The United States is facing a mass eviction crisis as expanded unemployment benefits expire and millions of the newly jobless search for work in an economy that remains debilitated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal and local laws that halted evictions during the initial surge of the coronavirus outbreak are drawing to an end this summer. Despite Americans facing enormous financial uncertainty and an ongoing health crisis, courts are reopening and processing evictions again. “It’s shocking and unconscionable,” said Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. One study estimates that 19 million to 23 million renters, or 1 in 5 people who live in renter households, are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30. The people most likely to be evicted are those in vulnerable financial circumstances. They include Black and Latinx people, single mothers, people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated people, and undocumented people, according to the Aspen Institute. “This is due to a racist housing legacy. It’s structural racism playing out in real time,” said Alieza Durana, a spokesperson for Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
Facing eviction is undeniably terrifying, but do not freeze up. The most important things to remember: It’s best to act now before it’s too late. Talk to your landlord and know your rights. Also, breathe.
BuzzFeed News reached out to housing experts about what to do if you’re at risk of being evicted during the pandemic; of course, you should seek advice from an attorney; some nonprofits offer free legal services for tenants.
There is a lot of important variation in housing law between states, and even between cities — Stanford Law School's Legal Design Lab offers some information for all 50 states here (again, talk to an attorney) — but generally, here’s what you need to know.
I’ve never had to deal with this before. How do evictions go?
It’s illegal for your landlord to suddenly kick you out one day for nonpayment; your state has a formal procedure they must follow. Typically, your landlord has to give you notice that they plan to evict you. How much notice they are required to give you varies from place to place. In New York, for example, tenants must have at least 14 days’ notice before a landlord can file an eviction case for nonpayment in court; in Wisconsin, five days; in Mississippi, three days.
It’s scary to receive a notice, but it’s in your interest to open your mail. If you’re able to make a rent payment, keep a record of it, for example, by paying by check. If you are unable to pay during the notice period, the landlord can start a case. But remember: You are entitled to a notice — so if you didn’t receive a notification, tell the judge or clerk.
“Not only do you get notice, but that notice must include specific information. If it doesn’t, the case can be dismissed,” said Ami Shah, a housing attorney at Legal Services NYC. Look up what your state requires in a notice and compare it to what your landlord sends you. (For example, here’s what a notice must include in California.)
Once a case is started, you’ll be informed of the court date. As hearings are designed to move through large volumes of cases, they are typically pretty short. The ongoing risk of the coronavirus has led some courts to move to virtual eviction hearings using conferencing services, such as Skype or Zoom. Check what service your local court uses and make sure to download it ahead of time. Secure internet access that day. In Ohio, the Greater Columbus Convention Center has been converted into a housing court so that tenants can maintain social distancing for their in-person eviction hearings during the pandemic.
You can make an argument for why you have not paid the rent — for instance, if there are repairs your landlord hasn’t tended to (things like the need for paint and plaster might be a defense, so keep track of prior requests). But usually, “the court wants to know what’s the plan to pay the rent,” said Ellen Davidson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. You and the landlord will either settle the case or a judge will decide how much you owe, when you have to pay it before you are evicted, and the earliest day you can be evicted.
It’s better to consult an attorney before the hearing, but you may not be entitled to a free lawyer as evictions are a civil matter; in that case, you should seek free legal advice through a nonprofit. (More on that below.)
If you do not show up for your court hearing, you could still be evicted through a default judgment.
What rights do I have?
It depends on where you live, but you should have a right to notice from your landlord that they plan to evict you. You have the right to settle with them before they file a lawsuit to evict you. And you have the right to habitable conditions, so if your landlord has not been maintaining the property, you can bring that up in your defense during your hearing.
Again, you may not have the right to free legal counsel (New York City became the first place to guarantee an attorney to tenants with low incomes in housing court in 2017), so you might have to seek out help on your own.
As far as financial aid, it’s worth exploring state and local emergency rental assistance programs, although those funds are running out fast. It is a good idea to document your financial hardship during the pandemic, which may be required to qualify for this aid. For example, if you are still employed but are now earning less, you could ask your employer(s) for a letter that confirms your salaries before the pandemic and during. You may also need a copy of your lease agreement, as well as bank statements that prove you do not have the savings to pay rent. Depending on what assistance you receive, you may need to pay it back — look at details regarding repayment.
In addition to state and local rent regulatory laws that provide protections to tenants, one of the most important rights that people should look into now are federal and local eviction bans that were put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Read on for more details.
What are the eviction bans, and how long do they protect renters?
First, there’s the federal moratorium. The CARES Act banned landlords from issuing notices to vacate until July 25 for tenants in federally funded housing (public housing, those funded by low-income housing tax credits, and buildings with federally backed mortgages) and those with a federally backed mortgage; the legislation gives tenants at least 30 days to leave after notice is given, so no earlier than Aug. 24. If you live in a larger building (with five units or more), you can find out if your building is covered by searching this database from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. If you live in a small property (one to four units), it will not be captured in these databases; you will have to ask your landlord if the building is federally funded. It’s important to find out. Some tenants have had eviction cases filed against them despite being protected by this federal moratorium.
