Preventing A Wave of Homelessness: Tenant Rights and Rent Moratorium 2021

Maryellen Hess Cameron

Maryellen Hess Cameron spent over 25 years as the Executive Director of non-profit agencies in the social.... Read More

Renters in financial distress are facing a loss of housing in calamitous numbers. You and your clients may be confused and frustrated with programs that are supposed to prevent peoples’ loss of housing. Take heart. There is a lot happening behind the scenes to help renters.

The first thing you should know is that at the time of publishing the moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been extended until March 31, 2021. President Biden extended it by Executive Order on the day he was inaugurated.  It is intended as a placeholder until Congress can act on his proposed American Rescue Plan. If passed in its current form, it will extend the moratorium for another six months.

There are additional eviction protections put into practice by individual states and municipalities. This article includes links to sites you can search to find what is available for your community.


 

It Isn’t Automatic

Your client needs to know that the moratorium is not automatic. Tenants must make a request to the property owner to delay any eviction proceedings for failure to pay rent. It has no obligation to let its tenants know the status of the moratorium or how they apply for it. 

Tenants must act proactively by submitting a Declaration that they are unable to pay rent in full as a direct result of the pandemic.  Every member of the household who is named on the lease must also file a Declaration. The form lists conditions the tenants must meet.

  1. They made efforts to find any assistance that could be available to them. This article includes information about where you can look for help.
  2. They qualify based on income guidelines.
  3. They have lost a substantial amount of their income as a direct result of the pandemic.
  4. They are paying as much of the rent as they can afford.
  5. Their eviction would lead to homelessness.

The Declaration has scary reminders for people. Declarants acknowledge that they are still obligated for the rent in full when the moratorium has expired. It also states that landlords may charge any fees, penalties or interest described in the current lease agreement. Remember, it does not entitle them to add on fees that were not part of the lease.

 

What the Moratorium Doesn’t Do

The moratorium does not protect tenants from the consequences of other lease violations. Commonly, leases include language about other offenses. Property damage leads to many evictions, although if tenants pay for repairs up front the tenant may be able to halt the process.

Tenants who cause disruptions are also at risk, regardless of income loss due to COVID-19. Tenants have a right to “the peaceful enjoyment of their home.” Loud parties, for example, are not protected by the moratorium.

In fact, suggest to your clients that they should be on their best behavior. This is not a time for them to test their property owner’s tolerance, and thus give it a chance to find another reason to evict.

 

Rent Negotiations

Tenants may be able to reduce their liabilities through landlord agreements. People who have been good tenants may find that their landlord will work with them to set up a payment plan. Tenants will have more luck facing the property owner head on. 

Tenants should ask landlords to renegotiate rents. A reduction now will lessen how much is accumulating. At the least they may be able to convince the property owner to reduce or waive late fees if they are clearly making a good faith effort to pay their rent.

If your client is receiving rent subsidies, they should contact the housing agency immediately. Agencies using government funding for this are obligated to reduce rents to a percentage of income, even if the income goes down to zero. Renters in these programs will not accrue back rent payments during the lapse of income.

However, they are also obligated to notify the housing agency as soon as their income is restored. Unreported income is grounds for a loss of subsidy. Once lost, your client will go on a new waiting list that can be months or even years long. Some programs may bar them from eligibility if they violate this obligation.

Many landlords are getting federal relief on paying on the mortgages they hold for rental properties, according to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). It should help rent negotiations if your landlord is getting help with its mortgages and other expenses. The CFPB explains how to find out if your landlord is getting help (the information is far down in the site so you will need to scroll down to it). If so, it is critical information to help with negotiations.

Don’t overlook just asking your landlord whether it is getting relief. You may learn that it has gotten help that is not listed on the CFPB website.

 

Where to Start Looking for Rent Help

Since the Declaration requires that tenants look for assistance with rent before applying for protection from eviction, tenants must follow through on that obligation. People who haven’t needed help in the past won’t know where to start. And if they have obtained help in the past, they may find help in new places.

Your clients should create a record of their efforts to obtain help. Ask if a provider will issue a statement on letterhead that reports your inquiries and their response. Clients can keep a log of calls that includes agency name, person with whom they spoke, response and date.

There are several sites your clients can visit to learn about resources.

  1. The National Low Income Housing Coalition maintains a database of rent assistance resources.
  2. United Way. Contact your local agency by dialing 2-1-1. Most maintain lists of resources in their community. Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, churches, and affordable housing programs are often part of that network.
  3. Contact your community’s Fair Housing agency. They are operated by city and county governments. This is valuable even if they are not aware of other resources. The agency has a mission to protect renters’ rights and may be able to intervene with a landlord who is trying to evade the moratorium.
  4. The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides funding for Housing Counseling Agencies. Staff members may know of resources and how to protect renters’ rights.
  5. The federal CFPB has extensive information about the rent crisis during the pandemic and has links to agencies that may be able to help.

 

What Happens Next?

The short answer is that no one knows. The rent moratorium does not forgive rents. Clients may owe a bundle by the time they can pay rent again. Affordable housing advocates are working, as you read this, to find help for people to catch up on back rent, not just delay it. Some states or cities may already have such programs. CARES Act funding to states allowed them to use some of its money for rent assistance.

This can be a good time for you and your clients to advocate with policy makers for rent programs, especially ones that will help with back rent, not just delaying rent. You can find your elected officials at the federal level at Congresslookup.com. You can find your state officials at Openstates.org. Phone calls are the most effective.

Some people are intimidated by the prospect of contacting an elected person. Staffers will answer the call, and they are expected to take calls from voters. You can pass on your request to that person or ask to speak to a constituent affairs staff person to have more impact.

 

Illegal Evictions Still Happen

Despite the moratorium some landlords are still evicting people who should be protected by the CDC moratorium. There may be additional protections in your state or community. The  Eviction Lab established a tracking program that collects data from five states so far. Its data shows there are 3,500 evictions per week in those five states.

If you feel your clients’ landlord is violating their tenant rights, including rent protections, they may qualify for free legal help. The CFPB has a database of legal aid offices you can find here. You can also check with your local bar association for free legal help. Many for-profit law firms donate services for people unable to afford it. 

 

Maintain A Good Relationship

It’s wise to remember that property owners have mortgages and expenses to pay. The majority may not receive any federal or state help, and may also be racking up back payments to some degree. No matter how gruff or short tempered a landlord may be, it is always in their interest to retain good tenants. Clients who acknowledge how hard it is for everybody, and show they will make good as soon as possible, will have a better chance of working out a plan that all parties can follow.

For a more detailed overview of the moratorium protections visit:

https://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/Overview-of-National-Eviction-Moratorium.pdf

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