It has been a week since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide moratorium on evictions went into effect, and there is still a lot of confusion among tenants and attorneys over how strong the protections are and how to take advantage of them.
The moratorium, which runs from Sept. 4 to Dec. 31, is intended to keep people from becoming homeless during the pandemic “to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.” It does not include rental assistance or forgiveness.
“Confusion has been the number one experience of clients who are facing housing instability during COVID-19,” said Zach Neumann, founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. “This is true now and it was true before, under the CARES Act moratorium and a lot of the state and county moratoriums that were in place.”
Unlike with other COVID-related eviction bans, the protections under the CDC moratorium are not automatic. Tenants struggling to keep up with rent must fill out a form certifying that they meet certain eligibility requirements and give it to their landlord, something many do not realize.
What happens once a renter submits that form is also a bit of a question mark — so far, courts around the country are interpreting the moratorium differently, leaving lawyers trying to figure out how to best advise clients.
“We’re not really sure what to do with it,” said Patrice Paldino, executive director of Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida. “The CDC doesn’t really have jurisdiction over eviction matters — those are state issues, local county issues. So the impact the CDC order has on an eviction is really unclear at this time.”
What is clear is there are a few steps you have to take if you are behind on rent and worried about eviction.
Check your eligibility
To be protected under the CDC’s eviction moratorium, which extends through the end of the year, you need to meet certain criteria:
- Make less than $99,000 (or $198,000 if you file a joint tax return)
- Be unable to make full rent “due to substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a lay-off, or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses”
- Be making an effort to make timely, partial rent payments
- Have used your “best efforts” to seek out and apply for all available state or local rental assistance programs
- Be at risk of homelessness or at risk of having to double up with others in cramped, close quarters if you were evicted
Renters who meet all five criteria “should immediately sign a declaration attesting to those factors and give it to their landlord as soon as possible,” said Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “By doing so they become protected under the eviction moratorium from any actions that a landlord might take to evict them from their home.”
The declaration form can be found in English on the CDC’s website. The National Low Income Housing Coalition also has the form in Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Consult a lawyer
Renters can sign and submit the declaration form to their landlord on their own, but because it is a legal document, and because evictions can be complicated, Paldino and Neumann both recommend talking to a lawyer first.
“As it stands right now, because there is such disagreement and confusion about the impact of this, my advice is talk to an attorney and make sure that you’re not complicating the matter any more than you need to,” Paldino said. “We are available to answer questions and help people through the process.”
Every state has at least one Legal Aid Society that provides free legal help to people who are low income. Many have hotlines. There are also other free and low-cost legal services available in many states.
“Even just getting on the phone with a lawyer intake specialist there who can explain how the CDC moratorium works in that state, what the process is, how courts have been handling it, and then give you some clear next steps can be really helpful,” Neumann said. “Because it does change so much by venue that you really want to make sure you’re getting the best possible advice, and doing the things you need to do to protect yourself and your family.”
Communicate with your landlord, and pay what you can
If you are struggling to keep up with rent, being proactive about communicating with your landlord can often help diffuse the situation according to both Neumann and Paldino.
“Your landlord is not getting the rent, the landlord is entitled to get the rent,” Paldino said. “The landlord knows what’s happening, the tenants know what’s happening. Have a conversation.”
It’s also important to continue paying what you can toward your rent, even if you can’t make the full payment — one of the requirements under the CDC moratorium is that renters make their “best efforts” to pay.
“Obviously you don’t want to pay to the point where you can’t buy food or other necessities, but making a small payment is consistent with what was envisioned in the moratorium, and in some states can be helpful,” Neumann said.
Make sure, too, that anything you agree to with your landlord is in writing, Paldino said. “Even if you don’t talk to an attorney, these are legal proceedings, this is a contract.”
The CDC moratorium is set to expire on Dec. 31. Barring additional action from the federal government, or from states, 30-40 million people could be at risk of eviction come January.
“Another key piece of this moratorium is that it does not include rental assistance. So that means that while renters are protected in the short-term, through the end of the year, when the moratorium is lifted, they will face a financial cliff and they will owe back rent,” Saadian said. “And unless Congress takes action to provide emergency rental assistance, we’re merely postponing these evictions rather than preventing them.”