Three days after President Joe Biden and Congress let the federal eviction ban lapse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to the aid of renters by issuing a new, targeted moratorium.
The new order expires Oct. 3 and covers counties experiencing "substantial" or "high" levels of COVID-19 spread. As of Sunday, that includes 80 percent of U.S. counties — and 64 of Ohio's 88 counties, including Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana.
"The recent increase in COVID cases throughout the country, and in Ohio, due to the Delta variant have obviously increased the likelihood that someone will get COVID if they are evicted," said supervising attorney Andrew Neuhauser at Community Legal Aid during the organization's "Ask a Lawyer" session on evictions Wednesday evening.
In four of the past eight days, Ohio reported more than 1,000 new confirmed COVID-19 cases. Before July 28, the state had not reported daily confirmed case totals exceeding 1,000 since early May.
Since Tuesday's report, there were 34 new confirmed and probable cases in Mahoning County, 24 in Trumbull and 12 in Columbiana.
"So the need for an eviction moratorium is much stronger here on Aug. 4 than it was on July 5," Neuhauser said.
While many are celebrating the reinstatement of the moratorium, some experts are pointing out it wasn't that effective in the first place.
After the eviction moratorium in the federal CARES Act expired last year, the CDC issued an eviction moratorium in September. It was extended four times before it expired July 31.
A national eviction ban didn't stop many states, including Ohio, from carrying out evictions throughout the pandemic, however.
“We had a bunch of evictions that proceeded last year,” Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, told the Ohio Capital Journal.
“In recent times before the pandemic, we had 100,000, 105,000 evictions a year, so that’s nine or 10 thousand a month in 2019. In April, 2020, that dropped to only 1,700. But then it crept back up and it hovered around 5,000 to 6,500 evictions a month for the remainder of 2020 and all into 2021 so far.”
Many courts "more or less ignored it," said Marcus Roth, director of communications at COHHIO.
Neuhauser said the organization is seeing that "local courts are increasingly reluctant to enforce the moratorium. ... But that doesn't mean that tenants should not try to enforce the moratorium."
Courts disagree on whether the CDC has this power, Neuhauser explained.
"Just in our ... service area, we have 18 municipal or county courts that handle evictions," he said. "And that means there are at least 18 ways that the eviction moratorium has been viewed by courts. So a lot of this depends on where you live and which court covers the place that you live."
Court action regarding the moratorium has ranged widely, he said. Some local courts stopped eviction hearings. Others decided the moratorium didn't apply to their jurisdiction.
Precarity of Ohio's renters
More than 15 million people live in households that owe as much as $20 billion to their landlords, according to the Aspen Institute.
As of July 5, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated 213,000 Ohio households are behind on rent, and 134,000 are concerned they will get evicted within the next two months.
Each of the state's renting households in arrears owes an average of $2,713.
Precision for COVID, a data analysis site from health nonprofit Surgo Ventures, estimates 15 percent of Mahoning County's renting households — 4,625 households — are in arrears and owe nearly $1,928 each as of July 1. That's up from 9 percent on May 1.
In the rest of the Mahoning Valley:
- 13 percent of Trumbull County renting households owe $2,112 each;
- 11 percent of Columbiana County renting households owe $2,503 each.
In the tri-county area alone, that's a debt of about $19 million.
Who is covered
Under the new order, renters must meet six conditions:
- The individual has used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing;
- The individual either: expects to earn no more than $99,000 in 2020 (or $198,000 if filing a joint tax return); was not required to report 2019 income to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service; or received a stimulus check through the CARES Act;
- The individual is unable to pay the full rent or make a full housing payment due to substantial loss of household income, loss of work hours or wages, a layoff or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses;
- The individual is using best efforts to make timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment as possible while taking other necessary bills into account;
- Eviction would likely render the individual homeless — or force the individual to move into and live in close quarters in a new group setting — because the individual has no other available housing options;
- The individual must live in a county with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.
For renters at risk of eviction to whom these conditions apply, the next step is filling out a legal declaration and giving a copy to the landlord.
Neuhauser recommends doing so electronically. If renters aren't able to do so, he recommends they deliver the declaration, take a photo and bring along a witness who is over age 18 and who can testify in court.
While it's not a guarantee of assistance, "It's definitely worth a tenant attempting to assert their rights under the CDC order by filling out that declaration that applies to them and seeing what happens," Neuhauser said.
Given some courts' reluctance to enforce the moratorium, it's crucial for renters to reach out for rental assistance as soon as possible, Neuhauser said.
"Having that moratorium or the CDC declaration on its own may not be enough," he said. "But when that's combined with an application that's being processed for rental assistance, that's obviously going to be a much stronger case in court."
Throughout the pandemic, the federal government has authorized more than $40 billion in assistance to pay renters' back rent.
Ohio is set to receive an additional $1.5 billion in emergency rental assistance dollars from the December federal relief bill and the American Rescue Plan in March, the Associated Press reported.
The Ohio Legislature appropriated $100 million in January for rent relief and utility assistance and another $465 million in May, with more appropriations to come.
That’s an enticement for landlords, especially in central Ohio where the market is saturated with apartments and finding new tenants can be tough. If the only issue is back rent, landlords are usually willing to work things out, Columbus Attorney Michael Cassone said.
“Landlords want money,” he told the Associated Press. “They don’t want empty apartments.”
However, delivering rental assistance to vulnerable renters has been a logistical nightmare for local agencies.
At the end of June, only 6.5 percent of the money had been distributed.
Part of the problem is lack of awareness.
According to a study by the Urban Institute, more than half of renters and 40 percent of landlords did not know about the assistance.
This tool can help connect renters with nearby assistance programs.
— Reports from The Associated Press contributed to this story.