Then there is a patchwork of state and local laws (the NLIHC compiled a list here) that have halted evictions during the pandemic. Many have already expired — allowing housing courts to reopen and evict tenants for not paying rent — and the rest are expiring soon. Some states are extending their eviction bans, so your best bet is to check your state’s website or call your state lawmaker to check when the moratorium will lift.
What do these eviction bans not protect me from?
It’s important to know that these bans pause courts from evicting people for nonpayment, but they do not waive or cancel rent that’s owed. Landlords cannot legally evict you for not paying rent while the bans are in effect, but ALL the rent is still due to them for the entire period, unless you negotiate a different arrangement with your landlord. This is why some officials and advocates have pushed to straight-up cancel rent for people who are experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic rather than pause evictions but not cancel the entire amount due. After all, anyone who hasn’t been able to pay rent during the eviction moratoriums almost certainly won’t be able to pay it all at once when the bans are lifted.
Again, it is a good idea to document your financial hardship, which may come up during your court hearing.
These bans also do not protect you from eviction for other reasons, such as criminal conduct or violating the terms of your lease. (Check your lease.)
Is the government planning to extend any protections past then?
There is a bill for a second wave of federal relief — the HEROES Act — that includes an extension of the federal eviction ban and provides $100 billion in emergency assistance to renters. It passed the House but will not likely pass the Senate in its current form. Various other bills have also been drafted to cancel rent during the pandemic.
“The writing is on the wall. There is a big problem on the horizon,” said Martha Galvez, a researcher at the Urban Institute. “The only question is what is the response and what that might mean for low-income families.”
I still have some time. What’s the best way to negotiate with my landlord?
Don’t wait long to reach out. Landlords still have bills to pay, and landlords with few units likely have less of a cushion to fall back on. If you know you will not be able to make rent, contact your landlord or management company to work out a payment plan. Try to get some of the amount waived or forgiven, and try to negotiate down your rent moving forward. Some residents are also forming tenants organizations, which allow them to negotiate together and gives them more leverage. Remember, however, that while a tenants union can help you negotiate, it does not protect you from eviction for not paying rent. Landlords can still bring members of tenants unions to housing court.
In scary and stressful situations like these where people feel powerless (especially vulnerable populations like undocumented workers), it’s common to have an impulse to hide, but this is the worst thing you can do. You may feel scared, but do not hide. Open your mail.
“Many people try to hide when they’re in tough times, but it’s not in their best interest. The landlord might be willing to work things out,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. Remember: If you don’t talk to your landlord, and you don’t open the notice in the mail, and you ignore your court date, there could be a default judgment against you. You will have missed the opportunity to try to work something out with your landlord, or at least buy yourself some more time.
I’ve been making partial payments. Does that protect me from eviction?
No, partial payments do not protect you from eviction, but they may make your landlord more willing to work with you. Any unpaid amount is considered a debt you owe to your landlord. Not only can a judge make an eviction judgment against you, they can also decide that you still owe your landlord this money, even though you will no longer live there. The law permits landlords to go after for your unpaid rent for as long as 20 years in some states. A landlord can garnish your wages (when a court orders your employer to withhold a certain amount from your paycheck to pay off the debt) or use a collection agency, although this is not common when landlords know a tenant does not have the assets to pay this debt.
How long do I have in my residence once an eviction procedure has begun?
It really depends on where you live. In New York City, for example, it’s typically about four to six months from the time your landlord sends your first notice to when a law enforcement officer comes to remove your belongings. In Wisconsin, it is usually two to four months. It sounds like a fair amount of time, but when it’s happening, it can feel very fast.
How does an eviction impact my record?
Having an eviction case brought against you can make it harder to rent an apartment in the future, as many landlords check databases to see if there is an eviction on an applicant’s record. Also, if your landlord reports your debt to a credit agency, it can impact your credit score.
I can’t afford an attorney. What do I do?
There are nonprofit organizations like Legal Services and Legal Aid and that provide free legal advice to tenants. Do a search online for “free legal help for tenants” (there may even be a list of organizations on your local court’s website) or call your local elected official to direct you to some resources. You can start by looking at these websites: the Legal Services Corporation, Aunt Bertha (which helps you search for help by zip code), and Just Shelter. Again, these groups offer free services, so if you call someone who asks for payment, you’ve found the wrong place.
If I can’t afford rent, where am I supposed to go?
For most people, an eviction doesn’t mean immediate homelessness, but it does often lead to difficult circumstances. The NLIHC’s Yentel said evicted people often move in with family members or friends, or move into neighborhoods with lower incomes.
Remember that you’re not alone right now. Nearly 30% of renters recently told the US Census Bureau they have slight to no confidence they can pay rent for July. The coronavirus has demanded a far higher level of government intervention to prevent Americans from spiraling into poverty during the lockdown. The stimulus checks issued during the spring and expanded unemployment benefits so far have cushioned our fall off a cliff — but, like the eviction bans, those programs are set to expire soon, too. The government will need to deal with the tsunami of evictions coming up, one way or another.
Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Alieza Durana of Eviction Lab, Shamus Roller of the National Housing Law Project, Ellen Davidson of the Legal Aid Society, Ami Shah of Legal Services NYC, and Martha Galvez of Urban Institute provided advice and information for this article.