Normally a time to celebrate with family and friends, this year’s winter holiday season was largely spoiled by the global pandemic. The normally joyous countdown to 2021 took on an ominous tone for millions of financially struggling Americans facing eviction. While the federal eviction moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was set to expire at midnight on Jan. 1, there was a collective sigh of relief as lawmakers finally passed a second COVID relief bill.
We’ll discuss the current state of renter protections, President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to help struggling tenants, and steps you can take to protect your interests as a renter.
Which state and federal eviction moratoriums remain in place after the federal moratorium ends on Jan. 31?
The federal moratorium that ended at midnight on January 1, 2021 was immediately extended to January 31. Right after President Biden was sworn in on January 20, he had the CDC extend the federal moratorium through March 31. Any extensions beyond that date will depend on actions taken by the Biden Administration and what they’re able to work out with Congress. As with past moratoriums, the one-month extension protects tenants from eviction for nonpayment of rent only. If you owe back rent, nothing in this or past legislation forgives your debts, it just protects you from receiving an eviction notice.
You also need to meet certain conditions in order to qualify for protection, such as falling below the $99,000 annual income threshold and making a good-faith effort to pay at least partial rent. This involves filling out some paperwork, which includes the CDC Eviction Moratorium Declaration.
Some states and local governments also implemented new or extended eviction moratoriums and other tenant relief measures. State and local eviction protections vary by location. Most moratoriums prohibit one or more of the following eviction procedures:
- Eviction notice
- Eviction court filings
- Eviction hearings
- Eviction orders, judgments, and writs of execution
- Eviction (removal) orders
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, signed an executive order extending New York’s eviction moratorium to May 1, 2021. New York’s moratorium suspends all five stages of eviction for qualifying tenants. Oregon’s eviction moratorium was extended through June 2021 (pending court challenges by groups representing landlords), but it doesn’t require that courts stop eviction orders, judgments, or writs of execution. Washington Governor Jay Inslee extended Washington’s eviction moratorium to March 31, 2021, also making adjustments to provide additional assistance to landlords and property owners. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom hopes to extend the state’s eviction moratorium beyond March 31 to June 30, with a vote scheduled for Thursday, January 28.
The main takeaway is that many U.S. tenants are protected against eviction for nonpayment of rent through at least March 31, although additional federal relief could be in the works. State and local protections, meanwhile, vary quite a bit and are still very much in flux.
Does the COVID relief bill enacted last December provide any additional tenant protections or aid?
The latest COVID relief bill, signed into law on Dec. 27, does provide additional relief for tenants beyond the moratorium on evictions. Specifically, the $900 billion legislation provides $25 billion in emergency tenant assistance, which can be used for up to 12 months for overdue rent and utility payments from the beginning of the pandemic, or for future bills. Renters would apply for assistance with relief organizations, selected by state and local officials, who will pay the funds directly to landlords.
Applicants must meet all of the following criteria to be eligible for rent assistance:
- Have a household income that is less than 80% of the area median income (AMI).
- Have at least one household member who is at risk of becoming homeless or experiencing housing insecurity.
- Have at least one household member who qualifies for unemployment insurance benefits or experienced a financial hardship due to the pandemic (directly or indirectly).
Although the application process will vary by state, relief will be prioritized for households with incomes falling below 50% of AMI and who have at least one member who has been unemployed for more than 90 days. Household income from 2020 or monthly income at the time of application will be considered when determining eligibility (subject to recertification every three months). This legislation also provides funding for landlord-tenant mediation and case management services.
What additional tenant protections or support has President Joe Biden proposed?
President Joe Biden has proposed several ambitious housing measures that would help vulnerable tenants, including substantial investment in affordable housing and tackling lending discrimination. The more immediate concerns, at least for tenants, include greater protections against eviction and additional rent assistance. Their plate piled high with coronavirus-related action items, the Biden Administration has provided some details about tenant protections, which include an extended eviction (and foreclosure) moratorium through September 30, and additional rent and mortgage payment relief. The additional renter assistance is folded into President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
A more unified, nationwide approach to COVID-19 will hopefully come out of Congress now that the final Senate races have been resolved. The Biden Administration has begun discussions with majority and minority leadership in the House and Senate to try and put together bipartisan support for the American Rescue Plan. The plan not only includes eviction and rent payment assistance, but also back-rent relief and water and power assistance.
What can I do as a renter who is experiencing financial hardship and worried about eviction?
First of all, you can hopefully breathe a sigh of relief that an eviction notice at the end of January is less likely to happen with the eviction moratorium extended. During this short reprieve, you might consider communicating with your landlord about next steps. You’ll have a difficult time negotiating if you wait until the last minute and they won’t know your intentions if you remain silent.
By acting now, even if you’re protected from eviction, you may be able to secure more favorable terms from your landlord (perhaps a reduced monthly rent or a long-term repayment plan). For example, proposing a Rent Payment Plan or Late Rent Payment Agreement will demonstrate that you’re proactive and willing to do whatever’s necessary to fulfill your obligations. If they agree to your proposal, make sure you get it in writing.
If you are evicted after the eviction moratoriums have ended, seriously consider attending the hearing. There may be a way to defend yourself against removal, but attending the hearing will at least get you a court date. Otherwise, there will be a default judgment against you and your removal will come a lot sooner. If you need legal assistance, you may be able to find a legal clinic that provides free or reduced-cost services.
Finally, do your research and apply for any tenant relief programs that may be available where you live. If you’re already protected by the federal eviction moratorium, then you should already have been doing this. Still, there may be new programs or protections you weren’t previously aware of that can help you.
Avoid eviction and have a truly happy New Year
Thankfully, no Americans will be evicted for nonpayment of rent until at least March 31. Still, there is plenty of work left to do to ensure that an eventual nationwide wave of evictions doesn’t increase housing insecurity as we work our way through the pandemic together. While new legislation offers hope, you’ll also need to take certain actions to protect your interests as a tenant. If you have additional questions about your rights and legal options as a renter, ask a lawyer.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.