How Legal Aid Lawyers Have Been Preparing for More Evictions

As financial assistance ends, evictions are expected to occur across the country.

(Photo by Linh Do / CC BY 2.0)

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Renters have spent the last five months on shifting ground. A federal moratorium on evictions that applies to most housing funded or backed by the federal government, enacted as part of the CARES Act at the beginning of the pandemic, expired at the end of July, with an additional 30 days’ notice required before landlords could begin removing tenants. State moratoriums began expiring earlier in the summer, and only some have been renewed. And municipal and county courts have been making their own rules and procedures for resuming eviction hearings, based at least partly on logistical concerns about social distancing in the courtroom, which vary from place to place.

In Tennessee, some landlords have been pressuring local courts to start processing evictions again since the statewide moratorium lapsed at the beginning of June, says Zac Oswald, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. And while illegal evictions during the moratoriums have been fairly rare, many renters are lost when it comes to their rights, he says.

“I think the word I would use is confusion,” Oswald says. “Some renters think they’ve been protected by the executive order that President Trump issued. Some think something is going to be passed that’s retroactive. And other tenants just haven’t been informed the whole time, and are waiting until they get their court date to call us.”

The Legal Aid Society is one of dozens of groups in Tennessee and around the country that provide legal help to people facing evictions. Before the pandemic began, legal aid lawyers were organizing for more rights and support for tenants, including, in some places, a right to legal representation for anyone in landlord-tenant court. Now they’re bracing for a long-expected rush of evictions that has so far failed to materialize in many places. In Nashville and middle Tennessee, it’s been “kind of a trickle so far,” Oswald says. But reports show a huge backlog of evictions in other places, like Memphis. Oswald says that some large landlords in the Nashville area will be newly free to start filing evictions once the CARES Act protections finally expire. And smaller landlords, who may have been lenient for the past few months, could be close to their “financial breaking point,” he says.

“We’re kind of in a state of disillusionment,” Oswald says. “We know what we think is going to happen, and we think that what’s going to happen is going to be really terrible. But what might happen is a slow trickle with long-term damages, or it could be even worse than what we are expecting in terms of numbers.”

As of the end of the summer, evictions had yet to spike in many cities. But in some places they have started to creep back up toward pre-pandemic levels. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University is tracking eviction filings in 17 U.S. cities, few of which have seen large increases in evictions this summer, as Bloomberg previously reported.

For tenants who are already facing eviction, legal aid groups are trying to direct them to rental assistance programs, where they’re available. Pete Koneazny, chief staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, says that the city and county each have about $7 million for rental assistance, which tenants who are unable to pay their rent can access if they have no other recourse to avoid eviction by their landlords. Some property owners have been proactive in connecting tenants with those services, and willing to work out payment agreements with tenants. Advocates are hoping more property owners will direct tenants to assistance programs before they file an eviction, since those programs seem to be having an impact. The city saw a big spike in eviction filings in mid-June, Koneazny says, but in the last few weeks the rate has been lower than normal. Milwaukee landlords filed 162 eviction notices last week, according to the Eviction Lab.

In Houston, landlords filed 618 notices — also below average for this time of year. In many courts in Texas, says Ryan Marquez, professor of practice in the Consumer Law Clinic at the University of Houston Law Center, landlords are required to sign an affidavit when filing evictions declaring that their properties are not subject to a moratorium under the CARES Act. Evictions are bound to pick up as those protections expire. Also, Marquez says, landlords may have been holding off on filing evictions because courts weren’t processing them — as courts return to business, the numbers may rise as well. He says that the Consumer Law Clinic and other legal aid groups in the Houston area have begun organizing an effort to create a right to counsel for people facing eviction. But that’s a long term goal, and short-term assistance is critical. In the meantime, the Consumer Law Clinic, Houston Volunteer Lawyers and other legal-aid groups are trying to help as many tenants with advice or representation as they can.

“An extension of the CARES Act would be nice, but I don’t know if the government will get together in time to make that happen — or if there’s any desire to make that happen,” Marquez says.

As the New York Times reported, many renters have been getting by on unemployment benefits, family support, credit cards, or some combination of those things. Advocates around the U.S. are worried that the combined impact of expiring moratoriums and expiring benefits will mean more people can’t pay their rent, and more landlords will file for evictions. In Jacksonville, Florida, where, according to the Eviction Lab, landlords have been filing about 200 eviction notices per week in August, down slightly from prior years, some advocates have created an online tool to help tenants figure out their legal options when their landlords are trying to evict. Suzanne Garrow, an attorney with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, says her group created the tool in cooperation with a local coder and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. The area hasn’t seen the surge of evictions that some were expecting so far, Garrow says. But regulations are changing every week, and there aren’t enough lawyers to help everyone who is going to need it. And more rental assistance is critical too, she says.

“I understand that particularly small landlords need to get some rent at some point, so somebody should be able to figure that out,” Garrow says. “But having tons and tons of homeless families on the street as a result of this pandemic, and then being subject to the pandemic because they’re homeless, is a tragedy.”

Eviction notices have been creeping back upward in Columbus, Ohio, too, though they haven’t reached pre-pandemic levels yet, says Melissa Benson, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. Ohio never enacted a statewide moratorium on evictions, though the state Supreme Court recommended that the local and county courts suspend evictions, which most did, she says. When the courts shut down initially, Benson says the Legal Aid Society and others began trying to figure out how they would conduct hearings safely when they started up again. Typically hearings are conducted on the 11th floor of a municipal building in a “cattle call” type situation, she says — a dangerous way to do business during the pandemic. Many courts have begun resuming eviction hearings — and in Columbus they are now using the convention center to hold housing court in Columbus, as Bloomberg reported. For tenants who are facing evictions, the Legal Aid Society is trying to help them work out a deal with their landlords, or else referring them to mediation services or the Franklin County Prevention, Retention, Contingency program, which provides emergency cash assistance for some families. Benson predicts that the loss of unemployment benefits will be even more of an accelerant for eviction cases than the expiration of the moratorium itself.

“I expect there will be a continued and long term need for rental assistance,” she says.

Outside the major cities, the picture may look slightly different. Kristen Lewis, the advocacy director at Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, which covers mostly rural counties, says that eviction filings are higher than normal. Evictions were up 50 percent in June and July compared to last year, she says. During the Great Recession, Lewis says, institutions around the state rallied to keep as many homes as possible from being foreclosed on. The COVID-19 housing crisis could well be worse than that if governments don’t do more.

“We’ve got to figure out how to broadly address this, because you cannot have hundreds of families [in southeastern Ohio] homeless within a couple of months,” Lewis says. “The social services system will crash under the weight of that.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: covid-19houstonevictionsmilwaukeetexascolumbustennesseejacksonville

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