Renters protected from eviction during the coronavirus pandemic will lose their eviction protections at the end of the month if the federal government doesn’t make a move to extend them.
The CDC first issued its eviction moratorium on Sept. 4, extending it once through Jan. 31, then again through the end of March.
“I haven’t heard any updates about extending the moratorium, so we’re expecting it to expire at the end of the month,” said Mark Fessler, an attorney working with S.C. Legal Services. “From a legal point of view, once the CDC moratorium expires there is no legal protection for renters and people affected by COVID.”
Fessler has helped consult for the state Bar, which has put up a hotline to help people with eviction and housing-related legal questions. Anyone seeking help with a housing-related matter can call 833-958-2266 to leave a message and get connected with qualified people who can provide free legal help.
The CDC’s eviction protections came with a catch — the moratorium required tenants to give their landlord a signed declaration that they’ve made their best efforts to obtain all government assistance, they expect to earn no more than $99,000 income in 2021, are unable to pay the full rent because of loss of income or hours and are doing their best to make timely, partial payments. Fessler said the last thing tenants had to agree to, under penalty of perjury, is that they’ll likely become homeless or have to move in with others because they have no other options.
“Evicted renters must move, which leads to multiple outcomes that increase the risk of COVID-19 spread,” the moratorium order said. “Specifically, many evicted renters move into close quarters in shared housing or other congregate settings.”
Eviction protections were meant to keep people in their homes and out of settings that could lead to the spread of COVID-19. Fessler said once this protection expires it introduces a whole new problem — back-owed rent. While he doesn’t track the rent owed in cases he’s worked, he said he’s handled many cases where thousands of dollars of owed rent is the norm.
“Four to $5,000 in back rent is not out of the ordinary, and when you come out of this, depending on how plugged-in your landlord is to the credit reporting markets ... that could follow you,” he said. “For a lot of people, it is going to be part of their lives. If you have an eviction on your record of course it gets a lot harder to find housing.”
Many people might face eviction before the moratorium expires, still. Fessler said the moratorium only stopped evictions based on inability to pay, it didn’t stop evictions based on other matters, including a landlord choosing not to renew a lease.
“Of course if a renter is on a month-to-month lease, the landlord can just say, well, we’re not going to renew your lease,” Fessler said.
Fessler said he’s tried to argue that landlords choosing not to renew a lease are sometimes doing so because the tenant is unable to pay their full rent, which should be protected under the CDC’s moratorium, but he hasn’t had any luck in court with this argument.
Courts largely shut down during the pandemic, with in-person hearings stopped temporarily to avoid potential spread of COVID-19. On Monday, courts will return to in-person hearings, and that includes eviction cases. Fessler said some counties were able to continue eviction cases through virtual hearings, but others stopped eviction hearings entirely until they could be heard in person again.
South Carolina previously passed rental and mortgage relief programs using federal dollars, and soon they might have more in the purse to offer. The S.C. Stay program opened in mid-February to give out millions of dollars in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds in the form of grants.
Within a week of launching, more than 7,000 people applied for those funds, said Chris Winston, media and market engagement manager for S.C. Housing. Almost 5,000 of those people were initially deemed eligible to receive funds, and housing officials think those 5,000 will exhaust the existing federal dollars.
“We made the decision then to stop new applications coming in, to give us time to process those and make sure we could get funds out to people as quickly as possible,” he said.
It’s unclear still if there will be money left over from the S.C. Stay program, but for now, state officials are operating as if those funds will be spent. The next pot of money, he said, is coming from the federal stimulus bill passed in December, with $340 million earmarked for South Carolina.
S.C. House bill 3770 has passed through the Ways and Means Committee and is set to go before the full House for a vote before making its way to the state Senate. This bill would authorize the use of these new federal funds and set up a framework for how they’ll be distributed.
“State lawmakers are deciding how those funds should be distributed,” Winston said. “Until that bill is passed and signed, we can’t really share what that project will look like or how those funds will be distributed.”