiar with the CDC’s eviction ban and the paperwork it required — a sworn declaration describing the reason a tenant is unable to pay rent. Acceptable answers include a loss of income, a layoff, reduced work hours and large medical expenses. Tenants must also say that they’ve paid as much as they could.

But Jackson said she had already tried to submit that paperwork to her landlord at Tulane Park Apartments in the fall, and a worker had told her it didn’t apply to her. So she didn’t bother to bring the form to her March 2 eviction hearing.

“I wasn’t even going to try to fool with that again,” she said.

As she sat in the DeSoto County courthouse, watching a judge side with renters who said they qualified for protection under the federal moratorium, she realized she’d made a mistake.

When it was her turn, the judge ruled that her family would have to leave. The apartment complex wanted her out in three days.

“I was distraught,” Jackson said. “I felt like I had did everything. I was willing to try to catch up on rent.”

A day later, she returned to the courthouse with the CDC declaration form. A court clerk told her to take it to her landlord. Jackson said she left a copy for Misty Poe, an apartment representative, who still told her she had to leave.

Poe, who no longer works at the complex, acknowledged in an interview that Jackson had taken the declaration form to the courthouse, but said the judge’s ruling meant it was too late.

In a statement, Joyce Grady, a representative for the apartment complex, which was recently renamed Gramercy East, said Jackson hadn’t paid rent in nine months and owed $8,215.92.

“Management was unable to work out a payment plan with her,” the statement said.

Jackson disputes this, saying she had paid several of the months she owed from last year.

On the morning of March 22, while Jackson was on errands, her nephew called her in a panic. After he’d picked her son up for school, he’d gone back to the apartment and discovered that the complex’s staff members had placed the family’s belongings outside. By the time Jackson got there, she said, her son’s laptop was missing, along with a TV; it was unclear who had taken them. A family member brought over a trailer to salvage what hadn’t been picked over.

Jackson and her son moved in with her sister, brother-in-law and their four children. She’s wondering how she’ll start over. She hopes her steady job as a fork lift driver at a distribution center will help. Part of her life is now packed up in a storage room. When she looks at apartment listings, she feels priced out.

Image: Rosa Jackson and her son live with Jackson' s sister, in Horn Lake, Miss., on April 1,  2021.
Rosa Jackson and her son live with Jackson's sister, in Horn Lake, Miss.Brad Vest / for NBC News

John Jopling, the director of housing law for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm, says Jackson might have had another strike against her, even if she had submitted the required paperwork in time. Her lease expired two days before her court hearing. Under Mississippi law, Jopling said, Jackson’s apartment would now be considered to be on a month-to-month lease.

That put her in a legal gray area. The CDC’s order doesn’t explicitly address whether landlords need to work with tenants on month-to-month leases who are having trouble paying.

‘Evictions have continued full steam’

Many states have ordered their own eviction bans, providing additional protection on top of the federal order. Oklahoma is one of seven states that have not, and Hallett, the housing attorney, said “evictions have continued full steam” in Tulsa.

Small-claims dockets filled with dozens of evictions hearings are familiar to the city. In 2016, Tulsa had the nation’s 11th highest eviction rate, according to The Eviction Lab.

That year, nearly 6,300 evictions were granted. Prior to the pandemic, the majority of eviction filings were based on nonpayment of rent, Hallett said.

He expected eviction proceedings to decline sharply under the federal moratorium, which should have protected many people who couldn’t afford to pay. Instead, Hallett said eviction filings decreased by just a third, according to court data collected by Open Justice Oklahoma, a nonprofit that tracks criminal justice and housing statistics. And he said there was a rise in hearings for reasons other than rent, suggesting landlords were trying to circumvent the ban.

Plus, tenants who qualify for the CDC’s protection but fail to show up at a hearing can still be evicted. It’s inevitable that some won’t go to court.

“It’s a numbers game,” Hallett said.

And some renters may misunderstand the moratorium, thinking it offers a blanket immunity without understanding the steps involved.

Hallett said legal aid groups and nonprofits have worked to provide information about the ban, but the message doesn’t reach everyone.

The North Tulsa family of seven, for example, never submitted a sworn declaration, even though they would have qualified for protection under the eviction ban, Hallett said.

“People still don’t know or understand what it means to exercise those rights,” he said.

The North Tulsa family began to fall behind on their rent last year. On Dec. 3, facing the threat of eviction, they agreed to pay $3,500 in back rent and move out by Jan. 31, according to court documents.

But then their rental assistance came through. Five days later, Ramey, the landlord, signed an agreement with a local nonprofit, Restore Hope Ministries, that he would drop the eviction case in return for receiving $5,600 — the back rent plus a future payment for January.

Ramey, though, said he thought that meant he could move forward with the eviction after the end of January, and that’s what he did.

“I have to go look at the paperwork, but I’m going to do whatever is right,” he said when reached this week.

Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope Ministries, described what happened in this case as “a violation of moral law.”

“We will pursue whatever action is appropriate for us to help this family not be homeless, which was our intent from the beginning,” he said.

One day after Ramey was contacted by a reporter, his attorney, Nathan Milner, filed a motion to vacate the eviction judgment, which a judge signed.

But that does not mean the family can move back home. Milner said the family didn’t pay rent in February or March, so Ramey has the option to pursue back rent.

For now, Hallett said, the family is still living in a hotel, focused on trying to make a new start.