When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month that most evictions nationwide were banned until the end of December, it came as little relief to Eric Smith.
All the single father can think about now is what will happen when the moratorium lifts.
"How do we come out of this tunnel?" Smith, 49, said. " Homeless? Hungry? I worry about it every day."
Smith hasn't been able to work during the coronavirus pandemic and has quickly depleted his small savings. Come January, he doesn't know how he'll come up with what could be thousands of dollars in back rent for his apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"When they say, 'You have to pay this in 30 days,' how do I catch up with owing so much?'" Smith said.
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Most evictions in the U.S. are now banned. What you need to know
The CDC has made it illegal for landlords across the U.S. to evict most tenants who can't afford to pay their rent through the end of the year.
However, the ban doesn't relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent or set up any funds to help renters meet their rent, making it likely that many will rack up debt during the reprieve. In the meantime, landlords are allowed to tack on late fees. That means for many renters, the order will just delay their eviction by a few months. And other holes in the federal protection and inconsistent state applications also leave renters vulnerable, housing advocates say.
"The eviction moratorium is a Band-Aid solution," said Peggy Bailey, vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
By one estimate, the pandemic has put as many as 40 million Americans at risk of eviction.
"The United States is facing the most severe housing crisis in history," said Emily Benfer, visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University.
She called the CDC's order a "temporary and incomplete measure."
"Because the moratorium does not prohibit late fees or interest, tenant debt could quickly increase by hundreds to thousands of dollars," she said.
Renters could face giant bills by the end of December, and many likely won't be able to pay them.
"Without adequate rental assistance to help with the rents that remain due, the vast majority of these families will be evicted after the CDC moratorium expires and suffer devastating harm," Benfer said.
Landlords are also concerned that the eviction ban wasn't paired with rental aid to tenants.
"Without direct rental assistance, rents cannot be paid, and owners face a financial crisis of their own by not being able to maintain properties and pay their mortgages or property taxes," said Bob Pinnegar, president of the National Apartment Association.
Advocates point to other problems with the moratorium.
The CDC ban doesn't require landlords or the courts to notify tenants that they must fill out a declaration form and give it to their landlord. (On the form, renters must attest that they meet certain qualifications, including that they could become homeless if they were evicted.)
"Many landlords are going to try to race to the court to get a judgment and remove the tenant before the tenant even knows the declaration requirement exists or how to fulfill it," said John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
Tenants who face eviction often aren't aware of their rights, and just 10% get legal representation, compared with 90% of landlords.
Even if a tenant fills out the declaration, Pollock said, some landlords might try to challenge it in court.
"They will have a lawyer, and the tenants will not," he said.
There's also already alarming signs that landlords are continuing to evict tenants despite the CDC's ban.
Jim Baker, executive director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, has identified more than 500 new eviction cases filed by private equity firms and other corporate landlords since the eviction moratorium was announced Sept. 1.
"Rather than working with residents and giving them an opportunity to stay in their homes to limit the spread of Covid-19, some landlords are using eviction filings to establish whether residents should be covered by the moratorium," Baker said.
Meanwhile, some states seem to be adopting a more narrow application of the CDC ban.
For example, the CDC doesn't say anything about renters needing to provide documentation to prove that they qualify for the protection aside from the declaration form, but in Maryland, evidence may be required. And while the CDC bans any step toward eviction by a landlord, some eviction steps will still be allowed to proceed in Maryland, including hearings and even the decisions. Only the end of the process, in which a tenant is forced to leave their home, is on pause.
In Michigan, it's up to a judge's interpretation of what stages of an eviction the CDC's ban should apply to.
"Inconsistent state interpretations could create confusion among tenants and landlords about their rights and obligations and thwart the moratorium's purpose of preventing Covid-19," Benfer said.
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