On Sept 1, the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services announced that the federal government is issuing a national eviction moratorium for the remainder of 2020 to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The moratorium, effective Sept 4, applies to all tenants who meet certain eligibility requirements and present a signed declaration to their landlords stating:
- The renter expects to earn no more than $99,000 in annual income in 2020 ($198,000 if filing a joint return), was not required to report income to the IRS in 2019 or received a stimulus check under the CARES Act;
- The renter has used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing;
- The renter is unable to pay all the rent as a result of a substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable work hours or wages, a layoff, or “extraordinary” out-of-pocket medical expenses (=unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income for the year);
- The renter is using best efforts to make timely and full payment as the renter’s circumstances permit, taking into account other non-discretionary expenses; and
- If evicted, the renter would likely become homeless, need to move into a homeless shelter, or move into a new congregate or shared living setting (i.e., where residents live in close quarters) because the individual has no other available housing options.
This moratorium was what many in housing advocacy had been asking for since the beginning of quarantine measures. However, upon further scrutiny, there are a lack of several key provisions that will harm Texans and renters around the country if they aren’t addressed immediately.
First and foremost, the moratorium does not help with rent relief in any way. It is imperative that we stay indoors while COVID-19 infects thousands of people in our state, but once we are fortunate enough to move past this disease, landlords will still charge for back rent. If we do not address this by providing tenants with rent relief or cancelling rent and mortgage payments, we have consigned millions of renters to a future of displacement.
Second, even if renters are able to return to a working role with steady income, this does not address the issue of late fees. In fact, according to the text:
“Nothing in this Order precludes the charging or collecting of fees, penalties, or interest as a result of the failure to pay rent or other housing payment on a timely basis, under the terms of any applicable contract.”
A tenant in the state of Texas can still be evicted for compounding late fees, and nowhere in the protection is this remedied when the moratorium is up; conversely, it empowers states to make their own decisions. The Texas Legislature has passed a law that lets landlords define what a reasonable late fee is, which is a decision that recent history has shown to be used in cruel and exorbitant ways. We need to eliminate these punitive rules that exist only to line landlords pockets and exploit the confusion of tenants.
Last, this critical lifeline needs to be simple to understand. Many people who are desperate to stay in their homes are willing to sign on the dotted line without understanding what they have endorsed or agreed to. This includes signing legal documents that could subject them to frivolous litigation or giving their rights to legal recourse away. This process needs to be plain and simple for tenants.
This national eviction moratorium is a potential path for everyone in government to get on the right page and help tenants, but there is far more work to do to truly protect them.