As evictions loom, lawyers are gearing up to help

By Mathew Goldstein

Just a few weeks ago, Jessie Reed was worried about being evicted from her Omaha, Nebraska, apartment with her three young children. Her landlord had already tried to force her out in May when she stopped paying rent after quitting her job at an Omaha Steaks warehouse. One of her children has severe asthma, and Reed was worried she would unwittingly catch the coronavirus at work and transmit it.

But in June, a legal aid lawyer convinced a local judge that Reed was protected by a federal moratorium on evictions under the CARES Act, which Congress passed in March to cushion the economic fallout of the pandemic. The ruling has bought Reed, 32, time to settle her financial affairs.

“I wanted a lawyer as a backup because the landlord was trying to intimidate me,” she said.

For tenants, especially those with limited means, having a lawyer can be the difference between being evicted or being able to stay on in a rented home. Yet legal representation for tenants is relatively rare in housing courts. Surveys from several big cities over the years have shown that in housing court, landlords are represented by lawyers at least 80% of the time, while tenants tend to have lawyers in fewer than 10% of cases.

This unlevel playing field is about to come into sharper focus in the months ahead, now that the four-month pause on evictions provided by the CARES Act, followed by a 30-day notice period that ends on Monday, is coming to an end. The moratorium had provided protection to about 12 million tenants living in qualifying properties. Additionally, local moratoriums in some states had protected renters in homes not covered by the federal law.

“Tenants are not equipped to represent themselves, and eviction court places them on an uneven playing field that allows landlords to run roughshod over their rights,” said Ellie Pepper of the National Housing Resource Center, which focuses on housing policy and funding issues.

In New York, which in 2017 became the first American city to guarantee the right to a lawyer in housing court, the effect is clear. Since the law went into effect, 84% of tenants who had a lawyer managed to remain in their homes after a housing dispute, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, an advocacy group.

Demand for legal assistance with housing issues is on the rise in states where local moratoriums for rentals not covered by the CARES Act have already ended. In the Atlanta area, legal aid lawyers say calls seeking help in dealing with private landlords are running 25% higher than they were two months ago. In particular, lawyers said, calls are coming in from Clayton County, one of the poorest areas that Atlanta Legal Aid serves.

“Our caseloads haven’t yet exploded, because the courts just started hearing cases that were pending before the pandemic struck,” said Lindsey Siegel, a lawyer with Atlanta Legal Aid. “But it’s coming.” The nonprofit is bringing on additional lawyers and setting up housing clinics in local courts to advise renters, Siegel added.

Landlords have struggled, too, taking in 29% less in rent checks in the first 10 days of August than in the same period in March, according to a report from Rentec Direct, a property management information and tenant screening firm.

David Schwartz, chief executive officer of Waterton, a Chicago real estate firm that owns or manages 22,000 rental apartments in nearly two dozen states, said he and other large landlords didn’t favor another blanket moratorium to prevent evictions. But he does favor an extension of so-called enhanced unemployment payments for those out of work and rental assistance to help keep people in their apartments if they are willing to arrange payment plans with landlords.

“The problem with the moratorium is that there are households who just aren’t paying rent because they feel there are no repercussions,” said Schwartz, who is also chairman of the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord association.

Even tenants who have managed to patch together rent stand on shaky ground. For instance, Reed, who recently started offering child care for neighbors out of her home, could still be evicted if she can’t make a go of her business.

Her landlord, William Stanek, said he was waiting to see if Reed’s application to a local charity for rental assistance was approved. He said he might have to move again to evict her next month.

But for now, Stanek “has been very nice to me and my kids,” Reed said.

In Nebraska, where the local moratorium on evictions expired in May, at least 92,000 people are at risk of being forced out of their homes in the coming months, according to a report by a consortium of housing advocates and public policy organizations. The report said that nationally, at least 30 million people — including those in homes not covered by the CARES Act moratorium — were in danger of being evicted without any new federal aid or a renewed pause.

In Omaha, Caitlin Cedfeldt, the lawyer who represented Reed, said she and her colleagues at Legal Aid of Nebraska were busier than ever.

“Right now I have to be in court four days a week. That’s a pretty high number for me,” said Cedfeldt, who has been working for Legal Aid for 2 1/2 years. “Most of the time I used to be in court twice a week.”

Part of the reason she has been so busy is that many landlords who owned properties covered by the CARES Act jumped the gun in pushing for evictions before the moratorium ended. Cedfeldt said many renters who came to her were often unaware of their rights under the legislation.

“All I could do was watch tenants show up to court and see them get evicted when they shouldn’t have been,” Cedfeldt said. “I especially remember seeing one woman who burst into tears any time the court asked if she had any response. It was awful.”

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