BOSTON >> The eviction system, which saw a dramatic drop in cases before a federal moratorium expired over the weekend, rumbled back into action Monday, with activists girding for the first of what could be millions of affected tenants to be tossed onto the streets as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges.
In Rhode Island, landlords tired of waiting for federal rental assistance were in court hoping to evict their tenants while in Detroit, at least 600 tenants with court orders against them were at immediate risk.
“It’s very scary with the moratorium being over,” said Ted Phillips, a lawyer who leads the United Community Housing Coalition in Detroit.
The Biden administration allowed the federal moratorium to expire over the weekend and Congress was unable to extend it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic leaders called for an immediate extension, calling it a “moral imperative” to prevent Americans from being put out of their homes during a COVID-19 surge.
In announcing the end of the ban, the Biden administration said its hands were tied after the U.S. Supreme Court signaled the measure had to end. It had hoped that historic amounts of rental assistance allocated by Congress in December and March would help avert a crisis.
But the distribution has been painfully slow. Only about $3 billion of the first tranche of $25 billion had been distributed through June by states and localities. Another $21.5 billion will go to the states.
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.
Parts of the South and other regions with weaker tenant protections will likely see the largest spikes and communities of color where vaccination rates are sometimes lower will be hit hardest. But advocates say this crisis is likely to have a wider impact than pre-pandemic evictions, hitting families who have never before been behind on rent.
In Rhode Island, Gabe Imondi, a 74-year-old landlord, was in court Monday hoping to get an eviction execution. It’s the final step to push a tenant out of one of four housing units he owns in nearby Pawtucket.
Imondi said he and his tenant have both filed forms for the billions in federal aid meant to help keep tenants in their homes but so far, he says, he hasn’t seen a cent of the state’s $200 million share.
A retired general contractor, Imondi estimates he’s out around $20,000 in lost rent since September, when he began seeking to evict his tenant for non-payment. The eviction was approved in January.
“I don’t know what they’re doing with that money,” Imondi said.
Housing Court Judge Walter Gorman said before opening court in Providence that he had about 20 cases on the docket Monday, about half of them eviction cases. He expected the rush of evictions would come in about a week or so.
In Columbus, Ohio, Chelsea Rivera showed up at Franklin County court Monday after receiving an eviction notice last month. A single mom, she’s behind $2,988 in rent and late fees for the one bed-room apartment she rented for herself and her three young sons.
Rivera, 27, said she started to struggle with rent after her hours were cut in May at the suburban Columbus Walmart warehouse where she worked. She’s applied to numerous agencies for help but they’re either out of money, have a waiting list, or not able to help until clients end up in court with an eviction notice.
Rivera said she’s preparing herself mentally to move into a shelter with her children until her situation improves.
“We just need help,” Rivera said, fighting back tears. “It’s just been really hard with everyday issues on top of worrying about where you’re going to live.”
But there was more optimism in Virginia, where Tiara Burton, 23, learned she would be getting federal help and wouldn’t be evicted. She initially feared the worst when the moratorium lifted over the weekend.
“That was definitely a worry yesterday,” said Burton, 23, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “If they’re going to start doing evictions again, then I’m going to be faced with having to figure out where me and my family are going to go. And that’s not something that anyone should have to worry about these days at all.”
She was relieved on Monday to be told by an attorney representing various landlords that she had been approved for assistance through the Virginia Rent Relief Program. Her court hearing was postponed for 30 days, during which time she and her landlord can presumably work things out.
“I’m grateful for that because that’s something that was a worry every month,” she said. “Going into today and just hearing, ‘Okay, we’re going to push it back 30 days, but we’re going to assist you still,’ … that’s another weight lifted off of my shoulders.”
Around the country, courts, legal advocates and law enforcement agencies are gearing up for evictions to return to pre-pandemic levels, a time when 3.7 million people were displaced from their homes every year, or seven every minute, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Some of the cities with the most cases, according to the Eviction Lab, are Phoenix with more than 42,000 eviction filings, Houston with more than 37,000, Las Vegas with nearly 27,000 and Tampa more than 15,000. Indiana and Missouri also have more than 80,000 filings.
In St. Louis, where the sheriff’s office handles court-ordered evictions, Sheriff Vernon Betts said 126 evictions had been ordered pending the end of the moratorium. His office plans to enforce about 30 evictions per day starting Aug. 9.
Betts knows there will be hundreds of additional orders soon. He’s already been contacted by countless landlords who haven’t yet filed for eviction, but plan to. And he expected to increase his staffing.
“What we’re planning on doing is tripling our two-man team,” he said.