LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — The CDC recently extended the federal eviction moratorium through the end of January, protecting tenants struggling to make housing payments due to COVID-19. However, tenants may still face housing challenges, and when the moratorium expires, they may face speedy eviction processes.
Brittany Mellinger, director of the Housing Equality & Equity Institute at Tabor/LHOP, explains that landlords are able to begin the eviction process during the moratorium. “So this means they can be much closer to the point of eviction, rather than having to start at step one” when it expires, she says.
Additionally, while the moratorium is in place, tenants can still be removed from housing for breeches of their lease, termination of their lease when the contract expires, or failing to meet all the criteria of the eviction moratorium.
Mellinger says, “[The CDC eviction moratorium] only protects tenants that are unable to pay rent due to [COVID-19] within a certain income level. They need to be seeking rental assistance.” And the part that may be most tricky — tenants have to sign a declaration form affirming that they meet the necessary criteria, and the form must be presented to the landlord or, if the court process has already been started, to the courts.
In Lancaster County, neither tenants nor landlords are guaranteed legal counsel in housing disputes. Mellinger says that this means “much more often it’s the landlord that has the resources to be able to do that, which means often, the court finds in the landlord’s favor.” Tenants have the right to legal counsel in fewer than 10 cities and counties in the U.S.
The Associated Press reports that in New York City, the first city to guarantee counsel for tenants in housing court, having a lawyer seems to make a difference for tenants facing eviction. According to the AP, “Between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 86% of tenants represented by lawyers were able to stay in their homes, according to a city report released this fall.”
For Lancaster residents facing eviction, Mellinger recommends maintaining clear and open communication with landlords. “Let them know the steps that you’re taking, the assistance that you’re requesting. See if there’s any solutions that might work for both parties,” she says.
Mellinger also notes some local initiatives that may be helpful. The Eviction Prevention Network helps those who have fallen behind on rent due to COVID-19 challenges including lost income, childcare barriers, or medical expenses. (More information is available on LHOP’s website.)
Tabor/LHOP also recently partnered with Advoz to develop a mediation program for landlords and tenants. Mellinger says, “Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting a third party in the room, seeing if you can find the mutual interest, and seeing if an issue can be resolved because we find that landlords typically don’t want to go to court.”
If an issue does go to court, though, Mellinger says it’s important for tenants to show up for their hearings regardless of whether they’ve obtained legal counsel. She also notes that some organizations, like MidPenn Legal Services and the Lancaster Bar Association, may be able to offer free or low-cost legal assistance.
The CDC’s eviction moratorium “really is a disease prevention measure,” says Mellinger. “Because [COVID-19] is so communicable, having folks that have unstable housing, that are forced out into shelters, on the streets, doubling up with friends and family members, are at higher risk of spreading COVID.”
Mellinger notes that resources like the Eviction Prevention Network can also help landlords who may have reduced income when tenants are unable to pay rent due to the pandemic. She encourages landlords to help struggling tenants connect with network partners to get assistance.
The latest federal stimulus bill set aside $25 billion for rental assistance. The process for distributing and accessing those funds has not yet been clarified, says Mellinger, but Tabor/LHOP plans to offer more information about that when it becomes available.