Federal eviction moratorium that protected millions in the pandemic is about to expire

The CARES Act moratorium covered at least 12.3 million rental units nationwide


Anthony Sumner poses for a photo at his apartment in Detroit on July 11, 2020. Across the country, millions of households will no longer be protected from eviction once the federal moratorium expires. Image: Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press via TNS

Houston Chronicle
By Sarah Smith

Millions of residents in are in danger of losing their homes when the federal eviction moratorium enacted to combat the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus expires after July 24.

The moratorium, enacted as part of the CARES Act, stipulates that landlords of certain federally backed apartments cannot serve tenants with an eviction notice until July 25. Tenants protected by the CARES Act cannot be put out of their homes until Aug. 24.

Economic devastation caused by the pandemic has left millions of tenants without jobs and unable to pay rent. People burned through their savings, extended credit lines and left bills unpaid to try to stay housed.

Now, with all other resources exhausted and federal unemployment assistance benefits ending, a Census survey found that 40% of Texans aren’t able to pay August rent.

But the ultimate impact of the virus on housing stability and homelessness is likely yet to come.

“Some of these evictions are slow-motion crises from January or before,” said Jeff Reichman, a principal at consulting firm January Advisors and a member of the joint city-county Housing Stability Task Force.

Evictions are a lagging indicator of an economic problem — if you lose your job and are living on savings, you’re not getting evicted until your savings run out.”

The CARES Act moratorium covered at least 12.3 million rental units nationwide, according to analysis from the Urban Institute. It applied to public housing, tenants with vouchers, federally backed mortgages and privately owned, federally subsidized buildings, among others.

Enforcement was sporadic: In Harris County, justices of the peace had landlords sign an affidavit that they were not covered by the CARES Act before allowing proceedings. Reichman said there was no real recourse for holding landlords accountable, especially because only about 2% of tenants in Harris County eviction court have an attorney.

Even so, housing advocates are pushing for an extension on the moratorium. The Democrat-held House of Representatives passed a second stimulus bill that would provide $11.5 billion in grants aimed at preventing homelessness. The Republican-held Senate has not touched it.

There needs to be comprehensive rent relief programs,” said Zoe Middleton, an organizer with advocacy group Texas Housers. “We need that support and that money to go directly to tenants, and we need to stabilize the housing market through programs for landlords.”

Locally, city and county leaders have used CARES Act funding for renters impacted by the pandemic.

There’s not enough to meet the need: The City of Houston’s $15 million in rental assistance ran out of funding in 90 minutes. Harris County distributed $30 million to its lowest-income residents to stave off the pandemic’s impacts. A joint city-county effort has put over $65 million into a housing and homelessness prevention plan for the next two years.

Texas landlords not covered by the CARES Act have been able to evict tenants since May 19, after the state supreme court moratorium expired. In Harris County, justices of the peace began wading through backlogged eviction filings in early June.

According to a database of evictions complied by January Advisors, landlords in Harris County filed 5,499 eviction claims since the state-level eviction moratorium began on March 19. Although it’s a decrease from the same period of time in 2019, Reichman said Harris County had an alarmingly high eviction rate before the pandemic and many evictions due to coronavirus are still to come.

“It’s worrisome that we’re seeing a lot of eviction cases being filed and unemployment go through the roof,” he said.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the Houston area had a shortage of affordable housing. The annual Out of Reach Report, published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, found that a Houston-area renter would need to work 96 hours per week at minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

“We absolutely need an eviction and foreclosure moratorium,” Middleton said. “We don’t need to play whack-a-mole with the virus or with this eviction crisis.”

(c)2020 the Houston Chronicle