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Housing advocate on what to do if you're being evicted: 'You have rights'

Twenty/20

Despite tens of millions Americans still facing financial uncertainty as the coronavirus pandemic continues in the U.S., enhanced jobless benefits expire at the end of this month and evictions bans across the country are lifting. With many housing courts reopening, this will likely lead to a historically "unparalleled" eviction crisis, housing experts say, unless the government steps in to aid tenants.

While the federal government extended its eviction moratorium through August 2020, that only covers tenants in federally-financed housing, which is about around 25% of renters. For the other 75% of renters, eviction bans and proceedings depend on the state or city. Some have already reopened housing courts, while others never put eviction bans into place at all. 

Without an extended and uniform eviction moratorium or federal aid, those who were in vulnerable financial positions before coronavirus shut down large parts of the economy are most at risk of being evicted in the coming months, particularly single mothers, people of color, people with disabilities and the formerly incarcerated. Around 30% of Americans missed their housing payments in June.

If you are facing eviction now, here are four steps to take.

1. Don't leave your home

The most important thing to do if you get an eviction notice is not to leave your home right away, Cea Weaver, statewide campaign coordinator for the Housing Justice for All coalition, tells CNBC Make It. Often, tenants do not realize that they have rights and can fight an eviction order in court. You can look up your state's eviction process here.

"The No. 1 thing to know right now is you have rights," says Weaver. "You can defend yourself in court. You can fight for your home."

2. Know your rights

Housing laws vary substantially between states and even cities. But it is illegal for your landlord to kick you out of your home for nonpayment of rent without going through your state's formal eviction proceedings, including giving you notice that you are being evicted (exactly how much notice varies depending on where you live). You must also be given a chance to appear in court.

Once an eviction case is started, you'll be given a court date. Keep note of when you receive a notice and if you pay any rent at all between the notice and the eviction hearing, which you will want to tell the judge.

In certain cities, including New York City, you have a right to free legal counsel for housing cases. However, in most you do not. Search your city and "right to counsel" to see if your locality is one of them, or if there are other local laws you should know.

3. Get help

To get free help, contact a local tenant's organization or legal aid society. Relief organizations are local and you can search for a tenant's organization in your area here. These groups can help connect you to a lawyer or another nonprofit legal group, Weaver says.

Legal Services is an independent non-profit created by the federal government that helps low-income households with civil issues like eviction. You can also call your local elected officials to see what resources are available in your area.

You should also research whether your building is part of the federal eviction moratorium. You can use tools developed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to search whether the property you live in is federally backed. If your building is federally financed, your landlord cannot evict you right now.

Tenants living in private properties can see when eviction protections expire in their state here. The National Housing Law Project also put together a comprehensive list of resources on evictions and foreclosures in each state. 

If you think your landlord is not following the law, you can file a complaint with your state's attorney general.

4. Prepare for court

Ahead of your court date, make sure you understand how your city or state is currently hearing cases. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many courts are now holding hearings over Zoom or other video-conferencing software. Some cities are using different venues for housing court that allow people to properly social distance. 

In court, you can argue your case. Explain why you haven't paid or note if you've paid a portion of the rent. You should also explain how you plan to make payments in the future. It will help your case if you have documentation of your recent financial struggles, including bank statements or a note from your employer about a reduced salary, if applicable. Make sure to bring your lease agreement, too.

The state of additional federal aid

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Monday introduced legislation to extend the eviction ban to all renters nationwide through March 2021. That is a good first step, housing experts say, though any rent not paid until that time would still be owed once the ban lifts. The bill is currently in committee.

The House of Representatives on Monday also passed an emergency rent and mortgage relief bill that includes an extended eviction moratorium, as well as $100 billion in emergency rental relief. That bill is currently with the Senate, where it is not expected to pass. 

Without swift federal action, it falls to individual governors to extend eviction bans in their states to keep people housed. Recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and Democratic governors including Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Andrew Cuomo of New York extended their state's moratoriums.

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