Personal Finance

Can you be evicted during the pandemic? It depends on your ZIP code

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Key Points
  • In the absence of any sweeping national ban on evictions during the pandemic, many tenants will find themselves at the mercy of local laws.
  • The patchwork of protections leads to confusion and illegal evictions, advocates say. 
Protesters block a courthouse entrance in Los Angeles on Aug. 21, 2020.
VALERIE MACON | AFP | Getty Images

In the absence of any national ban on evictions during the pandemic, tenants struggling to pay their rent are at the mercy of a patchwork of narrow and temporary local protections. 

In Maryland, Missouri and Ohio, meanwhile, there's no statewide or local bans on evictions at all. 

"Piecemeal policies within a state set up renters to have very different outcomes during the pandemic by virtue of their ZIP code," said Emily Benfer, an eviction expert and visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University.

The federal eviction moratorium in the CARES Act, which was passed in March and banned evictions in properties with federally backed mortgages or where tenants receive government-assisted housing, expired at the end of July. 

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development says it will extend the moratorium for single-family houses with mortgages issued by the Federal Housing Administration, but that protection would not cover nearly as many households as the one in the first stimulus package, which still excluded two-thirds of the country's tenants. 

In the meantime, people who can't pay their rent amid one of the steepest recessions in U.S. history are left relying on local eviction protections.

That can be tricky. 

More than 20 states that had passed a statewide ban on evictions have allowed the proceedings to resume since May, according to Benfer. 

VIDEO13:2613:26
How evictions work in the U.S.

More local protections can also be precarious. Detroit's eviction moratorium expired on Aug. 15, and a vote at the beginning of the month to ban the proceedings in Little Rock, Arkansas, failed

Recently, more than 10 states have extended their eviction moratorium or issued one for the first time. Yet in some cases, the new protections are narrower than the original ones, Benfer said. 

For example, New York first banned all evictions in the state but when it extended its moratorium until September, it required tenants to be either receiving unemployment or able to show a Covid-19-related hardship to be protected. 

"The patchwork approach to eviction moratoriums has resulted in misinformation and confusion about tenant rights and obligations," Benfer said. 

Some landlords take advantage of the uncertainty to push tenants out of their homes, said Daphne McGee, a staff attorney at Texas Legal Services Center. One survey of 100 legal aid and civil rights attorneys across the country at the end of June found that more than 90% of respondents had reported illegal evictions in their area. 

"Tenants often don't know that they have rights when it comes to evictions, even outside of a pandemic," McGee said.

Making matters worse is the fact that less than 10% of renters facing eviction have a lawyer, compared to 90% of landlords. 

Landlords sometimes outright overlook local protections. 

Even though Texas resident Jennifer Baird should have been protected by the eviction moratorium issued by Austin, which is in place until the end of September, her landlord moved to get her out this month. The statewide eviction ban in Texas lapsed in May

The rental housing industry alone can't bear the entire financial weight of the pandemic.
Bob Pinnegar
president of the National Apartment Association

"It's extremely scary," Baird, 37, said. Her income as a dog sitter and real estate agent has dried up, and now she's worried about living in a shelter and using public restrooms during the pandemic. 

"At least in my house, I can protect myself," Baird said. "If I'm out, I don't know what I'm going to have to deal with that could put my health at risk."

Baird's case demonstrates "why it is so important for Congress to act in order to keep American tenants housed and landlords able to pay their mortgages," said Keegan Warren-Clem, managing attorney at the Texas Legal Services Center. 

Bob Pinnegar, president of the National Apartment Association, said evictions are a last resort but will be necessary if Congress doesn't pass direct rental assistance so that tenants and landlords can stay afloat. 

"The rental housing industry alone can't bear the entire financial weight of the pandemic," he said. 

Without such aid, up to 40 million Americans may lose their homes in this downturn, four times the amount seen during the Great Recession. More than 1 in 5 renters were behind on their in July. Some states will be especially hard hit: Nearly 60% of renters in West Virginia are at risk of eviction. 

"Ultimately, the moratoriums are quickly expiring before the robust federal interventions are in place to protect adults and children from the harm," Benfer said.