- At the start of the pandemic, Congress passed an eviction ban that covered about a third of the country's rental units.
- Yet a lack of enforcement led many landlords to ignore the law.
- "There's no actual penalty for violating it," said Eric Kwartler, staff attorney at South Texas College of Law Houston's Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics.
Anna Vela had three days to pay her rent or her landlord would evict her and her three children.
She didn't have the money.
When the pandemic hit, Vela's boss at the supermarket where she worked in Davenport, Iowa, had cut her weekly hours to around 11 from 35. And when she learned that she'd likely come into contact with someone who had the coronavirus, she had to quarantine for two weeks and wasn't able to earn anything.
Vela paid her landlord what she could during these trying times, but he still moved to evict her in June.
"I just felt like, 'What am I going to do?'" Vela, 38, said. "The only thing I could do is pray."
But Vela didn't need to pray: Her landlord was not allowed to evict her.
The $2 trillion CARES Act that Congress signed into law on March 27 included a ban on evictions from federally financed properties, including those backed by government-sponsored mortgage entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The moratorium, which was in effect until the end of July, covered about a third of the country's rental units.
However, legal aid attorneys and housing advocates who CNBC spoke to say the law failed to protect many struggling tenants during the pandemic because there was little effort to ensure that landlords followed it.
As many as 40 million Americans could lose their homes during the pandemic, four times the number seen during the Great Recession.
"There's no actual penalty for violating it," said Eric Kwartler, staff attorney at South Texas College of Law Houston's Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics.
"A law without a penalty isn't a law," Kwartler added. "It's a guideline."
On the morning a sheriff was scheduled to remove Vela and her three children from their apartment, Vela's lawyer, Molly McDonnell at Iowa Legal Aid, got a judge to set aside the order. McDonnell discovered that the property Vela lived in was financed by Fannie Mae.
But by then, Vela had already made plans to move into her 21-year-old daughter's one-bedroom apartment. She'd thrown away much of her furniture and many of the children's toys.
"That's all I have and work hard for," Vela said.
Crestwood Townhome, Vela's landlord, didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Kwartler and a team of students recently analyzed all of the evictions in Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located, during the period in which the CARES Act moratorium was in effect, from March 27 to July 24. They found that nearly a quarter of the filed evictions should have been barred by the CARES Act. That amounted to more than 1,000 illegal evictions in that one county alone.
"I guarantee you it's happening across the country," Kwartler said.
Indeed, in a June survey by the National Housing Law Project, more than 90% of legal aid and civil rights attorneys said they've seen illegal evictions in their area. Data provided to CNBC by Iowa Legal Aid shows that during one week in July in Polk County, where Des Moines is located, 40% of the families forced to leave their homes were through evictions that violated either the state or CARES Act moratorium.
"Without compliance and enforcement mechanisms, a law's purpose may go unrealized," said Emily Benfer, an eviction expert and visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University. "Congress failed to add a check for compliance with the CARES act. It fell to the courts."
That left tenants vulnerable.
Fewer than half of states required landlords to attest that their evictions didn't violate the CARES Act, Benfer said.
And even some of the states that did, acted late.
For example, the Arizona Supreme Court didn't require landlords to verify that their eviction was legal until July 7, more than three months after the federal eviction ban went into effect.
"Courts have inconsistent requirements for requiring landlords to disclose whether their property is covered by an eviction moratorium and that has resulted in an unconscionable number of illegal evictions," said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency, an independent regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said it has taken steps to address violations of the CARES Act but that it's not an enforcement agency.
A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development responded to questions about how the moratorium was being enforced with a list of information links on its website.
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All renters living in properties where the CARES Act banned evictions should have been notified of their rights under the law, Benfer said.
Most renters who received an eviction notice likely had no idea that they're protected under the federal moratorium because their building is federally financed, said Dana Karni, managing attorney at the Eviction Right to Counsel unit at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston.
Landlords take advantage of a tenant's lack of knowledge, experts say.
"Who's going to check them? How many people are going to actually hire a lawyer?" Karni said.
Very few: Just 10% of tenants facing eviction have legal representation, compared with 90% of landlords.
Jenifer Jameson didn't know where she and her 8-year-old son, Knoxx, would go if they were evicted.
In May she was laid off from her job as an assistant manager at the leasing office where she lives. The single mother scrambled to continue paying the rent on her two-bedroom apartment in Kilgore, Texas. She applied for unemployment and asked a friend if she could borrow money. Her search for work has been relentless.
"As soon as I wake up, I log on to Indeed.com," said Jameson, 48. "I bet I've applied to at least 100 jobs."
It wasn't enough. In June, her landlord moved to evict her.
"I was devastated," Jameson said. "I don't have family members that I can move in with."
Jameson's landlord, however, was also not allowed to evict her.
The property where she lives is financed by Fannie Mae. With the help of her lawyer, Shalette Mitchell at Lone Star Legal Aid in Texas, Jameson was able to get the case dismissed.
"It was so clear it was a CARES Act property the judge could do nothing but sign the motion to set aside," Mitchell said.
Jameson's landlord, Stoneridge Apartments, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The nightmare isn't over for Jameson.
When the CARES Act eviction moratorium expired at the end of July, her landlord moved to evict her again. She now has to be out of her apartment in just a few days.
Congress has yet to reach an agreement on another stimulus package that could extend protections to renters and stave off an unprecedented eviction crisis.
More than a week after the federal eviction ban expired, President Donald Trump said that he didn't want people evicted during the pandemic and that an executive order he signed "will solve that problem largely, hopefully completely."
Yet housing advocates say the recently announced protections would shield far fewer tenants than the moratorium in the CARES Act did and still lacks enforcement measures.
"People across the country are suffering and need real action from Congress and the White House, not more half-measures," said Douglas Rice, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Throughout the pandemic, Jim Baker, executive director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, has been tracking evictions by private equity landlords.
As Baker compiled his list, he noticed something alarming: dozens of the evictions occurred in buildings financed by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
"Each such eviction filing would appear to be in direct violation of federal law," Baker wrote in May to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Mark Calabria, director of the FHFA, responded to Baker a month later, saying the agency was working with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to research the issue, but that the government-sponsored mortgage entities "are not part of the tenant/landlord relationship." (Baker shared the exchange with CNBC.)
Calabria went on to write that the "CARES Act does not identify a direct enforcement mechanism," and that, "Compliance with the CARES Act eviction moratorium is primarily the responsibility of the property owner."
That it was largely left up to landlords to follow the law is likely why there have been so many violations.
"Despite it very clearly being a CARES Act property," said Mitchell at Lone Star Legal Aid in Texas, "landlords are just proceeding as though it doesn't apply."